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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. The Argument for Religious Freedom. It is often
said that the modern idea of freedom first appeared,
or at least first became formidable, in the Reformation.
The first of its champions to make a mark in the world
was Luther, who asserted the “priesthood of all believ-
ers,” and who said that “God desires to be alone in
our consciences, and desires that His word alone should

Certainly, implicit in some of Luther's utterances
is the principle that the believer is responsible to God
alone for his religious beliefs. Long before Luther,
Socrates had felt an inner compulsion to teach what
he believed was the truth, and had held fast to his truth
when accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. But
he had not proclaimed the right of anyone who felt
as he did to act as he had done. His accusers, in any
case, were not concerned to forbid the teaching of
error, nor yet to uphold true beliefs “necessary to
salvation,” but to maintain outward respect for con-


ventional beliefs and manners. They no more saw
themselves as champions of a true faith than Socrates
saw himself as a martyr for liberty of conscience. And
long before the Reformation, there were Christians
who said that the believer must be allowed to follow
God's Word without hindrance from the temporal
magistrates, and there were accusations of heresy made
against some priests by others (even subordinates in
the hierarchy) and by laymen. Defiance of the church's
authority in matters of faith did not begin with the
Reformation. Yet Luther's doctrine of the priesthood
of all believers was new and formidable. Though there
were traces of it before his time, it was his version
of it that excited and disturbed Christendom in the

It is arguable that Luther's hold on his own doctrine
was not altogether firm, and that he failed to see its
full implications. In practice, he sometimes denied to
others the right to publish religious beliefs widely
different from his own, and it is far from certain that
he did so only because he thought the beliefs dangerous
to the social order and not because he thought them
false and abhorrent to God. In any case, the doctrine
of the priesthood of believers is ambiguous. It invites
the question: Who is to be reckoned a believer? Is
anyone a believer who says that Holy Scripture is the
Word of God, no matter how he interprets it? In that
case, a man might be a Christian though his beliefs
differed more from those of other Christians than from
the beliefs of Mohammed. And if outrageous or absurd
interpretations are condemned as insincere, and the
believer's claim to be recognized and tolerated as such
is rejected on that account, are not those who reject
it saying that, after all, he is answerable to his fellow
men for his beliefs, and not to God alone? Luther never
put to himself such a question as this; he merely took
it for granted that there are limits to what professed
“believers” can be allowed to read into the Scriptures.
In practice he was no more tolerant than Erasmus or
than several other great writers of the age who never
broke away from the old church.

Perhaps the finest plea for toleration made in the
sixteenth century is Castellion's De haereticis, an sint
published in 1554. Belief, to be acceptable
to God, must be sincere, which it cannot be, if it is
forced. God is just, and therefore does not make it a
condition of salvation that men should hold uncertain
beliefs long disputed among Christians. Only beliefs
that Christians have always accepted can be necessary
to salvation; and to hold otherwise is to doubt the
goodness of God. To punish men for beliefs they dare
to avow is to risk punishing the sincere and to allow
hypocrites to go unpunished. Castellion's arguments
were directed at Calvin, who only a few months earlier
had had Servetus burned to death as a heretic. Castel-
lion's plea was not only for a wide toleration; he con-
demned extreme measures against any heretic. He was
concerned for the quality of faith, for the spiritual
condition of the believer. Yet he did not advocate full
liberty of conscience; he did not put it forward as a
principle that anyone may hold and publish any reli-
gious beliefs, and may worship God as he pleases,
provided he does not propagate beliefs and indulge
in practices that endanger the peace and the secure
enjoyment of rights.

This principle was not clearly and vigorously as-
serted until the end of the seventeenth century. Years
of controversy and long and painful experience were
needed to bring home to men two lessons: that domes-
tic peace and security do not depend on people having
the same, or even broadly similar, religious beliefs; and
that persecution is unlikely to bring about uniformity
of belief, even though it may silence the heterodox.

The first lesson disposes those who learn it to accept
liberty of conscience on political grounds: let people
hold and publish what religious opinions they choose,
since the attempt to impose religious uniformity en-
dangers the peace more than does religious diversity.
The second lesson disposes them to accept it on reli-
gious and moral grounds: let individuals hold and pub-
lish what religious opinions they choose, since for-
bidding them to do so will not ensure that they accept
with sincerity the opinions of those who impose the

The case for liberty of conscience was refined and
reduced to essentials by Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle.
Spinoza, in the twentieth chapter of his Tractatus
(1670), asserted man's right to rea-
son freely about everything and said that the sovereign
invades this right if he prescribes to his subjects what
they must accept as true or reject as false. Bayle, in
his Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-
Christ, “Contrains-les d'entrer”
(1686), argued that
coercion in matters of belief encourages hypocrisy and
corrupts society by destroying the good faith on which
it depends. And it is absurd, as some people do, to
condemn persecution when it is harsh and approve it
when it is mild. Since faith is important, heresy, if it
is a crime, must be a serious one and ought to be
severely punished; and if it is not a crime, it ought
not to be punished at all. The conscience that errs has
rights as much entitled to respect as the conscience
that possesses the truth. Even atheists should be toler-
ated; and if Catholics should not be, it is not on account
of their faith, but because they are intolerant. For the
doctrine that heretics should be persecuted is not reli-
gious but political; and it is pernicious because it makes
for disorder and is destructive of good morals.


Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), shorter
than Bayle's Commentary and more popular and less
abstract than Spinoza's argument in the Tractatus, is
the classical apology for liberty of conscience. Though
it does not, any more than does Bayle's Commentary,
put forward new ideas, it is clear and vigorous. Coming
towards the end of a long period of religious wars and
persecutions, it brings together into a coherent and
compelling whole the most solid arguments for reli-
gious liberty. It is an act of completion, the last best
word of its age for a kind of freedom that men had
learned, slowly and painfully, to recognize and to

The proper business of civil government, according
to Locke, is to protect and promote men's interests.
Though everyone has the right to try to persuade others
to hold beliefs which he thinks are true and important,
nobody has the right to use force to that end. The civil
magistrate has no authority from either God or man
to require anyone to profess or refrain from professing
a belief on the ground that it is true or false, necessary
to salvation or incompatible with it. It is not for him
to dispute with his subjects or to persuade them to
a particular religion. Even if he could force them to
adhere to it, he would not thereby save their souls,
for salvation depends on a free adherence to what is
true. A church is no more than an association of men
who come together to worship God in the manner they
think acceptable to him, and no church can claim
authority from God to be the only teacher of the true
faith. Like any other voluntary association it may make
rules for its members, may admonish and exhort them,
and may expel them for disobeying the rules. But it may
not deprive them of their civil rights, or of any rights
other than those they acquire by joining it, nor may
it call upon the civil power to do so. No belief is to
be suppressed merely because it is heretical, nor any
practice merely because it is offensive to God. No
doubt, what is offensive to God is sinful, but what is
sinful is not punishable by man. No man deserves
punishment at the hands of other men, unless he has
offended some man, unless he has invaded his rights.
Locke, in this Letter, seems at times to come close to
saying what J. S. Mill was to say long afterwards: that
men are answerable to civil authority only for their
harmful and not their immoral actions. Yet he does not
say it outright, nor even clearly imply it.

What he does say is that all beliefs are to be tolerated
“unless they are contrary to human society” or to moral
rules “necessary to the preservation of civil society.”
This is not a clear saying. What is to be reckoned
contrary to human society or necessary to the preser-
vation of civil society?
Since Locke wrote his Letter,
there have been many attempts to answer this question
or others like it. Locke held that there are rights that
all men have, and we can perhaps ascribe to him the
belief that anything is to be reckoned contrary to
human society if it prevents the exercise of these rights,
either directly or by subverting institutions on which
their exercise depends. It is actions, therefore, rather
than beliefs, that are directly contrary to human soci-
ety. But actions are inspired by beliefs. Are people to
be punished for expressing and publishing beliefs that
inspire harmful actions? Or is it enough that such
beliefs should be combated by argument, and their
attractive power diminished by education?

Locke speaks of moral rules necessary to the preser-
vation of society. Presumably, that promises be kept
is such a rule. Yet all societies distinguish between
enforceable promises (contracts) and promises that are
not enforceable. Nor is the keeping of promises that
are not enforceable any less necessary to the preser-
vation of civil society than the keeping of the others.
In all societies there are rules, supported only by
“moral sanctions,” no less necessary to preserving the
social order than rules the breach of which is a punish-
able offence. If the breaker of these rules is not liable
to punishment, should the man be so who teaches that
they need not be kept—or not in all circumstances?

Locke's Letter closes one stage in the long debate
on freedom of speech and association, and opens an-
other. It puts forward, simply and persuasively, a num-
ber of important principles but goes only a little way
in considering how they should be applied.

2. The Rights of Man and Government by Consent.
The doctrine of the social contract, fashionable among
political theorists in the late sixteenth and the seven-
teenth centuries and surviving into the eighteenth, was
first used to support the claims of religious minorities,
or of churches and sects anxious to assert their inde-
pendence of the civil power. Huguenots and Jesuits
both used it for this purpose. But the doctrine has
egalitarian and libertarian implications that came
eventually to seem more important than the first uses
to which it was put. For it postulates an individual
with rights and wants prior to the setting up of gov-
ernment whose proper business is to protect the rights
and supply the wants. The state of nature, as the con-
tract theorist imagines it, though it is not really pre-
social—for natural man lives in families, is capable of
speech, uses tools, and cultivates the soil—is a condi-
tion of rough equality. Great inequalities arise only
with the rise of government; and yet the social rules
that government is established to enforce are in every-
one's interest.

These implications of the idea of a social contract
were first clearly drawn by Hobbes. For he, though
he was no liberal, was an “individualist” in the sense


that he built up his political philosophy on claims and
needs that he ascribed to everyone and to which he
appealed to demonstrate both the utility and the legit-
imacy of government. In this sense, at least, he was
more markedly an individualist than were the Jesuit
and Huguenot contract theorists, though he argued, as
they did not, that only a ruler with unlimited authority
can provide his subjects with the security they want.

Hobbes and Locke were both individualists in their
assumptions and in the manner of their argument; they
both argued to political conclusions from assumptions
about needs and rights that everyone has. But Locke's
conclusions, unlike Hobbes's and more clearly than any
earlier thinker's, were liberal. Just as his Letter Con-
cerning Toleration
simplifies and draws together several
arguments for religious freedom, and so adds to their
persuasive power, so his Second Treatise of Civil Gov-
(1690) brings together, and in so doing
strengthens and clarifies, several arguments for limited
government. Government exists to protect the life,
liberty, and property of its subjects, whose obligation
to obey it lasts only as long as it protects them ade-
quately and does not abuse its powers; and subjects
may take action to ensure that they get this protection
and to put an end to abuses of power.

This principle is important but needs to be qualified.
Before we can act upon it, we must raise and answer
several questions. Men may differ as to whether or not
basic rights are adequately protected. If they do, who
is to judge between them? Again, rights may be in-
vaded either by private persons or by the government
and its agents. In the first case, a subject who appeals
to the government for protection or redress, may find
that it fails him for one or both of two reasons: because
it lacks the power to do what he asks, or because it
decides that no right of his has been invaded. This last
decision, the subject may question either because he
has in general no faith in the impartiality of the body
or person that took it, or because he believes that this
particular decision was wrong. He is ordinarily more
willing to “accept” what he thinks is a wrong decision
when the persons who take it seem to him impartial
and their procedure fair than when they seem partial
and unfair. Political power, according to Locke, is not
legitimate unless those who exercise it do so with the
consent of their subjects, who may take action to pre-
vent abuses of power. Unfortunately, he failed to ex-
plain how we can know whether or not rulers have
the consent of their subjects, or how we can decide
whether or not there has been an abuse of power. If
it is for subjects to decide, how can we know whether
or not they have done so?

Locke did not see in the right of resistance the only
safeguard against a government's being oppressive or
its failing to protect basic rights. He wanted a separa-
tion of the executive and legislative powers, and a
partly elected legislature. Yet he had little to say either
about the distribution of authority within the govern-
ment or about methods of ensuring that governments
are responsible to their subjects. But he did raise tenta-
tively (though without going far towards answering
them) three questions of capital importance to the
liberal: How should authority be distributed and its
exercise regulated for the better protection of essential
rights? How can it be contrived that authority is exer-
cised in ways acceptable to those subject to it? When
are subjects justified in resorting to illegal means to
resist or get rid of their rulers?

Montesquieu went further than Locke towards an-
swering the first of these questions. He not only ex-
plained, as Locke had not done, why it is expedient
to separate the judicial from the executive and legisla-
tive powers; he also, in the twelfth book of The Spirit
of the Laws
(De l'esprit des lois, 1748; English trans.,
1750), discussed in some detail what he called “the laws
forming political liberty in relation to the subject.”
These are the laws and practices ensuring that no one
is punished except for breaking the law, that accused
persons get a fair trial, that the citizen can assert his
rights effectively both against other citizens and against
public officials.

With the second question Montesquieu dealt more
perfunctorily. He took it for granted that authority
exercised in customary ways is acceptable to those
subject to it because they believe it is exercised to
protect their rights and to meet their needs. On this
point Burke and Hume agreed with him. Neither he
nor they took much account of the fact that people's
ideas about their needs and their rights change. They
did not enquire how it could be contrived that forms
of government can be changed legally and peacefully
to ensure that rulers are more willing and better able
to meet the changing requirements of their subjects.

Yet Montesquieu, in dealing with this second ques-
tion, was more specific than Locke on three points.
Though he too thought it desirable that part of the
legislature should be elected, he excluded from the vote
persons “in so mean a situation as to be deemed to
have no will of their own.” He denied that constituents
ought to give specific instructions to their repre-
sentatives. And, lastly, he held that the kind of limited
and partly representative government which alone can
be trusted to respect rights scrupulously is not suited
to most peoples. It may well be that Locke, if he had
been asked his opinion, would have agreed with Mon-
tesquieu on all three points. Yet Montesquieu is explicit
where Locke is silent. Though Locke was no more a
democrat than he was, the doctrine that democracy


is dangerous to liberty is his rather than Locke's, as
is also the doctrine that liberty is confined to some
peoples. Montesquieu had more to say than Locke had
about the conditions, social and otherwise, of political
competence, and was therefore more obviously un-
democratic. Democracy had long been attacked on the
ground that it was likely to be unjust to the rich and
the privileged. Montesquieu objected to it on this
ground also, but it is in his writings that we find the
confused beginnings of a new objection to it—that it
destroys liberty.

To the third question: When are subjects justified
in acting illegally to resist or get rid of their rulers?,
Montesquieu had nothing to say. He was silent where
Locke was bold.

It was not till the latter part of the eighteenth cen-
tury that political writers had much to say about three
rights which since that time have been subjects of
continual controversy: the right to vote at free elec-
tions, the right to form associations to promote shared
purposes and beliefs of all kinds, and freedom of the
press. In the seventeenth century the supremely im-
portant beliefs were religious, and so argument turned
on the right to hold and publish religious beliefs and
on the right to associate for religious purposes. In the
next century other beliefs and association for other
purposes came to seem no less important.

In the eighteenth century, before the French revolu-
tion and the first shots in the long campaign for parlia-
mentary reform in England, there was more concern
for freedom of the press than for freedom of association
and the right to vote. This was the freedom that
Voltaire and other philosophers of his time cared most
about. The educated classes to whom they addressed
their books could meet easily enough for most purposes
important to them, and had not yet learned to form
associations to put pressure on governments. Freedom
of association for other than religious purposes mat-
tered more in Britain, where there was already a partly
elected national legislature, than in countries like
France, though even in Britain it was not widely and
strongly upheld until the demand arose for extending
the franchise. Where concern for freedom is confined
to aristocratic and intellectual circles, the freedom
most prized, after freedom of person and property, is
apt to be freedom of discussion and of the press. Free-
dom of association and the right to vote come to seem
important when leaders arise who have or aspire to
have a large following. Such leaders want to “polit-
icize” the people, or some broad section of them, to
draw them into political activities, into organized
bodies making demands on government. Even a “re-
cluse” like Jeremy Bentham came to care greatly for
freedom of association and extending the franchise, as
experience taught him that no government would take
the advice he gave unless popular pressure was brought
to bear on it.

Freedom of association can be greatly prized where
there is neither democracy nor a widespread demand
for it. It was prized, for example, by French liberals
during the Restoration and the July Monarchy, even
though most of them wanted only a narrow electorate,
just as it was in Britain in the first part of the nineteenth
century by Utilitarians and other reformers who
wanted only a modest extension of the franchise. Free-
dom of association is prized above all where there is
an electorate to be mobilized for political purposes,
and the right to vote where there is hope of creating
or extending such an electorate.

The Jacobin Terror and the popular tyranny of
Bonaparte between them produced a kind of liberalism
hostile to democracy. Locke and Montesquieu are to
be reckoned liberals “before the letter,” for it was only
later that champions of doctrines similar to theirs were
called liberals, but they were neither democrats nor
declared enemies of democracy. They never argued
that its coming would destroy the liberties they valued
most, nor did they, as Benjamin Constant did, fear
democracy (see his two important works: De l'esprit
de conquête
... [1814], and Principes de politique
applicables à tous les gouvernements

Edmund Burke, of course, was an unrelenting enemy
of democracy, who denounced it bitterly several years
before the Jacobin Terror. He was, in his peculiar way,
a champion of freedom. His concern for it was genuine
enough, though different from that of Constant. For
Constant, as he set about explaining what he thought
were the essential liberties, pointed to the institutions
and procedures needed to make them actual. Remem-
bering vividly both Robespierre and Bonaparte, he
abhorred radical demagogues and popular dictators as
exploiters and perverters of the principles they pro-
fessed. Rulers, he thought, will not respect liberty
unless they are responsible only to those among their
subjects who care about it and understand how it is
secured, the educated and the propertied classes. The
attempt to make them responsible to the whole people
brings influence and power to irresponsible leaders,
who destroy the liberties they pretend to secure to all,
and brings with it a new kind of absolute rule more
intrusive and oppressive than that of the dispossessed

Anti-democratic liberalism, especially on the Euro-
pean Continent, took the form of attacks on the doc-
trines of Rousseau, attacks that misinterpret what they
condemn. Rousseau proclaimed the sovereignty of the
people, having in mind not representative assemblies
elected by universal suffrage, but political communities


small enough for all adult men (but not women) to
come together to make laws and major decisions of
policy. To secure the popular assembly against pres-
sures from groups pushing their interests to the detri-
ment of others, he said that these groups ought not
to be organized for political purposes. But these two
doctrines of his—that the people are sovereign and that
there must be no organized bodies to influence their
decisions—when they were applied later to a country
the size of France, where the people could not make
law directly but only through their representatives,
came to have implications undreamt of by him. To say
with Rousseau that what the people in sovereign as-
sembly decide must not be predetermined or chal-
lenged by lesser bodies, though it may be challenged
and reversed in the assembly itself, is one thing; to
make, as some of his disciples did, the same claim on
behalf of a popularly elected representative assembly
is quite another.

Rousseau, misrepresented by both admirers and
critics, has served above all as a source of quotations
for radicals to use in their attacks on liberal opponents.
Respect for the constitutional forms and rights of the
individual dear to the liberals has seemed to them an
obstacle in the way of reforms urgently needed for the
benefit of the poor. The poor, the socially weak, if they
are to gain strength, need solidarity; they must organize
themselves and be loyal to the organizations they form.
This solidarity, or the appearance of it, is sometimes
hard to achieve or preserve where the rights of minor-
ities and of lone rebels are respected.

Democracy has been attacked on the ground that
it threatens the rights of property of the well-to-do,
and also on the ground that it threatens liberties that
all men should have. Often, the attacker has attacked
it on both these grounds without noticing that they
differ, though one is as old as Aristotle and the other
is modern. As soon as the difference is brought home
to us, we are compelled to put questions that Locke
and Montesquieu never put: How far must rights of
property (from which in practice the rich benefit more
than the poor do) be curtailed so that everyone may
have certain rights and opportunities, the ones dignified
by the name of freedom? How far does the attempt
to ensure that everyone has them change their nature?
And, lastly, how far is the attempt to make everyone
free self-defeating, taking away with one hand what
it gives with the other? These three questions, seldom
if ever put in the eighteenth century, have been more
widely raised in the nineteenth and twentieth. We can
see how they arise as soon as we consider critically
the dislike of democracy of such an impeccably liberal
thinker as Constant.

These questions have seldom been discussed rigor
ously and realistically. Hence the looseness and the
ambiguity of much of the debate between liberals, who
fear the growing power of the state and other large
organizations, and Marxists and other socialists who
attack “bourgeois liberalism” and yet claim to be
“emancipators” of the exploited and oppressed classes.
As we shall see later, liberals and Marxists have ideas
about freedom that are much more alike than they
appear to be on the surface, in spite of the bitterness
of the quarrel between them.

Already in the eighteenth century, the notion of a
social contract was rejected as unhistorical and un-
necessary. First Hume and then Bentham argued that
there is no need, if we want to show that men have
interests, and therefore also claims or rights, that gov-
ernments ought to promote or secure, to postulate a
deliberate setting up of government to achieve these
purposes. Even the ideas of natural law and natural
right, as they had long been used, were rejected by
Hume and Bentham. If there are rules, rights, and
obligations common to all men everywhere, this is only
because their wants and conditions are everywhere in
important respects the same, so that everywhere expe-
rience teaches them that there are rules which it is
everyone's interest should be generally observed,
claims that everyone makes, and duties from which
no one is exempt.

Yet the earlier critics of natural law and the social
contract were closer to the writers they criticized than
they thought they were. They too took it for granted
that there are interests and claims common to all men
everywhere, which they have even in the absence of
government, and whose protection is the proper busi-
ness of government. For them, too, political authority
arises to enforce claims and obligations that are prior
to it in the sense that they can be defined without
reference to social conditions created by it or arising
along with it.

Actually, the contract theorists did not, any more
than their early critics, conceive of the condition of
man before the emergence of civil government as an
unsocial condition—though it has often been said that
they did. They differed from these critics, not in think-
ing of the state of nature as an unsocial state (for they
recognized that men in that state lived in families),
but in making a sharper distinction between the human
condition before the setting up of government and after
it. Nor did they, as Hume did, point to the social origins
of the rules and the rights that they thought common
to mankind. Yet Hume and Bentham were like them
in treating not only political but all social institutions
as arising to serve conscious needs that could be defined
without reference to them. For Hume, though he said
that the rules common to men everywhere arise out


of a social experience that is everywhere in some re-
spects the same, took little interest in the effects of
social institutions on men's needs and ideas. If it had
been put to him that distinctively human needs, those
not shared by man with the other animals, are essenti-
ally social, having no meaning outside a social context,
he might well have agreed. But this idea, though con-
sistent with his account of the origins of justice, is
nowhere made explicitly in his social and political
theory, and affects it hardly at all.

3. Man as Essentially a Social Being. The idea that
man is essentially a social being, not only because his
distinctively human capacities and needs are developed
in social intercourse, but also because their exercise
and satisfaction consists in social intercourse, was not
invented by philosophers and political theorists of the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is
much older than that, for there is more than a trace
of it in Aristotle and in later thinkers influenced by
him. But it was in this period that it came to have
a profound effect on the idea of freedom inherited from
the Reformation and the contract theorists, the modern
idea of freedom.

In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among
(1754), Rousseau describes a state of nature which,
unlike that of earlier thinkers, is emphatically not a
social state. In it man, except that he has potentialities
peculiar to his species, is like the other animals. He
acquires distinctively human skills and needs only when
he leaves the state of nature and comes to live perma-
nently with other men. It is then that his animal needs
are transformed into properly social needs, and it is
his social needs that social institutions and civil gov-
ernment help to satisfy more or less adequately. In
another of his works, Émile (1762), Rousseau describes
a process of education which makes a rational and a
moral being of a child that is neither to begin with,
creating needs in him that are social. Only as a creature
having such needs, making claims on others, and rec-
ognizing their claims on him, does Émile come to
understand what it is to be free. Man, whose ability
to reason and to will is developed in him as he learns
to live with other men, cannot be free outside society
nor independent inside it. To be free, he must be ra-
tional and able to make deliberate choices, he must
have capacities that he acquires only in society; and
to be independent, to be able to do without others,
he must be without the needs that he acquires in
acquiring these capacities; he must be unsocial.

Rousseau also introduced into social theory the idea
of man “corrupted” by society. Now, society consists
only of men and their modes of behavior; it is both
a system of human behavior and an effect of what men
have done. The social environment that “corrupts”
men would not be what it is unless they had sufficient
motives for behaving as they do. This Rousseau ad-
mitted, at least by implication, and yet he claimed that
they can be frustrated by their environment, can be
moved to act in ways harmful to themselves and others.
The wants and ambitions they acquire in society may
be insatiable, or inconsistent with one another, or such
that the means to satisfy them are lacking. But the
more a man finds obstacles that are not natural but
social or man-made in the way of his getting what he
wants or becoming what he aspires to be, the less he
is free.

Rousseau's ideal is therefore a condition in which
the wants that society produces in men are fully satis-
fied. This condition we can aim at in two quite different
ways: by indoctrination and discipline calculated to
ensure that the individual has wants that are easily
satisfied, or by so educating him that he forms his own
ideas about how he should live and respects the right
of others to do the same. Rousseau seems to prefer now
one way and now another. The kind of private educa-
tion described in Émile aims at producing a man of
independent judgment, aware of his obligations to
others, whereas the plan of public education which
Rousseau proposed to the Poles in the Considerations
on the Government of Poland
aims rather at producing
devoted citizens who think and feel alike. Thus, though
there is an idea of freedom important to liberals to
which Rousseau was the first to give powerful expres-
sion, it can hardly be said that he was himself a liberal

This is the freedom that in The Social Contract
(Contrat social, 1762), he calls “moral freedom,” saying
that it makes man truly his own master, for it is obedi-
ence to a law which he has prescribed to himself (Book
I, Ch. 8). This moral freedom is, in The Social Contract,
connected with popular government. The citizens
make their own laws, and because each of them is able
to vote as he thinks right without being tricked or
“pressured” to vote otherwise, he takes an equal part
with the others in making the rules that all must obey,
and so commits himself deliberately to this obedience.
In Émile, what is essentially the same idea of freedom
has a broader and less political signíficance. Émile does
not take his principles on trust; he learns from experi-
ence that they are to his own and other people's ad-
vantage, and so adopts them as rules of conduct. Unless
he did so, he could neither live comfortably with others
nor form enduring purposes of his own to be pursued
intelligently and with hope of success. Moral freedom
is Rousseau's answer to the question: How can a man
be free and yet subject to social rules?

Kant has a similar idea of freedom, as for example
when he says in The Fundamental Principles of the


Metaphysic of Morals that “a free will and a will
subject to moral laws are one and the same” (Kant,
p. 66). But he makes a sharper distinction than
Rousseau made between morality and legality. The
business of the state is to make and enforce laws in
the common interest; its concern is that men should
keep the law and not that they should keep it from
the right motive. If they keep it from fear of punish-
ment, they do not keep it freely, as they do when they
keep it from a sense that it is their duty to do so. Thus,
for Kant, the freedom that consists in obedience to
self-imposed laws belongs to a sphere with which the
state is not directly concerned. Kant would not, of
course, deny that the legal order maintained by the
state is a condition of man's acquiring a moral will;
nor would he say that any political and legal order
is as propitious to moral freedom as any other. Yet he
does not, as Rousseau does in The Social Contract, see
a close connection between moral freedom and popular

It is implicit in this idea of moral freedom that being
free consists in more than just having desires and not
being prevented from satisfying them, that it involves
having a will, being able to make decisions. Only a
rational being, assessing the situations in which it acts,
has this ability; and only a rational being can be moral,
can recognize rules of conduct as obligatory upon itself
and all other rational beings. Being free and being
moral both involve being rational. But neither
Rousseau nor Kant makes it clear why being free and
being subject to moral law should be identical. Why
should not a man be free if he can make decisions (or
form purposes) and carry them out? Why must he be
moral, if he is to be free?

To this question Kant seems to provide no answer.
Indeed, he goes less far than Rousseau does towards
answering it; for, though his explanations of what is
involved in making decisions and in acting morally are
fuller and better than Rousseau's, he rather asserts a
connection between freedom and morality than ex-
plains what it is.

In this last respect, the improver on Rousseau is not
Kant but Hegel. His explanation is not wholly con-
vincing, and not only because it is mixed up with a
metaphysic that few can understand, let alone accept;
but it is ingenious and perceptive.

Hegel improves on Rousseau because he explains
more elaborately and forcefully, both in The Phenome-
nology of Mind
(1807) and in The Philosophy of Right
(1821), what is involved in man's being essentially
social. Man's ideas about himself, his purposes as dis-
tinct from his mere appetites, are related to the social
order he belongs to. His ability to reason, to form
purposes, and therefore to make decisions, is developed
in the process of acquiring a cultural inheritance, a
process that involves coming to have standards and to
accept rules. Thus becoming rational, becoming pur-
poseful, and becoming moral (not good or virtuous but
able to make claims and recognize obligations) are all
parts of the same course of development. It is as a
social being with a place in a community, as a partaker
in what Hegel calls ethical life, that the individual
forms purposes and takes decisions that have a meaning
only in a context of social relations defined by the rights
and obligations that help to make them what they are.
Only as a being whose needs and purposes are essenti-
ally social does man conceive of freedom and put a
value on it. No doubt, we can ask of a creature that
is not rational and social, that has only appetites and
no purposes, whether there are obstacles to its getting
what it wants, whether it is free. But this is not the
freedom that men are willing to die for, or to exert
themselves greatly to preserve or extend. What they
deeply care about is the exercise of certain capacities
and the having of certain rights and opportunities, and
the obstacles they resent as curtailments of freedom
frustrate these capacities, detract from these rights,
deny these opportunities. To exercise these capacities
and rights, and to take these opportunities, a man needs
a self-discipline which is the fruit of an education that
includes necessarily a social or external discipline. It
is only as a creature under social discipline and capable
of self-discipline, as a moral being, that man aspires
to freedom.

The social rules that he learns to accept do not stand
to his purposes as means to ends, for his purposes have
no meaning apart from the social order he belongs to,
the social relations in which he stands to others; and
these relations are also moral relations, for to belong
to a community with others is to make claims upon
them and recognize obligations to them.

Men, as Hegel sees them, are progressive as well
as moral beings; they develop their capacities as they
create their institutions; the “subjective” and the “ob-
jective,” their beliefs, wants, and dispositions, on the
one hand, and their customs and conventions, on the
other, are but aspects of one whole, and change to-
gether. And yet tensions or “contradictions” arise in-
evitably between these two aspects of human life, and
progress consists in their emergence and in the over-
coming of them. This progress is a growth in reason,
a deeper understanding by men of themselves and their
world, and especially that part of the world which is
the system of their own activities, the social world,
the world of culture; a deeper understanding and a
fuller control over what they understand. This growth
in reason is also a growth in freedom: in the ability
to form consistent and realistic purposes and to remove
obstacles to them.

The state, as Hegel conceives of it, is both an effect


and a condition of this greater understanding and con-
trol. The more social rules are made or declared by
a legislature and by professional courts of justice, the
more secure men's rights and the more definite their
obligations, and the greater also their power to adapt
their institutions to their needs and ideals. The state
is the social order in its most rational aspect; for it
is through its laws and policies that men express the
most clearly and effectively their aspirations both for
the individual and the community.

Hegel has been called an idolator of the state. The
accusation is not wholly unjust and yet is misleading.
He never preached unquestioning obedience to the
laws or the government. Nor does it follow from his
account of the state that all resistance to established
authority, still less criticism of it, is wrong. But the
bias of his argument is strongly against the challenger
of authority, for he nowhere defines conditions in
which, in his opinion, resistance is justified. His failure
to do so, together with the extravagant and almost
adulatory language in which he speaks of the state,
explain and in part justify his reputation as an illiberal

Yet he puts forward, more forcefully and ingeniously
than any thinker before him, four theses of which
liberals since his day have taken large account: (1) only
as a creature educated by social intercourse and having
purposes and ideals that are meaningless outside a
social context, does man come to conceive and to
cherish the rights and opportunities that he dignifies
by the name of freedom; (2) a long course of social
and cultural evolution has gone to formulating these
rights and opportunities and to inquiry into their social
and political conditions; (3) this formulation and this
inquiry are closely related to the emergence of the
modern state; (4) the effective maintenance of these
rights and opportunities requires a legal order of the
sort we have in mind when we speak of the state.

The liberal who accepts these theses need not agree
that there is a necessary progress towards a legal order
that maintains freedom. For example, he can accept
the fourth thesis and still argue that the state has often
in the past, and will yet more often in the future,
develop in ways that curtail freedom or prevent its
enlargement. The state may be both a condition of
freedom and a considerable and growing impediment
to it.

The liberal often takes pride in being suspicious of
the state. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”;
and the liberal is, or claims to be, vigilant for freedom,
presumably against those well placed to threaten it,
who for the most part either hold public office or
belong to organized bodies controlling or aspiring to
control those who hold it. What he is suspicious of
is not so much the idea of the state as the state as
it actually is, or some party or group that controls the
state or aspires to do so. The laws and institutions of
government may not be as he would have them, and
he therefore wants them changed; and yet it is to them
as they ought to be as much as to the energy and
independence of mind of private citizens that he looks
for the preservation of freedom. An Hegelian might
say that the concern of a Wilhelm von Humboldt or
a John Stuart Mill for the individual is conceivable only
in a society in which the modern state has emerged.
The state, say Humboldt and Mill, must not encroach
on the sphere of the individual. But the statement is
empty unless that sphere is defined, which it cannot
be without using concepts, legal and moral, that have
emerged or acquired precision in the modern state,
either in courts of law and administrative departments
or in controversies about their proper business. Nor
can “the private sphere” be adequately protected ex-
cept by the state; for the individual must have legal
recourse, which is to say, recourse to the state, against
whoever encroaches on that sphere. No doubt, the indi-
vidual appeals also to public opinion, but the effective-
ness of such appeals depends largely on the legal pro-
tection of carefully defined rights.

Humboldt and Mill, and Tocqueville also, feared
paternal government no less than oppression by the
state. If the state looks after the citizen too well,
though with the best intentions, it weakens his self-
reliance and independence of judgment, his ability to
define his own problems and to set about solving them.
Freedom is the school of freedom; the individual learns
to value his essential rights, and to act responsibly, by
being left, as far as possible, to act for himself, either
alone or in free association with others.

This fear of paternalism as distinct from oppression
is scarcely to be found in the eighteenth century. It
comes, as might be expected, with the era of social
reform; and if in the twentieth century there is less
of it than there was in the nineteenth century, this is
because liberals have come to believe that much more
must be done for the individual to enable him to use
the rights and opportunities they think he ought to
have than Humboldt or Tocqueville or Mill imagined.
The liberal is as vigilant as ever, and as suspicious of
the state, but is less concerned to prevent the state
trying to do too much than to ensure that it does what
it must do if its subjects are to be effectively free.

In the nineteenth century fear of state paternalism
often went with belief in “self-improvement.” In the
Middle Ages, and indeed much later, there had been
in plenty a different kind of paternalism. The individual
belonged to a community ruled by custom, and his
“elders” interpreted this custom to him. The course
of his life, in many respects, was traced out for him;
he had not much scope for independence of judgment.


He had no career to make, for he belonged to a social
order in which he had a well-defined place, and was
brought up to fill it adequately. He was educated, not
to improve himself or make the best of his talents, but
to take the place he was born to take.

As we have seen already, the breakup of the custom-
bound community and the increased social mobility
that came with it were liberating influences. They
encouraged the individual to be more self-reliant, to
see himself as making a place for himself in society,
to think of himself as the possessor of rights not tied
to any particular occupation or social role. But they
also, insofar as he felt himself to be weaker than others,
encouraged him to look for protection and assistance
to the state. He was made free of old ties and yet made
to feel insecure and weak, and so disposed to look for
protection from the strongest power of all, the state.

Tocqueville dwells upon this disposition and some
of its consequences that he thinks are bad. He speaks
of a democratic egalitarianism dangerous to liberty.
More perhaps than any other writer of his age, he
makes a contrast between equality and freedom, which
is illuminating in some respects but misleading in
others. He argues that, as the state grows stronger, so
too does the passion for equality at the expense of
freedom. He admits that in the old order before the
French Revolution, there was more inequality, but the
state, he says, was weaker and there was more freedom.
We can agree with him that the state was weaker and
the classes more unequal, and yet deny that there was
greater freedom. The nobleman had larger privileges
and in some respects was more free, but he was also
kept out of many occupations and activities that might
otherwise have attracted him by the prejudices of his
class. The bourgeois and the peasant were less free.
The movement, even in France, was not really from
aristocratic freedom to democratic equality; it was
from a social order in which the privileged had not
much freedom, as the liberal understands it; to an order
in which inequalities of birth counted for less and
inequalities of wealth for more, and the formerly un-
privileged had rights that were more secure and larger

In the nineteenth century much more than in the
century before it, social and political thinkers, liberals
and others, spoke of the “development of human po-
tentialities,” “self-improvement,” “moral autonomy,”
and “self-realization.” They still do so in the twentieth
century, though with a greater awareness that these
are terms of uncertain meaning. If we are to judge
by how they are used, they are not equivalent but are
closely related.

What, then, is it to develop human potentialities?
Is it to acquire dispositions or skills peculiar to human
beings, no matter what they are? Presumably not, for
this development is held to be desirable, whereas much
that is peculiarly human is harmful or useless. Who
then is to decide what dispositions and skills are worth
having? The person who acquires them or the person
who educates or trains him?

What kind of learning is “self-improvement,” and
what kind of teaching does it exclude? The trainer of
animals teaches them and in so doing “develops their
potentialities”; he does more than evoke responses in
them; he so acts upon them that, when they have left
his hands, they have dispositions and skills they did
not have before. The trainer may not threaten or hurt
his animals but may only coax and reward them, so
that his training is not coercive. What they do as they
learn may be as freely done as what they do when
they act instinctively or on their own initiative to
satisfy their appetites, without prompting from him.
The training of little children is in some ways like the
training of animals, when they acquire dispositions and
skills useful to others or to themselves. Yet, presumably,
this kind of training is not what is meant by “self-
improvement,” even though there is nothing coercive
about it.

Can it be called “self-realization”? Only, if at all,
when it is the training of little children, and then only
to the extent that they acquire capacities that are
peculiarly human. They learn to use words, to make
choices, to pass judgments on themselves and others,
to control themselves. They acquire the capacities we
refer to when we speak of reason and will. Their early
training, though it is not self-improvement, puts them
in the way of acquiring self-knowledge and self-control;
and this, perhaps, is the reason why it is sometimes
spoken of as a stage in self-realization.

“Self-realization” is an ambiguous term. If we con-
sider how it is used, it does not always imply that the
individual sets up some ideal for himself, some concep-
tion of the sort of person he would like to be or the
kind of life he would like to live, and then tries to
achieve it. For those who use the term often speak
as if the individual came to understand himself, and
to set up such ideals, in the process of realizing himself.
As he grows in self-knowledge, he sets up and abandons
several such ideals; his purposes and aspirations change.
When he is young they are ill-defined or unrealistic
or fickle; as he grows older they often, though by no
means always, become more realistic and firmer. But
this, so it would appear, is not a sufficient sign that
he has “realized himself,” or has come closer to doing
so. For he may be no more than set in his ways or
lacking in ambition. This notion of self-realization is
elusive and obscure.

Does self-realization, at least at that stage of it that


involves setting up of ideals for the self and striving
to attain them, entail self-improvement? If a man has
base ambitions, mean or wicked self-ideals, and strives
to achieve them, is he realizing himself? It would
appear that he is not. Self-realization, where it involves
pursuit of an ideal, would seem to imply—for most
writers who use the term, if not for all—self-
improvement. But how are we to decide whether or
not someone is improving himself? If Napoleon had
aimed at becoming the beneficent mayor of some small
Corsican town, would he have improved or realized
himself more or less than he did by becoming Emperor
of the French? If a man, to be self-realizing or self-
improving, must have admirable or worthwhile (even
though not virtuous) ambitions, who is to decide
whether he has them? And if he is to be taught or
persuaded to have them, what forms may the teaching
or persuasion take for the acquiring and pursuit of the
ambitions to be reckoned self-improvement and not
improvement by his betters? J. S. Mill, and perhaps
T. H. Green also, went some little way towards answer-
ing these questions but not very far.

And what is moral autonomy? Psychologists and
writers on education tell us that we acquire most of
the ideals to which we are deeply attached while we
are as yet incapable of assessing them critically. Our
more enduring and realistic ambitions, we may acquire
later, but they are shaped to a large extent by ideals
that were ours before we had even learned to define
them. So, too, the disposition, weak or strong, to tell
the truth, or to be loyal to friends and colleagues, or
to help the unfortunate, or to forgive injuries, or to
be careful of the feelings of others, is formed in us
before we are old enough to consider the reasons for
and against acting on any of these principles. If to be
morally autonomous is to accept on rational grounds
the principles that govern one's conduct, then there
are few or none who have moral autonomy. But if this
autonomy involves no more than being able to apply
such principles firmly and intelligently, then there may
be many persons who are morally autonomous, though
some of them more so than others. Indeed, if this is
what moral autonomy is, then everyone who is moral
is necessarily, to some extent, morally autonomous, for
being moral involves being able to apply some such
principles with some degree of firmness and intelli-

To the extent that self-realization involves the pur-
suit of ambitions calling for the exercise of rare and
much admired abilities, it may be incompatible with
moral autonomy, or with more than a little of it.
Napoleon might have had much smaller scope to exer-
cise his rare abilities, had he had greater moral auton-
omy. It is said of him that he had a strong will; but,
though whoever has a high degree of moral autonomy
has a strong will, the reverse is not true.

We have not pointed to the obscurities and ambigu-
ities of such expressions as “self-realization,” “self-
improvement,” and “moral autonomy” to suggest that
there is little to them. They are used to refer to aspects
of human experience and endeavor that are important,
and if we dismiss them as insignificant, we may fail
to notice these aspects. And, in any case, they are
relevant to our theme, which is liberalism; they are
an important part of its stock of ideas. They are much
in favor, not only among self-styled liberals, but also
among socialists and anarchists who attack “liberalism”
as inadequate or old-fashioned, or even as a “bourgeois

The liberal, the socialist, and the anarchist seem all
to accept three principles: that the individual should
be so educated and so placed in society that he can
form for himself ambitions and ideals whose pursuit
is satisfying to him; that the worth of his ambitions
and ideals depends partly on their pursuit being useful
to society, partly on the satisfaction he gets from pur-
suing them, and partly on their pursuit bringing into
play abilities that are admirable; and that the individ-
ual should accept willingly rules of conduct that he
can defend on rational grounds and can act upon firmly
and intelligently. These three principles, though so-
cialists and anarchists (not to speak of many con-
servatives) accept them, are nevertheless properly
called liberal. They are more closely and obviously
connected with freedom than with the social control
of production or the abolition of government or the
preservation of established institutions; and the writers
who have done most to explain and recommend
them—as, for example, Humboldt, Mill, and T. H.
Green—are widely acknowledged to be liberals.

These three principles may not cover all that is
meant by “self-realization,” “self-improvement,” and
“moral autonomy,” but they are shared by most people
who speak favorably of these things, and they are
relatively clear. No doubt, with these as with all broad
principles, questions arise that are difficult to answer
as soon as we look closely at them. For example, if
we take only the first principle, we are faced, as soon
as we examine it critically, with two questions, neither
of them easy to answer: What criteria must we use
in deciding whether someone has formed his ambitions
and ideals for himself? How do we decide whether his
pursuit of them is satisfying to him? The putting for-
ward of principles as broad as these is only a beginning,
though it is important to begin aright, so that the
principles, when closely examined, raise questions that
can be answered and are relevant to problems that
people who care for freedom feel strongly about. Or,


rather, the putting of them is neither a beginning nor
an end, for we continually reformulate our principles
in the light of our answers to the questions they suggest
to us.

Most of the rights to which liberals in the West
attach great importance can be, and often are, justified
by reference to these principles. For example, the right
to an education that enables you to assess the opportu-
nities (the occupations and ways of life) that society
offers to its members; the right to choose your occupa-
tion provided you have the requisite skills; the right
to get the special training needed to acquire these
skills, provided you are capable of profiting by it; the
right to choose your partner in marriage; the right to
be gainfully employed; the right to a minimal standard
of living, whether or not you are so employed; the
right to privacy, especially in your own home; the right
to express and publish your opinions; the right to form
or join associations for any purpose that appeals to you
and does not invade the rights of others; the right to
be tried for alleged offenses and to have your disputes
settled by courts not subject to political pressures; the
right to take part in choosing at free elections the
persons who make policy, at least at the highest level,
in the communities or associations you belong to. These
rights are by no means the only ones to which liberals
attach importance, but it is doubtful whether there are
any that they hold more important. These formulations
of them are brief and need to be qualified, but they
are sufficient for the present purpose, which is only
to indicate roughly the kind of rights of special concern
to the liberal.

The last four of these rights are primarily political,
though they are not confined to the political sphere.
Many opinions important to their holders, many asso-
ciations important to their members, are not political.
Yet these rights may be called political because they
are important above all in the political sphere. The
other seven rights, in contrast with these four, may
be called social, though they too impinge on the politi-
cal sphere, since whether or not they are exercised
partly determines the aims and methods of govern-
ments, what sort of persons get public office, and the
ways in which political influence is acquired and used.

Countries in which the social rights are coming to
be more widely enjoyed are not called liberal, if the
political rights are denied to the people, even though
denied much more in the political sphere than outside
it. Nor do these countries claim to be liberal; for the
word “liberal,” unlike the word “democratic,” is in
them often a term of abuse. It is so at least in govern-
ment circles and among supporters of the government.
On the other hand, the liberal denies that these coun-
tries are democratic precisely on the ground that their
peoples do not enjoy the political rights. He may allow
that, if in fact the social rights are more widely enjoyed,
people are becoming in important respects more free,
but he denies that this is enough to make these coun-
tries either liberal or democratic. He denies it, not
because he cares only for the political rights and not
the social ones, but because he believes that the social
rights are less secure and more restricted where the
political rights are lacking.

Most countries now claim to be democratic, and a
smaller number claim to be liberal as well. In the
countries that make the first claim but not the second,
people do not in fact enjoy the political rights, or do
so only to a slight extent and precariously. How, then,
do these countries (or their rulers) come to make this
claim? When they make it, are they denying that our
four political rights are essential to democracy? Or are
they saying that their peoples in fact enjoy them? As
we shall see in a moment, they turn and turn about,
like weathercocks in shifting winds, swivelling and yet

4. The Radical Attack on Liberalism. As we have
seen, there were liberals after the French Revolution
who thought democracy dangerous to freedom. Their
fear of democracy made them suspect to the radicals,
who therefore attacked them. The radicals attacked
not freedom but liberalism, which they interpreted as
concern for the privileges of the well-to-do masquer-
ading as concern for freedom.

The quarrel between radicals and liberals has been
genuine enough, though it has led to equivocation and
self-deception. It was in France that it first came to
the forefront of politics, especially during the July
Monarchy and the Second Republic. The liberals
wanted the political rights, and above all the right to
vote at free elections, confined to persons capable of
exercising them responsibly, who (in their opinion)
were the educated and the well-to-do. If, in practice,
they cared more for political than for social rights, this
was not because they thought them more important
in themselves but because they held that, at least in
Western countries, they were less secure; as indeed
they were, for the educated and the well-to-do, who
in fact enjoyed their social more securely than their
political rights. The liberal argument of that time
might be put briefly into these words: the people as
a whole will enjoy their rights more securely, if the
most important of the political rights, the right to vote,
is confined to those capable of exercising it responsibly;
and therefore the right to vote is, of all rights, the one
that must be extended the most cautiously, as education
and political competence spread.

The radicals answered that the poor and the unedu-
cated enjoyed their social rights precariously, and


lacked some altogether, precisely because they were
without political rights. They too, like the liberals,
treated the right to vote as the most immediately
important; the other political rights were of limited
use without it. To begin with, many radicals thought
it enough that the poor should have the vote, and that
their children should be educated at public expense.
This, they hoped, would enable them to exercise all
their rights effectively. Later they changed their minds,
and made progressively larger demands on behalf of
the poor, requiring that more and more services be
provided for those unable to pay for them; and to cover
the cost of these services, they advocated steeper taxa-
tion of the well-to-do. Also, to protect the economically
weak from the effects of crises and depressions, they
pressed for a wider control of the economy, whether
by the state or by lesser political communities or by
producers' associations.

The liberals too, self-styled or so-called by socialists
and others to the “left” of them, have changed with
the times. They have accepted first manhood and then
universal suffrage, a large provision of “social services”
at public expense, and a greater control of the econ-
omy. If a distinction is worth making between the
liberal and the radical, it is a distinction between
attitudes rather than doctrines. Both the liberal and
the radical accept the rights, social and political, that
were mentioned earlier, at least in the sense that they
admit that all men should have them, when conditions
allow. And they both accept the three liberal principles
used to justify these rights. They are both, therefore,
in the broad sense liberals. Yet there is a difference
between them worth noticing: the liberal is more con-
cerned than is the radical that attempts to extend the
rights quickly should not emasculate or even destroy
them, while the radical is more concerned that they
should be extended quickly.

We distinguish here between two attitudes taken in
the abstract. Of course, there are people calling them-
selves liberals (and even called so by others) who care
above all for the privileges of a minority, just as there
are people calling themselves radicals (or socialists or
communists) who care above all for getting power and
exercising it over docile subjects. Such persons are
sometimes cynical, sometimes self-deceivers, and
sometimes both.

Thus, though there is nothing illiberal about radi-
calism—about the desire to extend, as far and as
quickly as possible, the rights, social and political,
whose exercise constitutes the freedom we have been
discussing—it is easy enough to see how radicals, as
assiduous and vocal champions of the poor, come to
appear illiberal to liberals. Nor is it always a matter
of appearances, for radicals may indeed be illiberal.
That is to say, they may do more than advocate policies
that postpone the coming of freedom without intending
to do so; they may want to deprive people of liberties
they already have.

For example, they may want to deprive some people
of political rights they already have while pretending
to give them to everyone; they may extend the fran-
chise and abolish free elections, or they may form
associations and encourage people to join them, but
otherwise suppress freedom of association. They may
have illusions about their intentions or they may not.
They may even admit that they are suppressing some
liberties, taking them away from a minority who use
them to prevent urgently needed reforms. This minor-
ity are to be deprived for a time of some of their
freedom so that everyone may have freedom more
abundantly in the future. Or, as happens more often,
perhaps, they may deny that they want to deprive
anyone, even for a time, of any of the rights that
constitute freedom, and yet advocate courses that result
in this deprivation. Though they refuse to admit this
result, their policies are in fact illiberal if putting them
into effect curtails the liberties of some people without
extending those of others.

There is, as recent history proves, an “equivocation
of the Left” difficult to avoid. The champions of the
poor and the ignorant need their support if they are
to get for them what they hope to get. Their aim, they
say, is to “liberate the people,” to ensure that they
acquire essential liberties (the rights, social and politi-
cal, that we have been discussing, and others like
them); and they can hardly win the popular support
they need unless they assume, at least in public, that
the people understand and want the benefits intended
for them. They can hardly say to the poor and the
ignorant: “Support us in our endeavors to get for you
advantages that you do not understand, or understand
so little, that we shall not be able to let you have them
for some considerable time after we have got power
with your support.” So they equivocate, both to keep
their followers loyal to them and to reassure themselves
as to their own intentions.

The more backward a country, the less social and
cultural conditions inside it allow the effective exercise
of these rights, the greater the temptation to equiv-
ocate, to declare publicly that the people do exercise
them while adopting policies that make sense only on
the assumption that they do not yet understand them
and so cannot exercise them. This equivocation is made
easier by attacks, often enough justified, on the hypoc-
risy of the well-to-do liberals, who pretend to care for
freedom in general when in fact they care only for
their own privileges. The rights precious to these lib-
erals, say the attackers, have been too often used, in


their present forms, as excuses to prevent drastic but
urgent reforms for the benefit of the poor at the ex-
pense of the rich. So these rights, in these forms, are
denounced as “illusory” or “bourgeois.” They are rights
proper to a society in which there are great inequalities
of wealth, and the rich can exercise them much more
effectively than the poor can, even though, on paper,
all classes have them. The radicals who attack
bourgeois liberalism do not reject in principle even the
political rights asserted by the liberals: they do not
deny that governments should be responsible to the
people, or that the people should be free to form
associations to promote aims of their own choosing,
or should be allowed to express their opinions freely.
They say rather that these rights, in their so-called
“bourgeois” or “liberal” forms, are not useful to the
people generally but only to the rich. Unfortunately,
they seldom make it clear how these bourgeois forms
differ from other, and (in their opinion) more genuinely
popular, forms.

That the poor, though they have these rights “on
paper,” cannot exercise them effectively while the rich
retain their wealth and the advantages it brings, may
or may not be true; or it may be true to an extent
that varies with the circumstances. But, true or not,
it is not obvious why, when great inequalities of wealth
are removed, these rights must take forms very differ-
ent from those they now have if all sections of the
community are to exercise them effectively. In partic-
ular, the argument that political rights, if the people
generally are really to have them, cannot take the
forms they do while they are of little use except to
the wealthy, is quite unconvincing. If the argument
were merely that different political and legal institu-
tions are required to ensure that a vast number of
persons exercise their rights effectively from those that
suffice to ensure that a small number do so, it would
be more plausible at the first blush, though still not
convincing, unless it were made clear what the differ-
ences would be and the reasons for them. But this is
not the argument.

Not all radicals (as defined above) are given to this
kind of equivocation. But the Marxists have been and
are, and so, too, have socialists of other schools. Nor
is this equivocation of the Left confined to socialists,
for there are traces of it as far back at least as the
Jacobinism of the seventeen-nineties.

There is also an equivocation of the Right. In its
earlier forms, it was cruder and perhaps more wide-
spread than it is now, but it still survives. This kind
of equivocator, while he says that all men are equal
in certain fundamental respects, though some are su-
perior to the rest in other respects, fails to notice (or
to admit) that the other respects are at bottom only
some of the fundamental ones described in dif-
ferent words. This sort of equivocation goes back at
least as far as Montesquieu and Locke, and perhaps

Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws (Book XI,
Ch. 6), with the English form of government in mind,
speaks of persons who ought not to have the vote
because they are “in so mean a situation as to be
deemed to have no will of their own.” Yet in other
parts of this same work, he takes it for granted that
all men (except, presumably, infants and the mentally
defective) are legally responsible for their actions. If
someone of “mean situation” breaks the law or makes
a contract, Montesquieu does not claim for him dimin-
ished responsibility on the ground that he has no “will
of his own”; that his understanding of the circum-
stances in which he acts is such that he ought not to
be held responsible for what he does, or ought to be
so held less than if he were not in a “mean situation.”
He understands the law and the circumstances to which
it applies quite well enough to be deemed to have a
will of his own when he commits an offense or makes
a contract, but when it comes to choosing lawmakers,
he must have no say, because he then lacks a will of
his own—that is to say, does not understand what law
is about well enough to be of good judgment in de-
ciding who shall take part in making or declaring the

Now, it may well be that the criteria of legal and
political competence are not the same, so that we
cannot say that someone who has understanding
enough to be answerable to the courts for breaches
of law or contract must have understanding enough
to make a rational use of the vote. But Montesquieu
never troubled to distinguish legal from political com-
petence, and never explained why the “mean in situa-
tion” (presumably, the poor and the uneducated)
should be deemed legally competent and politically
incompetent. Even if it should happen that political
is more rare than legal competence, it is not obvious
that there is proportionately less of it to be found
among the poor and the uneducated than among the
others. And if there is less, may this not be due above
all to their not exercising the rights denied to them
on the ground that they are politically incompetent?
Is not political competence acquired by exercising
these rights rather than by going to school or having
private tutors? And was this not so particularly in
Montesquieu's day, when formal teaching was so
largely classical and literary?

The truth is that while the criteria of legal com-
petence (or legal responsibility) have been often dis-
cussed, the criteria of political competence have been
so scarcely at all. Political competence consists, pre-


sumably, of a variety of capacities or skills, though for
our purposes it is enough to distinguish, broadly, be-
tween four: political judgment, or being a good judge
of what policies are likely to achieve some desired end
or ends; political sense, or being good at discerning
who has political judgment and can be trusted to exer-
cise it responsibly; political skill, or knowing how to
use established procedures to get the decisions you
want; and political power, or being able to induce those
who have political judgment or skill to exercise it as
you want them to do.

Political judgment and political skill are kinds of
competence acquired above all by being politically
active, by taking part in government or by observing
it closely. Being well-to-do and well-educated do not
give this judgment or skill to a man except to the extent
that they make it easier for him to take part in govern-
ment or to observe it. Political sense and political
power come mostly of the exercise of political rights,
and are confined to the well-to-do and well-educated
only while they alone have these rights. With the
coming of democracy, the acquiring of political com-
petence, in all four kinds, is not a product of forms
of education or styles of life peculiar to any class; it
is acquired either by professionals, whose business is
government and politics, or the discussion and study
of them, or else it comes of the exercise of political
rights. The more widely these rights are shared, the
more evenly distributed among all classes the kinds of
competence that come of exercising them, and the
more the kinds that are acquired professionally are at
the service of all classes. For it is less the social origins,
or the present status, of the politically active that
matters than the extent to which their services are at
the disposal of different sections of the community. It
is the same with whole-time politicians as with other
“professionals.” Not long ago, doctors were not only
drawn mostly from well-to-do families; they also mostly
served them. Today they are drawn from them rather
less often than they used to be; but what matters more
is that their services are now much more widely avail-
able to the poor.

This is not to suggest that the idea of political com-
petence is empty, and that adults ought never to be
refused political rights on the ground that they are
politically incompetent. It is to suggest only that peo-
ple who use the idea, either by that name or another,
often do not know what they are about. They say, on
the one hand, that all classes or all races or the two
sexes are equal in certain respects (often called “funda-
mental respects,” to lend dignity to them), while on
the other, overtly or by implication, they claim superi-
ority for some classes or races, or for one of the sexes,
without noticing that the respects in which they claim
it are identical, wholly or in part, with some of the
respects they call fundamental.

There are, of course, people who do not admit that
everyone ought, as far as possible, to enjoy the rights
we have been discussing. In their case, there is none
of the equivocation mentioned earlier, though their
arguments may be defective for other reasons. The
“equivocators” are all, in the broad sense, liberal; they
agree that in principle everyone ought to have these
rights. Their equivocation consists in their taking up,
without noticing or at least admitting it, positions
inconsistent with the principle. On the Left, they reject
as bourgeois shams institutions needed to secure these
rights, or some of them; on the Right, they make
political competence a condition of people's having
some of these rights, when in fact their having them
is a condition of their acquiring political competence
or of their being able to call on the services of the
politically competent.