Freedom or liberty

Freedom is the most important of all liberal values.Early liberals objected to the way in which authoritarian governments claimed a right to take decisions on behalf of people and attempted to regulate their behaviour. However, they and their successors did recognise that freedom can never be absolute but must be exercised under the law, in order to protect people from interfering with each other's rights. This is why the early liberal thinker John Locke (1632-1704) argued that 'the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom... where there is no law, there is no freedom.'

The concept of liberty was central to the work of the early 19th-century school of thought known as utilitarianism. Its leading thinker, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), maintained that each individual can decide what is in his or her own interests. He argued that human actions are motivated mainly by a desire to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Government should not prevent people from doing what they choose unless their actions threaten others' ability to do the same for themselves. This was a mechanistic view of human behaviour that saw people as driven by rational self-interest. When applied to society at large it produced the idea of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. This could mean that the interests of minorities are overridden by those of the majority.

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was perhaps the most important classical liberal thinker of the 19th century. He began as a follower of Bentham, but came to see the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain as too simplistic. He put forward what became known as the idea of negative freedom: individuals should only be subject to external restraint when their actions potentially affect others, not when their actions affect only themselves.

From the late 19th century onwards, many liberals found Mill's concept of liberty too limited because it viewed society as little more than a collection of independent atoms. The Oxford thinker T.H. Green (1836-82) argued that society was an organic whole, in which people pursue the common good as well as their own interests. They are both individual and social in nature. From this came the concept of positive freedom: individuals should be able to control their own destiny, to develop personal talents and achieve self-fulfilment. Some limited state intervention was necessary to make this possible.