(Part of Four Conceptions of Freedom.)
The central theme in this conception of freedom is a commitment to the individual and the wish to build a society in which people can satisfy their interests and achieve their desires. In this framework, human beings are first and foremost, individuals who are endowed with the ability to reason. All people are born with rights which they hold by virtue of being human beings. These rights are universal and exist, whether or not they are recognised by government or other players in society. They cannot be taken away from individuals (they are inalienable). Examples of these rights include the right to life, property and equality. The major claim is that “we are all born equal” and should enjoy equality and liberty.
History of these ideas
These ideas of freedom are associated with three historical events: the English Revolution (1640-1688), the American Revolution (1776-1786) and the French Revolution of 1789. Freedom, viewed in this way, was a radical challenge to the feudal system – a deeply hierarchical and unequal system. The ideas were given impetus by the breakdown of feudalism and the rise, in its place, of a market capitalist society. In many ways, it reflected the aspirations of rising middle classes whose interests clashed with the established political power of the monarchs and landed aristocracy.
This conception of freedom was considered radical because it challenged the absolute power of the monarchy and the idea that the rule of the king was founded by “divine right”. Advocates of this view called for constitutional and representative government. They criticised and challenged the political and economic privileges of the landed aristocracy and the unfairness of the feudal system in which privileges were hereditary and social position was determined by the “accident of birth”. They questioned the authority of the church and advocated for freedom of conscience.
Debates within this conception of freedom
What unites people subscribing to this conception of freedom is a basic commitment to the idea that every individual should have maximum freedom to pursue their own individual projects that are an expression of their autonomy. This principle guides attitudes to the role of the state, relationships that individuals or citizens have with others as well as how the economy should be organised.
Like all ideas that attempt to understand society and change it, this conception of freedom has changed over time and has undergone different phases. This evolution and the internal debates that happen among those who are guided by this conception of freedom has resulted in at least two major camps.
1. Freedom as non-interference:
For the one camp, freedom means the absence of force or coercion.
On the one side of the coin is the belief that freedom is the leeway for individuals to make choices about key aspects of their lives, enter into contracts with each other and be free from excessive government interference. The emphasis is that freedom is best realised when we are free from interference from the state or other individuals.
For those who fall in this camp, freedom is best affirmed and promoted by having a state that plays only a minimal role in the economy- allowing the market to be the main instrument determining the allocation of goods and services in society and a state that does not interfere in the personal lives of individuals. In South Africa today, examples would include the Free Market Foundation’s insistence that the state’s regulation of the labour market through interventions like minimum wages amounts to interfering with the market and undermines the rights of those who are desperately in need of a job to choose to work for lesser amounts without bridging the law. Policies such as affirmative action is also criticised for undermining individual’s ability to compete on an equal basis for jobs. The market enhances freedom by using its own mechanisms of supply and demand to distribute goods and services to sellers and consumers and to match employers with job seekers.
2. Freedom as Equal Opportunity
The second camp is sensitive to the reality that although people can be told that they have the right to choose, there are other factors that can stand in the way of freely making choices. The emphasis here is that due to history, personal circumstance and cultural factors, some people cannot freely claim their rights to choose.
This camp argues or recognises that choice is shaped by context and that it not enough to say that individuals are free to choose. Individuals are only able to maximise their freedom and to exercise the right to choose only when there are real opportunities to do so. The social context within choices are made must be taken into account and there is a role for the state to facilitate the process of claiming freedoms and making choices.
In the South African context, adherents of this camp have argued that the history of colonialism and apartheid has brutally robbed black people of the ideal social conditions to exercise freedoms, choice and their agency. The remedies for this situation often include policies for redress in the field of education, health, employment and so on.
Securing freedoms – democracy and civil liberties
Although there are divergent views on the role of the state and the extent to which the market should be free to operate without any interference, there are other demands and beliefs that unite those who subscribe to this vision.
Many believe in a form of political rule that allows individuals as citizens to elect a government of their choice and hold it accountable through a range of checks and balances. This ‘social contract’ between individuals and the state is an important way of protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority and for reigning in those individuals who might violate other’s choices.
At a practical level, this involves regular competitive elections through which a constitutional government can be put in place, political pluralism that is guaranteed by the existence of multiple competing political parties or organisations and the separation of powers by having a separate executive, judiciary and legislature