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To examine the Western concept of liberty.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To examine the Western concept of liberty.

Preparation and materials

  • Break down the assembly into separate parts for readers if you want to make it more ‘user-friendly’.
  • You could take the basic text and have a class discussion on the subject matter, and then give more examples that the students have devised.


  1. Freedom is seen as very valuable in our society. Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ holds true in our moral psyche: a person’s freedom is worth another person’s sacrifice . Although freedom has obvious value, it is also an idea that has been abused by politicians, business leaders and journalists to help cement their power and deny people the very thing they claim to bring.
  2. The idea of ‘liberty’ is far too broad really to be classed under one word. There are two main types of liberty: positive and negative. Negative liberty is the freedom to not have one’s plans or goals interfered with. This is characterized by the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s principle that no powerful entity should be able to interfere with a person’s life unless that person were to use that liberty to do harm to others.

    Yet negative liberty does not permeate society. I doubt many of you, given the choice, would be in assembly, or even in school. But you’re in school because it is held by others that, later, you will gain from your experiences here. That is the kernel of positive liberty: that a person can be taught to be more free. You may want to stay in bed rather than go to maths lessons, but the maths skills gained will help broaden your mind and also solve problems you wouldn’t have been able to solve without them.
  3. Positive and negative liberty thus conflict, and it is the duty of government to balance the two, so that people can make well-formed plans and carry them out. The Soviet Union was a clear example of ideas of positive liberty that ran amok. Citizens were denied important negative liberties in favour of an ideal of social union that never came into being. But a society of pure negative liberty would not work either: such a state was imposed upon the new Russia in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic chaos and a power grab by those in power enriched a few, making them billionaires overnight.
  4. It is clear, then, that a balance is needed between the two: one cannot have true freedom for long without it. Institutions like the state, which can use force to get its way, are needed to secure freedom for those less able to defend themselves from others. Yet the state, if it grows too powerful, is also a danger for the same reason that it is a necessity: it can use physical force, such as the police or the army, to make citizens to obey it.

    Every country has a government: if a lack of government is declared, it won’t be long until the toughest people, or those with the largest collection of personal firearms, take over and form a new government. Some kind of state is needed.
  5. Political philosophers have clashed over the size of this state. Some have argued that the human right to liberty demands a minimal state, consisting of a body capable of enforcing deals made by free adults. In such a state, necessary services will emerge because of a market need for them: enterprising individuals will see that people need, say, a fire department, and recognize that they could make money out of such a business. Of course, if you’re too poor to be able to afford to call the fire brigade, your cat may never come out of the tree. But in this way of thinking, you’re poor because you had a chance to succeed in life but failed. You’re free to try again. If the state were to support you, it would undermine your freedom and that of others. This is obviously a society grounded in negative liberty.
  6. Then there are those who argue that no one deserves their natural talents, so no one deserves what they get from the exercise of those talents. You did not choose your natural desire to be hard working, or to be able to sing, or dance, or act, so why should you benefit from it? Your large pay packet should be redistributed among those who need it most, in order to enable them to achieve their own goals. This requires a large state, but is still grounded in negative freedom. However it is often hoped that the sharing of resources will create a bond of solidarity in the state: a product of positive liberty.
  7. It’s clear that our society is somewhere between the two. Some people have far more money than they might appear to deserve; others less. Yet the common conception of freedom remains strongly individualistic and negative: voters want lower taxes but harsher prison sentences, for example. But there are other parts to liberty, and an idea of liberty based overwhelmingly on negative ideas will not lead to a healthy society. For example, in the United States – a nation famous for low taxes, easy business regulations and a strong belief in personal liberty – one in every one hundred citizens is in prison. This high figure is unmatched either elsewhere in the world or even in recorded history. The price of pure negative liberty is that a significant minority are unable to enjoy any liberty at all.
  8. What sort of liberty do we take for granted? Perhaps that’s something to think about today.

Time for reflection

Play some thoughtful music, and give students time to reflect.

What’s the balance in your personal life between negative and positive liberty?

How would you like to affect the liberties within our own society?

How will you vote in the next election?


The Resistance by Muse contains tracks about liberty – widely available to download.

Refugee by Camel also has tracks pertaining to personal freedom. May be available to download.

Publication date: October 2010   (Vol.12 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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