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  The degree of liberty possessed by the citizens of a state has become the key standard by which liberal democracies are compared with other forms of government. Usually measures of effective civil rights and human rights are taken to be good indicators of the degree of liberty within a régime. However, there is much less consensus on the meaning of liberty.

In political thought liberty is largely synonymous with freedom, but it is as well to recall that liberty or freedom have not always been valued in Western or other forms of political thought. Indeed religious and political authoritarians, and many conservatives and traditionalists, equate liberty with licence, the absence of control, moral chaos and unbridled relativism. Moreover, many political philosophers, from Plato to Hobbes, have argued that human beings should sacrifice their freedom to ensure order or stability, in the form of strong and/or enlightened government.

Following Isaiah Berlin, many political theorists make a distinction between positive liberty (‘freedom to do’, or ‘self-mastery’) and negative liberty (‘freedom from’ or ‘not being obstructed’) although others argue that the distinction is not logically sustainable, that it just confuses matters. The concept of liberty, whether positive or negative, or both, evidently means ‘not being controlled’ or ‘not being obstructed’.

The most notable exponents of positive liberty were Rousseau and Kant. They argued that genuine freedom is possessed only by individuals who are autonomous agents—that is, by those whose power of reason is free from manipulation by others, and are capable of exercising self-determination in their moral and political choices. We are free only when we act rightly, and vice versa: we are free when our ‘real self’ is in charge. This thesis can, of course, become a means for suggesting that people are not free even when they claim to be: thus, the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ is derived from the argument that those who possess the means of production manipulate moral and political thought through their control of the media, culture and political debate. Of course, those who claim to be able to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ freedom, and ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ selves, must assume that they know what genuinely non-manipulated individuals would choose to do in different circumstances—and often their claims to possess such knowledge will be contestable. However, versions of positive freedom have undoubtedly been embraced in socialism, social liberalism and Marxism.

The idea of negative liberty, by contrast, is derived from the doctrine of natural rights which claims that individuals have certain inalienable rights which should not be transgressed by any individual, group or government. Such rights are ‘liberties’, that is, rights to be free from control, and are most vigorously supported in the doctrine of libertarianism. Negative liberty exists where citizens are free to behave in any way which does not harm another citizen or contravene specific laws. Negative liberty is often tested in societies where governments or pressure groups attempt to define what constitutes harm to others: thus the private sexual activities of consenting adults would appear to be harmful to neither the practitioners nor the general public, yet many states prohibit by law certain types of private sexual expression.

In the view of most people the word liberty or freedom is usually an instrument for identifying agents or forces who are allegedly controlling people or obstructing their freedom. Thus libertarians complain that states block freedom; conservatives that liberalism encourages vice and inhibits the virtuous exercise of freedom; socialists that capitalist institutions inhibit human flourishing; nationalists that empires block self-determination; and feminists that the freedom of women is obstructed by patriarchal institutions. In other words arguments about liberty may disguise more fundamental arguments about what constitutes a good society. BO\'L

See also conservatism; nationalism.Further reading I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty; , J. Gray and , Z. Pelczynski (eds.), Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy; , A. Ryan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom; , C. Taylor, The Sources of the Self.



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