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Liberty Enlightening the World (known as the Statue of Liberty), by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, was donated to the US by France in 1886 as an artistic personification of liberty. Statue of Liberty 7.jpg
Liberty Enlightening the World (known as the Statue of Liberty), by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was donated to the US by France in 1886 as an artistic personification of liberty.

Liberty is the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views. [1]


The concept of liberty can have different meanings depending on context.

In Christian theology, liberty is freedom from the effects of "sin, spiritual servitude, [or] worldly ties". [2]

In the Constitutional law of the United States, Ordered liberty means creating a balanced society where individuals have the freedom to act without unnecessary interference (negative liberty) and access to opportunities and resources to pursue their goals (positive liberty), all within a fair legal system.

Sometimes liberty is differentiated from freedom by using the word "freedom" primarily, if not exclusively, to mean the ability to do as one wills and what one has the power to do; and using the word "liberty" to mean the absence of arbitrary restraints, taking into account the rights of all involved. In this sense, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others. Thus liberty entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom. Liberty can be taken away as a form of punishment. In many countries, people can be deprived of their liberty if they are convicted of criminal acts.

Liberty originates from the Latin word libertas, derived from the name of the goddess Libertas, who, along with more modern personifications, is often used to portray the concept, and the archaic Roman god Liber.[ citation needed ] The word "liberty" is often used in slogans, such as in "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" [3] and " Liberté, égalité, fraternité ". [4]


John Stuart Mill John-stuart-mill-sized.jpg
John Stuart Mill

Philosophers from the earliest times have considered the question of liberty. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) wrote:

a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed. [5]

According to compatibilist Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679):

a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.

Leviathan , Part 2, Ch. XXI.

John Locke (1632–1704) rejected that definition of liberty. While not specifically mentioning Hobbes, he attacks Sir Robert Filmer who had the same definition. According to Locke:

In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. People are not under the will or lawmaking authority of others but have only the law of nature for their rule. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it. Thus, freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: 'A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.' Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others. [6]

John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 work, On Liberty , was the first to recognize the difference between liberty as the freedom to act and liberty as the absence of coercion. [7]

In his 1958 lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty", Isaiah Berlin formally framed the differences between two perspectives as the distinction between two opposite concepts of liberty: positive liberty and negative liberty. The latter designates a negative condition in which an individual is protected from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority, while the former refers to the liberty that comes from self-mastery, the freedom from inner compulsions such as weakness and fear. [8]



Bust of Aristotle Aristotle Altemps Inv8575.jpg
Bust of Aristotle

The modern concept of political liberty has its origins in the Greek concepts of freedom and slavery. [9] To be free, to the Greeks, was not to have a master, to be independent from a master (to live as one likes). [10] [11] That was the original Greek concept of freedom. It is closely linked with the concept of democracy, as Aristotle put it:

"This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality." [12]

This applied only to free men. In Athens, for instance, women could not vote or hold office and were legally and socially dependent on a male relative. [13]

The populations of the Persian Empire enjoyed some degree of freedom. Citizens of all religions and ethnic groups were given the same rights and had the same freedom of religion, women had the same rights as men, and slavery was abolished (550 BC). All the palaces of the kings of Persia were built by paid workers in an era when slaves typically did such work. [14]

In the Maurya Empire of ancient India, citizens of all religions and ethnic groups had some rights to freedom, tolerance, and equality. The need for tolerance on an egalitarian basis can be found in the Edicts of Ashoka the Great, which emphasize the importance of tolerance in public policy by the government. The slaughter or capture of prisoners of war also appears to have been condemned by Ashoka. [15] Slavery also appears to have been non-existent in the Maurya Empire. [16] However, according to Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, "Ashoka's orders seem to have been resisted right from the beginning." [17]

Roman law also embraced certain limited forms of liberty, even under the rule of the Roman Emperors. However, these liberties were accorded only to Roman citizens. Many of the liberties enjoyed under Roman law endured through the Middle Ages, but were enjoyed solely by the nobility, rarely by the common man.[ citation needed ] The idea of inalienable and universal liberties had to wait until the Age of Enlightenment.

Social contract

In French Liberty. British Slavery (1792), James Gillray caricatured French "liberty" as the opportunity to starve and British "slavery" as bloated complaints about taxation. French-Liberty-British-Slavery-Gillray.jpeg
In French Liberty. British Slavery (1792), James Gillray caricatured French "liberty" as the opportunity to starve and British "slavery" as bloated complaints about taxation.

The social contract theory, most influentially formulated by Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau (though first suggested by Plato in The Republic ), was among the first to provide a political classification of rights, in particular through the notion of sovereignty and of natural rights. The thinkers of the Enlightenment reasoned that law governed both heavenly and human affairs, and that law gave the king his power, rather than the king's power giving force to law. This conception of law would find its culmination in the ideas of Montesquieu. The conception of law as a relationship between individuals, rather than families, came to the fore, and with it the increasing focus on individual liberty as a fundamental reality, given by "Nature and Nature's God," which, in the ideal state, would be as universal as possible.

In On Liberty , John Stuart Mill sought to define the "...nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual," and as such, he describes an inherent and continuous antagonism between liberty and authority and thus, the prevailing question becomes "how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control". [18]

Origins of political freedom

England and Great Britain

The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period. This document is held at the British Library and is identified as "British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106". Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106).jpg
The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period. This document is held at the British Library and is identified as "British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106".


United States

The Liberty Bell is a popular icon of liberty in the US. Liberty Bell 2017a.jpg
The Liberty Bell is a popular icon of liberty in the US.

According to the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, all people have a natural right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". This declaration of liberty was troubled for 90 years by the continued institutionalization of legalized Black slavery, as slave owners argued that their liberty was paramount since it involved property, their slaves, and that Blacks had no rights that any White man was obliged to recognize. The Supreme Court, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, upheld this principle. In 1866, after the American Civil War, the US Constitution was amended to extend rights to persons of color, and in 1920 voting rights were extended to women. [27]

By the later half of the 20th century, liberty was expanded further to prohibit government interference with personal choices. In the 1965 United States Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut , Justice William O. Douglas argued that liberties relating to personal relationships, such as marriage, have a unique primacy of place in the hierarchy of freedoms. [28] Jacob M. Appel has summarized this principle:

I am grateful that I have rights in the proverbial public square – but, as a practical matter, my most cherished rights are those that I possess in my bedroom and hospital room and death chamber. Most people are far more concerned that they can control their own bodies than they are about petitioning Congress. [29]

In modern America, various competing ideologies have divergent views about how best to promote liberty. Liberals in the original sense of the word see equality as a necessary component of freedom. Progressives stress freedom from business monopoly as essential. Libertarians disagree, and see economic and individual freedom as best. The Tea Party movement sees "big government" as an enemy of freedom. [30] [31] Other major participants in the modern American libertarian movement include the Libertarian Party, [32] the Free State Project, [33] [34] and the Mises Institute. [35]


Eugene Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People (La Liberte guidant le peuple) (1830) Eugene Delacroix - La liberte guidant le peuple.jpg
Eugène Delacroix Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le peuple) (1830)

France supported the Americans in their revolt against English rule and, in 1789, overthrew their own monarchy, with the cry of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité". The bloodbath that followed, known as the reign of terror, soured many people on the idea of liberty. Edmund Burke, considered one of the fathers of conservatism, wrote "The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world." [36]



According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, liberalism is "the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximize freedom of choice". But they point out that there is considerable discussion about how to achieve those goals. Every discussion of freedom depends on three key components: who is free, what they are free to do, and what forces restrict their freedom. [37] John Gray argues that the core belief of liberalism is toleration. Liberals allow others freedom to do what they want, in exchange for having the same freedom in return. This idea of freedom is personal rather than political. [38] William Safire points out that liberalism is attacked by both the Right and the Left: by the Right for defending such practices as abortion, homosexuality, and atheism, and by the Left for defending free enterprise and the rights of the individual over the collective. [39]


According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, libertarians hold liberty as their primary political value. [40] Their approach to implementing liberty involves opposing any governmental coercion, aside from that which is necessary to prevent individuals from coercing each other. [41]

Libertarianism is guided by the principle commonly known as the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). The Non-Aggression Principle asserts that aggression against an individual or an individual's property is always an immoral violation of one's life, liberty, and property rights. [42] [43] Utilizing deceit instead of consent to achieve ends is also a violation of the Non-Aggression principle. Therefore, under the framework of the Non-Aggression principle, rape, murder, deception, involuntary taxation, government regulation, and other behaviors that initiate aggression against otherwise peaceful individuals are considered violations of this principle. [44] This principle is most commonly adhered to by libertarians. A common elevator pitch for this principle is, "Good ideas don't require force." [45]

Republican liberty

According to republican theorists of freedom, like the historian Quentin Skinner [46] [47] or the philosopher Philip Pettit, [48] one's liberty should not be viewed as the absence of interference in one's actions, but as non-domination. According to this view, which originates in the Roman Digest, to be a liber homo, a free man, means not being subject to another's arbitrary will, that is to say, dominated by another. They also cite Machiavelli who asserted that you must be a member of a free self-governing civil association, a republic, if you are to enjoy individual liberty. [49]

The predominance of this view of liberty among parliamentarians during the English Civil War resulted in the creation of the liberal concept of freedom as non-interference in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.[ citation needed ]


Socialists view freedom as a concrete situation as opposed to a purely abstract ideal. Freedom is a state of being where individuals have agency to pursue their creative interests unhindered by coercive social relationships, specifically those they are forced to engage in as a requisite for survival under a given social system. Freedom thus requires both the material economic conditions that make freedom possible alongside social relationships and institutions conducive to freedom. [50]

The socialist conception of freedom is closely related to the socialist view of creativity and individuality. Influenced by Karl Marx's concept of alienated labor, socialists understand freedom to be the ability for an individual to engage in creative work in the absence of alienation, where "alienated labor" refers to work people are forced to perform and un-alienated work refers to individuals pursuing their own creative interests. [51]


For Karl Marx, meaningful freedom is only attainable in a communist society characterized by superabundance and free access. Such a social arrangement would eliminate the need for alienated labor and enable individuals to pursue their own creative interests, leaving them to develop and maximize their full potentialities. This goes alongside Marx's emphasis on the ability of socialism and communism progressively reducing the average length of the workday to expand the "realm of freedom", or discretionary free time, for each person. [52] [53] Marx's notion of communist society and human freedom is thus radically individualistic. [54]


While many anarchists see freedom slightly differently, all oppose authority, including the authority of the state, of capitalism, and of nationalism. [55] For the Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, liberty did not mean an abstract ideal but a concrete reality based on the equal liberty of others. In a positive sense, liberty consists of "the fullest development of all the faculties and powers of every human being, by education, by scientific training, and by material prosperity." Such a conception of liberty is "eminently social, because it can only be realized in society," not in isolation. In a negative sense, liberty is "the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority." [56]

Historical writings on liberty

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anarcho-capitalism</span> Political philosophy and economic theory

Anarcho-capitalism is an anti-statist, libertarian political philosophy and economic theory that seeks to abolish centralized states in favor of stateless societies with systems of private property enforced by private agencies, the non-aggression principle, free markets and self-ownership, which extends the concept to include control of private property as part of the self. In the absence of statute, anarcho-capitalists hold that society tends to contractually self-regulate and civilize through participation in the free market, which they describe as a voluntary society involving the voluntary exchange of goods and services. In a theoretical anarcho-capitalist society, the system of private property would still exist and be enforced by private defense agencies and/or insurance companies selected by customers, which would operate competitively in a market and fulfill the roles of courts and the police.

Egalitarianism, or equalitarianism, is a school of thought within political philosophy that builds on the concept of social equality, prioritizing it for all people. Egalitarian doctrines are generally characterized by the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. As such, all citizens of a state should be accorded equal rights and treatment under the law. Egalitarian doctrines have supported many modern social movements, including the Enlightenment, feminism, civil rights, and international human rights.

Political freedom is a central concept in history and political thought and one of the most important features of democratic societies. Political freedom was described as freedom from oppression or coercion, the absence of disabling conditions for an individual and the fulfillment of enabling conditions, or the absence of life conditions of compulsion, e.g. economic compulsion, in a society. Although political freedom is often interpreted negatively as the freedom from unreasonable external constraints on action, it can also refer to the positive exercise of rights, capacities and possibilities for action and the exercise of social or group rights. The concept can also include freedom from internal constraints on political action or speech. The concept of political freedom is closely connected with the concepts of civil liberties and human rights, which in democratic societies are usually afforded legal protection from the state.

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology and social outlook that emphasizes the intrinsic worth of the individual. Individualists promote realizing one's goals and desires, valuing independence and self-reliance, and advocating that the interests of the individual should gain precedence over the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Individualism makes the individual its focus, and so starts "with the fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for liberation".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Political philosophy</span> Sub-discipline of philosophy and political science

Political philosophy or political theory is the philosophical study of government, addressing questions about the nature, scope, and legitimacy of public agents and institutions and the relationships between them. Its topics include politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anti-capitalism</span> Political ideology and movement opposed to capitalism

Anti-capitalism is a political ideology and movement encompassing a variety of attitudes and ideas that oppose capitalism. In this sense, anti-capitalists are those who wish to replace capitalism with another type of economic system, such as socialism or communism.

Some philosophers distinguish two types of rights, natural rights and legal rights.

The harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should be limited only to prevent harm to other individuals. John Stuart Mill articulated the principle in the 1859 essay On Liberty, where he argued that "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." An equivalent was earlier stated in France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as, "Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law." It finds earlier expression in Thomas Jefferson's 1785 "Notes on the State of Virginia," Query 17 (Religion) in which he writes, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Self-ownership</span> Concept of property in ones own person

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The nature of capitalism is criticized by left-wing anarchists, who reject hierarchy and advocate stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations. Anarchism is generally defined as the libertarian philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful as well as opposing authoritarianism, illegitimate authority and hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations. Capitalism is generally considered by scholars to be an economic system that includes private ownership of the means of production, creation of goods or services for profit or income, the accumulation of capital, competitive markets, voluntary exchange and wage labor, which have generally been opposed by most anarchists historically. Since capitalism is variously defined by sources and there is no general consensus among scholars on the definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category, the designation is applied to a variety of historical cases, varying in time, geography, politics and culture.

Criticism of libertarianism includes ethical, economic, environmental and pragmatic concerns. With right-libertarianism, critics have argued that laissez-faire capitalism does not necessarily produce the best or most efficient outcome, and that libertarianism's philosophy of individualism and policies of deregulation fail to prevent the abuse of natural resources. Criticism of left-libertarianism is instead mainly related to anarchism. Left and right-libertarians also engage in criticism of each other.

The non-aggression principle (NAP), also called the non-aggression axiom, is the fundamental principle of morality that states that any person is permitted do everything with his property except aggression, defined as the initiation of forceful action, which is in turn defined as 'the application or threat of' 'physical interference or fraud ', any of which without consent. The principle is also called the non-initiation of force. The principle incorporates universal enforcability.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that upholds liberty as a core value. Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing equality before the law and civil rights to freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of choice. Libertarians are often skeptical of or opposed to authority, state power, warfare, militarism and nationalism, but some libertarians diverge on the scope of their opposition to existing economic and political systems. Various schools of libertarian thought offer a range of views regarding the legitimate functions of state and private power. Different categorizations have been used to distinguish various forms of Libertarianism. Scholars distinguish libertarian views on the nature of property and capital, usually along left–right or socialist–capitalist lines. Libertarians of various schools were influenced by liberal ideas.

Right-libertarianism, also known as libertarian capitalism, or right-wing libertarianism, is a libertarian political philosophy that supports capitalist property rights and defends market distribution of natural resources and private property. The term right-libertarianism is used to distinguish this class of views on the nature of property and capital from left-libertarianism, a type of libertarianism that combines self-ownership with an egalitarian approach to property and income. In contrast to socialist libertarianism, right-libertarianism supports free-market capitalism. Like most forms of libertarianism, it supports civil liberties, especially natural law, negative rights, the non-aggression principle, and a major reversal of the modern welfare state.

Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful as well as opposing authority and hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations. Proponents of anarchism, known as anarchists, advocate stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations. While anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, opposition to the state is not its central or sole definition. Anarchism can entail opposing authority or hierarchy in the conduct of all human relations.

The law of equal liberty is the fundamental precept of liberalism and socialism. Stated in various ways by many thinkers, it can be summarized as the view that all individuals must be granted the maximum possible freedom as long as that freedom does not interfere with the freedom of anyone else. While socialists have been hostile to liberalism, which is accused of "providing an ideological cover for the depredation of capitalism", scholars have stated that "the goals of liberalism are not so different from those of the socialists", although this similarity in goals has been described as being deceptive due to the different meanings liberalism and socialism give to liberty, equality and solidarity, including the meaning, implications and norms of equal liberty derived from it.

Libertarianism is variously defined by sources as there is no general consensus among scholars on the definition nor on how one should use the term as a historical category. Scholars generally agree that libertarianism refers to the group of political philosophies which emphasize freedom, individual liberty and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with little or no government power.

Christian libertarianism is the synthesis of Christian beliefs with libertarian political philosophy, with a focus on beliefs about free will, human nature, and God-given inalienable rights.

Natural-rights libertarianism is the theory that all individuals possess certain natural or moral rights, mainly a right of individual sovereignty and that therefore acts of initiation of force and fraud are rights-violations and that is sufficient reason to oppose those acts. This is one of the two ethical view points within right-libertarianism, the other being consequentialist libertarianism which only takes into account the consequences of actions and rules when judging them and holds that free markets and strong private property rights have good consequences.

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality, right to private property and equality before the law. Liberals espouse various and often mutually warring views depending on their understanding of these principles but generally support private property, market economies, individual rights, liberal democracy, secularism, rule of law, economic and political freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, constitutional government and privacy rights. Liberalism is frequently cited as the dominant ideology of modern history.


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