On Liberty

The word liberty is derived from the Latin word ‘liber’(free from all restraints). There are two views of liberty – positive and negative. Positive approach views liberty as the freedom to do anything. Negative approach views liberty as the freedom to be not forced to do anything.

Some definitions of liberty are:


 “Liberty is the opposite of over-government”. 


“Freedom is not the absence of all restraints but rather the substitution of irrational ones for the rational”.

According to this definition, absolute freedom cannot exist in practice and liberty can exist only with certain restrictions on freedom. This is a practical perspective of liberty. 


“Liberty means the liberty to grow to one’s natural height to develop one’s abilities.”

According to this definition, the end of liberty is an opportunity for the individual to develop himself personally and become better. 


“Liberty is the positive power of enjoying and doing those things which are worthy of enjoyment and work”.

There are certain types of liberty. One type is natural liberty which is the absolute, unrestricted freedom to do anything at all. People enjoyed this kind of liberty in a “state of nature”(life of people before societies came into existence without any social or political institutions and laws). According to the social contract theory, people enjoyed natural liberty in the state of nature. It is to be noted that, natural liberty is inapplicable in a civil society. Practically speaking, natural liberty does not exist. Therefore, it is necessary to restrict absolute liberty with certain reasonable restrictions to ensure an orderly and harmonious existence. Civil liberty answers this need and grants a reasonable degree of freedom to every person forming the society without any discrimination. The obvious problem here is the determination of how much liberty to allow without any arbitrariness and selfishness. According to jurist Dicey, Rule of Law, referring to the restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subjecting it to established, well-defined rules applicable to everyone or laws, is the solution . 

 The third type of liberty is political liberty. Scholars soon realised that mere recognition of civil rights alone was not sufficient as it did not guarantee protection against tyrannical and despotic authority. Even the Rule of Law, seemingly a proper guarantee against arbitrariness of rulers, was not a complete guarantee against rulers imposing unpopular measures against the citizens. This led to the perspective that people must also possess the power to convince the government to recognize their views and problems and replace the plans. This was the origin of politcal liberty. Political liberty, in its core, refers to the freedom of an individual to play an active part in the politics and governance of the State. According to Laski, political liberty is “the power to be active in the affairs of the State”. Practically, political liberty includes freedoms and rights like the right ot vote, free and fair elections, right to dissent etc. Civil liberty and political liberty combined was a severe blow to the arbitrariness and despotism of rulers, a major problem in the past. Another type of liberty is economic liberty. It refers to the freedom of individual to be involved in economic action and make economic choices. 

The next type of liberty is personal liberty. Personal liberty refers to the freedom of the individual to make personal choices. For example, decisions regarding clothing, food, religion etc. Just like an individual even the State yearns for liberty. National liberty refers to a position where the State has external sovereignty which means freedom from external control from other states and external pressure. 

 Apart from this, there are certain safeguards to protect liberty from denigration and ensure it is practised properly. One such safeguard is the Rule of Law developed by the English jurist Dicey. It refers to imposing check on the arbitrary usage of power by subjecting it laws. At its core, lie the ideas of society ruled by law, equality before law and obligations. It acts as a check against arbitrary restrictions on liberty by those in power. Next important safeguard is the Independence of the Judiciary. All the states in the modern era are built on the idea of separation of powers amongst the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary. Independence of the judiciary is necessary for it act without being influenced by fear from the executive. This acts as a check on the executive and prevents arbitrary usage of power. The next safeguard is democracy. Liberty is possible only in a democratic set up. It is unimaginable in a monarchic or authoritative state. Democracy is sine qua non for liberty to exist. Liberty is also safeguarded by the Constitution. The Constitution forms the supreme law to which everyone in the State is subject. It reigns supreme even over everyone and even the most powerful in the State. This makes it an effective check on despotism and arbitrariness in the exercise of power, thus protecting liberty. Then, liberty is safeguarded by rights sanctioned, guarded and enforced by law form the basis for liberty in practice. Another important safeguard in economic security. When people’s basic needs are unfulfilled they can think about higher causes like liberty. This makes it an important condition to exercise liberty.

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