Liberty (freedom) or Freedom, a right of individuals to act as they choose. In this sense, it is frequently called “individual liberty”. The term is also employed in connection with the achievement of sovereignty by a people; when so used, it is called “national liberty”. Although in these traditional senses liberty may be specifically civil or political, the modern concept further connotes a generalized body of rights, such as the right to economic opportunity and to education.
II RIGHTS AND RESTRAINTS
Because completely unrestricted freedom of action would make peaceful human existence impossible, some restraints on freedom of action are necessary and inevitable. Virtually all codes of action recognize this basic limitation. Liberty is defined in such codes as the right of individuals to act without restraint as long as their actions do not interfere with the equivalent rights of others; acts that do violate the rights of others are rejected.
The nature and extent of the restraints to be imposed and the selection of the means of enforcing them have been important problems for philosophers and lawmakers throughout history. Almost all the solutions finally arrived at have recognized the fundamental need for a government, meaning an individual or group of individuals empowered to impose and enforce whatever restraints are deemed necessary. In modern times, great emphasis has also been placed on the need for laws to define the nature and extent of these restraints. The theory of anarchism is an exception; it objects to all governments as evil in themselves and substitutes an idealized society in which social restraint is achieved through individual observance of high ethical principles.
A perfect balance between the right of an individual to act without undue interference and the need for the community to restrain freedom of action has often been projected in theory but has never been achieved. The restraints imposed throughout most of history have been oppressive. History has been described as society’s progress from a state of anarchy, through periods of despotism during which liberty was non-existent or restricted to one privileged group, to a state of liberty for every individual under democratic governments; history has thus been shaped by this view by the natural desire of all people to be free.
III DISSEMINATION OF LIBERTIES
In antiquity, liberty meant national freedom; slavery was considered a necessary institution of society. Liberty in medieval times related primarily to social groups seeking to wrest certain privileges from the sovereigns against whom they contended for power. This kind of struggle resulted in Magna Carta, imposed in the 13th century on King John of England by a group of barons; the document has great significance in the progress of human liberty. As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Renaissance raised problems of intellectual freedom, challenging the established dogma of the Catholic Church; later still the Reformation further promoted ideas of religious freedom and freedom of conscience (see Religious Liberty).
Three great revolutions helped to define individual liberty and ensure its preservation. In 17th-century England, the Glorious Revolution was the culmination of several hundred years of gradual imposition of judicial and legislative restraints upon the monarchy. The Bill of Rights, adopted by the English parliament in 1689, established representative government in England.
The American War of Independence combined the problems of achieving individual liberty with those of creating a new state. The Declaration of Independence issued by the American revolutionaries proclaimed their freedom from British rule. The second great charter of liberty to issue from the American War of Independence was the American Constitution. In its first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution established guarantees of civil rights.
The French Revolution of 1789 destroyed the feudal system in France and established representative government. In the Enlightenment, the body of thought that moulded the thinking of the leaders of the French Revolution, liberty was defined as a natural right of man, a right to act without interference from any source but nevertheless requiring voluntary submission to necessary limitations in order that the benefits of organized social existence might be enjoyed. Challenging the theory of the divine right of kings to rule, this new theory held that the source of all governmental power was the people, and that tyranny began when the natural rights of men were violated. From the French Revolution came the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which served as a model for most of the declarations of liberty adopted by European states in the 19th century.
IV MODERN PROBLEMS
Since these revolutions, the principal problem with respect to national liberty has arisen in connection with the struggles of small states and colonial areas to be free from foreign political or economic control and to achieve full sovereignty. Closely related to this problem has been that arising from the efforts of national or racial minorities, such as the French residents of Quebec, Canada, to win political and cultural autonomy within a country.
With respect to individual liberty in the modern era, the problem has been one of preserving and extending civil rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As nations grew in size and social complexity, governments claimed greater powers to restrain individuals and groups, extending these powers over wider spheres. Those who criticize this development believe that it has gone so far as to threaten the very existence of individual liberty. Others believe that only if the government is granted such powers can the complex problems of an increasingly automated, mobile, and the populous world be solved. Most important, governments must be more concerned with individuals and groups that are actively demanding the full exercise of the rights that constitute liberty in the 20th century.
A challenge to traditional concepts of liberty was offered by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet state that resulted (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) held, in accordance with the Marxist theory on which it was based, that all previous codes of liberty were ideologies of the ruling classes or of classes aspiring to power, and did not benefit the vast majority of the population. True liberty was possible only by the elimination of class exploitation. The success of the revolution raised hopes for a new era of human freedom. However, the subsequent evolution of a terrorist dictatorship under Joseph Stalin led many people to assume that socialism, which is based on collective ownership of the means of production, leads inevitably to dictatorship.
Other menaces to liberty arose in the first half of the 20th century in the form of the totalitarian governments of Italy, Germany, and Spain. In these countries civil liberties were destroyed, the rights of the individual were completely subordinated to the requirements of the government, and those who did not agree with these policies were terrorized into submission. Freedom was restored in Italy and to West Germany (now part of the United Federal Republic of Germany) at the end of World War II, and to Spain in 1975, after the death of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.