Meaning of liberty:
In common parlance, liberty is supposed to mean unrestrained freedom to do whatever one likes. But uncontrolled liberty may lead to social disorder. Thus, a sense of restraint lies in the nature of liberty.
But in a civilized society there cannot be any such thing as absolute or uncontrolled liberty, wholly freed from restraint, for, that would lead to anarchy and disorder.
The state creates an atmosphere of liberty through its laws. But, unlimited liberty is not considered to be real liberty at all. As Barker remarks”, – liberty in the state, or legal liberty, is never the absolute liberty of each, but always the qualified liberty of all. Liberty within the state is thus a relative and regulated liberty”. So, liberty can be realized only by living in the state. In this sense liberty can be identified as a legal concept.
But, according to the Marxists, liberty is the all-round development of man’s ability and merit. So, the liberty supposed to exist in the capitalist society cannot be the liberty of the majority of the working class people; it is the liberty of the small number of owners of the means of production.
Different Forms of Liberty
The political scientists have studied the word ‘liberty’ from different perspectives. As a result, different forms of liberty are found to exist. The important forms are:
Individual and national liberty:
In ancient times, the Greeks, particularly, the Athenians, used to classify liberty into two categories:
- (i) Personal and
- (ii) Community-based liberty.
By personal liberty they wanted to mean absence of all types of restraints on the external behaviour of individuals. What they used to mean by community-based liberty is now regarded as national liberty which implies absence of restraints from external or foreign forces.
Natural liberty: In the pre-political stage people living in a natural environment used to enjoy absolute liberty of doing whatever they liked. This absolute liberty is now called natural liberty. Rousseau was the main exponent of this theory of liberty. According to him, man is born free, but everywhere he finds himself in chain. Subsequently, the anarchists propagated the theory of the abolition of the state for the establishment of this form of liberty.
The liberty that is recognized by social conscience, and protected and controlled by social rules is called social liberty. But as the idea of social conscience and the principles of justice are indistinct, indefinite and relative, the concept of such liberty is also bound to be indistinct, indefinite and relative. This is why nobody is ready to recognize such liberty today.
The concept of legal liberty is a subject-matter of political science. Legal liberty means the kind of liberty which is recognized, ensured, protected and controlled by state. The exponents of this form of liberty think that liberty cannot be unrestricted. In the greater collective interests of the society, the state imposes some restrictions on the liberty of each through law. Such form of liberty is definite, distinct and well-regulated in nature.
Legal liberty can be classified into three groups:
- (i) Individual or Civil liberty,
- (ii) Political liberty and
- (iii) Economic liberty.
a) Civil liberty:
Personal or civil liberty means enjoyment of those rights by which individuals are able to develop their personalities fully. Among these, the most important are the right to freedom of thought, speech and expression, right to form union or associations, right to personal property and religion, right to form family and right to make contract etc. If this liberty is not properly recognized and protected by the state, the latent talents of the individual cannot be developed.
b) Political liberty:
Political liberty means the right to participate in the formation of government directly or indirectly and the right to regulate the government. The right to be elected, right to vote and right to constructive criticism of the government activities etc. are included in political liberty. The votaries of liberal democracy think that without the recognition of political liberty, democracy is bound to fail.
c) Economic liberty:
Economic liberty means the right to get relief from poverty and scarcity. The right to be engaged in work on the basis of merit and eligibility, right to get allowances in old age and unemployment, right to be nursed by the state during the stage of inability, the right to share in the determination of wages etc. constitute the basic elements of economic liberty. The modern political scientists like Laski, Barker and the Marxists in general believe that without economic liberty other liberties become meaningless.
Age after age, the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity has inspired men to establish the democratic social system. But, owing to the divergent approaches to the study of the ideal, it is liberty which has now become the most debatable concept. As the French philosopher Montesquieu comments, no other concept has borne such a variety of significance and produced such diverse reactions in human minds as the concept of liberty.