Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI: liberty - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER VI: liberty - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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The late Lord Acton, most learned among the Englishmen of his generation, proposed to himself in his youth the writing of a History of Liberty from the earliest times to our own. The book remained unwritten not merely because the subject was vast, but also because his own learning was so wide and multifarious that he knew he would have been overcome by the temptation to endless digressions and profuse citations. Even the analysis of the conception of Liberty and the examination of the various meanings which the term has borne at different times and in different countries would need a treatise. No one seems to have undertaken the task. All that can be attempted here is to distinguish between some of the senses in which the word has been used and to indicate how they bear on one another.
Many questions arise. What is the relation between Liberty and Democracy? Does the former prescribe the latter? Does the latter guarantee the former? Is Liberty a Positive or a merely Negative conception? Is it an End in itself, or a means to an End greater than itself? But to explain the various senses which the word has borne let us look for a moment at the history of the conception.
The first struggles for Liberty were against arbitrary power and unjust laws. The ordinary Greek citizen of the sixth century B.C. was not free when oppressed by an oligarchy or a tyrant, who took his property or put him to death in defiance of old usage and common justice. To him Liberty meant equal laws for all — isovoμía — or what we should call a recognition of civil rights, securing exemption from the exercise of arbitrary power. The barons and prelates of England who extorted Magna Charta from the king complained of his tyrannical action contrary to the old customs of the nation, and obtained from him a promise to abandon these and to abide by the Lex Terrae, the ancient and general customary law of the land. So the conflict between the English Parliament and Charles the First arose over the acts of royal power that transgressed common law and right, unjust and unauthorized exactions and the extra legal action of the Star Chamber, violating the long-established rights of the subject to person and property. By this time, however, a new point of contention had emerged. The subject, besides suffering in person and property, was suffering also by being forbidden the expression and dissemination of his particular religious opinions and the right of worshipping God according to his own convictions. In such cases the private civil rights of the individual to life and property and the exercise of religion were alleged to be infringed. The struggle for freedom was a struggle for the recognition of all these rights. This was the original sense of the famous Whig watchword, Civil and Religious Liberty. The two were associated as parts of the same thing, though Religious Liberty was more difficult to define, for practices that seem to fall within the sphere of religion may be injurious to public order or to morality, and therefore fit to be forbidden.
In the course of this struggle the English combatants for freedom realized, as had done their Greek and Roman predecessors, that they could not win and hold civil and religious liberty so long as the constitution of the State left political power in the hands of a monarch or of a class. The rights of the body of the people could not be safe till the people — not necessarily the whole, but at least a considerable part of the people —- had an effective share in the government. There was therefore a further conflict to secure Political Liberty, i.e. a constitution restricting arbitrary power and transferring supremacy from the Crown to the Nation. Thenceforth, and for two centuries, the conception of Liberty covered not only private civil rights but public and political rights also; and especially the right of electing the representatives through whom the people were to exercise their power. Civil and Religious Liberty in the old sense receded into the background, being assumed to have been secured, while Political Liberty, being deemed to be still not complete even in England, and not having been yet won in many other countries, continued to occupy men's minds. Civil Liberty had originally been the aim and political liberty the road to it, but now Political Liberty was thought of as the cause and civil liberty as the consequence. So Liberty came to mean self-government. A “free people “was understood to be a people which rules itself, master of its own destinies both at home and wherever its power extends abroad.
Much later, and perhaps not fully till the nineteenth century, was it perceived that besides his private civil rights to person, property, and the exercise of religion, and besides also his political rights to share in the government of the State, there are other matters in which restrictions may be imposed on the individual which limit his action where restriction may be harmful, or is at any rate not obviously necessary. In the old struggle for Civil Rights the whole people, except the ruling man or class, usually stood together in demanding those rights.1 Everybody therefore supposed that when Political Liberty had been secured, the rights of the citizen were safe under the aegis of self-government, which means in practice the rule of the majority. But it presently appeared that a majority is not the same thing as the whole people. Its ideas and wishes may be different from those of minorities within the people. As legislation is in its hands, it may pass laws imposing on a minority restrictions which bear hardly on them. Whether it does this from a wish to beat down their resistance, or in the belief that such restrictions make for the interest of the community as a whole, in either case it restricts the action of the individual, and that perhaps where restriction may be needless or mischievous. Thus a new conception arises, giving rise to new questions, viz. the conception of Individual Liberty, an exemption from control in respect of matters not falling within either the old and accepted category of private civil rights, nor within the category of political rights.
Thus we find four kinds of Liberty whose relations have to be determined:
Civil Liberty, the exemption from control of the citizen in respect of his person and property.
Religious Liberty, exemption from control in the expression of religious opinions and the practice of worship.
Political Liberty, the participation of the citizen in the government of the community.
Individual Liberty, exemption from control in matters which do not so plainly affect the welfare of the whole community as to render control necessary.
These descriptions — they are not Definitions — are necessarily vague and general, for the conceptions of the matters that fall within each of the four terms aforesaid have varied and will continue to vary. Most vague, and indeed incapable of definition, are the matters that belong to the category of Rights of the Individual. Thinkers are not agreed as to what these rights are, yet none doubts their existence and their title to be protected. Each man has a presumptive right to enjoy that sort of natural exercise of free will which a bird has when it flits from bough to bough or soars singing into the sky. But when concrete examples begin to be adduced, what differences of view! Do laws forbidding the use of intoxicants, or the carrying of pistols, or limiting the hours during which a man may work, or suppressing lotteries, or punishing the advocacy of tyrannicide, or making vaccination compulsory, or fixing a minimum wage, or forbidding a gardener to groom his employer's horse, infringe either Individual Liberty or Civil Liberty in the old sense of the term? What is to be said of laws directed in some countries against certain religious orders, or of those which elsewhere forbid the intermarriage of white and coloured persons? These cannot be here discussed, but difficult as it is to find any line fixing the bounds of Individual Liberty, it is plain that the presumption is in favour of freedom, not only for the sake of securing to each man the maximum of harmless pleasures, but also in the interests of the community, for Individuality is precious, and the nation profits by the free play of its best minds and the unfettered development of its strongest characters. Individual Liberty, though it consists in exemption from control, has a Positive as well as a Negative side. It imports activity, it implies the spontaneous and pleasurable exercise of the powers of Willing and Doing.
What are the relations to one another of these several kinds of Liberty?
Civil Liberty may exist without Political Liberty, for a monarch or an oligarchy may find it well to recognize and respect it. But it was won by political struggles, and has in fact been seldom found where Political Liberty did not exist to guard it.
Conversely, the presence of Political Liberty practically involves that of Civil Liberty, at least in the old historical sense of that term, because in a self-governing people the majority are pretty certain to desire for each one among them the old and familiar securities for person and property, which are, however, in some free governments less ample than in English-speaking countries. This applies also to Religious Liberty. Yet it is easy to imagine a State in which an overwhelming majority of one persuasion, religious or anti-religious, would accord scant justice, or indulgence, to those who dissented from the dominant view.
As Individual Liberty consists in Exemption from Legal Control, so Political Liberty consists in participation in Legal Control. It is an Active Right. Between Individual Liberty and Political Liberty there is no necessary connection; each may exist without the other. An enlightened autocrat might think that discontent would be reduced if his subjects were given free scope for the indulgence of their tastes and fancies. But such rulers have been few. Monarchs have been surrounded by privileged aristocracies. An Absolute Government usually relies on its police, fears the free expression of opinion, is worked by a strong bureaucracy, naturally disposed to extend its action into the regulation of private life and the supersession of individual initiative. The individual has far better chances under constitutional government, for the spirit of democracy has generally fostered the sense of personal independence, and been a tolerant spirit, willing to let everybody seek his pleasure in his own way. Yet even popular government may care little for the “self-determination “or “self-realization “of the individual citizen.
It is hard to draw any line of demarcation between Civil Liberty and Individual Liberty. The distinction is rather historical than theoretical. Both consist in Exemption from Control, i.e. in the non-interference of State authority with the unfettered exercise of the citizens' will. But the conception of Civil Liberty was older than that of Individual Liberty. When men were fighting against oppression by kings or oligarchs, they assumed that there were certain restrictions to which every one must be subject by law, while there were certain other restrictions which must be abolished. It was against the latter, which nearly everybody felt to be oppressive, that they strove. Such were arbitrary arrests and general warrants and the power of the Executive over the Judiciary. What might be classed as being legitimate restrictions they did not stop to define, nor has anybody since succeeded in defining them, for the doctrines of thinkers as well as the notions of ordinary citizens have been different in different countries and have varied from time to time in the same country. Enough to say that although the conception of Individual Liberty may be made to include the exemptions our ancestors contended for in the seventeenth century, and though every kind of individual liberty may be called a Civil Liberty, there is this significant difference that the Civil liberties of those older days were extorted from arbitrary monarchs, whereas what we call Individual Liberty to-day has to be defended, when and so far as it needs defence, against the constitutional action of a self-governing community.
I pass by the cases in which a democratic nation has shown by its treatment of a subject country that it does not value the principles of liberty for their own sake — such cases as that of the Athenian democracy ruling over the outlying cities whom it called its allies, or that of some of the Swiss Cantons, in their rule over their subjects in the valleys south of the Alps. Nor need we stop to consider cases in which a compact majority of one colour denies equal rights to those of another colour who dwell in their midst, for these have special features that would need explanations out of place here. But it is worth while to note the tendencies which in many free countries have, in extending the scope of legislation and of the administrative interference of the State, encroached on the sphere in which individual will and action used to move unrestrained.
Our times have seen a growing desire to improve the conditions of the poorer classes, providing better houses and other health-giving conditions, fixing the hours of labour, raising wages, enacting compulsory methods for settling labour disputes. There is a wish to strike at the power of corporate wealth and monopolistic combinations by handing over large industries, or the means of transportation, or such sources of national wealth as coal and iron, to the State to be managed by it for the common benefit. There is also a passion for moral reform conspicuous in the effort to forbid the use of intoxicants. In these and other similar directions the power of the State seems to open the most direct way to the attainment of the aims desired. But every enlargement of the sphere of State action narrows the sphere left to the will of the individual, restricting in one way or another his natural freedom. So long as the people were ruled by a small class, they distrusted their rulers, and would have regarded administrative interference in many of the matters enumerated as a reduction of their liberty. But this jealousy of the State vanished when the masses obtained full control of the government. The administration is now their own: their impatience desires quick returns. “Why,” they say, “should we fear government? Why not use it for our benefit? Why await the slow action of ameliorative forces when we can set the great machine to work at fall speed?”
These tendencies have during the last half-century gained the upper hand, and have discredited, without refuting, the laissez-faire doctrine which had held the field of economic thought since the days of Adam Smith. They seem likely to keep the ground they have won. Regulative legislation may reduce the freedom of workmen and of employers, may take great departments of industry out of private hands, may impose new obligations and proscribe old forms of pleasure. A nation may, like the Prussian, submit to be forced into certain moulds'in order to secure the military strength or industrial organization or commercial prosperity which a skilled administration and the use of public money can create.1 Minorities may fare hardly at the hands of majorities apt to believe that numbers mean wisdom, and persuaded that if they choose to impose a restriction on themselves they are entitled to impose it upon others. Nevertheless, where the evident good of society is involved, individual preferences will be forced to give way on the ground that to arrest the will of a majority is to sacrifice their liberty, and so neglect the happiness of the greater number for that of the smaller. But, whatever the future may bring, the freedom of thought, speech, and writing do not seem at present threatened. The liberty of the press is a traditional principle in the popular mind; democratic habits foster the sense of personal independence and express themselves in the phrase “Live and Let Live.”
Two tendencies run through the history of the Church as well as of the State, both having roots deep in human nature. In daily life we note the presence of what may be called the centripetal and centrifugal forces in human society, the working of one set of tendencies which make some men desire a close and constant association with others, and of other tendencies which make other men desire to stand apart and follow their own bent. Some men are happy with Nature and books and their own meditations, others need the stimulus of constant intercourse with their fellows. In the Church the social impulse consolidated the early Christian communities under the bishop, and created monastic orders abjuring the free life of the world to dwell together, while introspection and the feeling of the direct relation of the soul to God produced the anchorites of the fifth and sixth centuries, and that strenuous assertion of the rights of individual conscience which came from the English Puritans of the seventeenth. “Without the one tendency, action would be disconnected and ineffective; without the other, thought would lose in variety and vigour; there would be less poetry and less philosophy. Ubi spiritus Domini, ibi Libertas. The world seems to have now entered an era in which the principles of associated action and of the dominance of the community are gaining strength. Though the Prussian doctrine of the State is un-welcome to English-speaking peoples, the policies it has suggested have been slowly, almost insensibly, supplanting the individualism of last century. The ideal of happiness may change from that of birds wantoning in the air to that of bees busy in carrying honey to the common hive. We perceive that the enthusiasm for liberty which fired men's hearts for a century or more from the beginning of the American Revolution down to our own time has now grown cool. The dithyrambic expression it found in the poets and orators of those days sounds strange and hollow in the ears of the present generation, bent on securing, with the least possible exertion, the material conditions of comfort and well-being.
Liberty may not have achieved all that was expected, yet it remains true that nothing is more vital to national progress than the spontaneous development of individual character, and that free play of intellect which is independent of current prejudice, examines everything by the light of reason and history, and fearlessly defends unpopular opinions. Independence of thought was formerly threatened by monarchs who feared the disaffection of their subjects. May it not again be threatened by other forms of intolerance, possible even in a popular government?
Room should be found in every country for men who, like the prophets in ancient Israel, have along with their wrath at the evils of their own time inspiring visions of a better future and the right to speak their minds. That love of freedom which will bear with opposition because it has faith in the victory of truth is none too common. Many of those who have the word on their lips are despots at heart. Those men in whom that love seemed to glow with the hottest flame may have had an almost excessive faith in its power for good, but if this be an infirmity, it is an infirmity of noble minds, which democracies ought to honour.1
Not less than any other form of government does democracy need to cherish Individual liberty. It is, like oxygen in the air, a life-giving spirit. Political liberty will have seen one of its fairest fruits wither on the bough if that spirit should decline.
Except of course where religious freedom was involved, for in such cases there was usually a section which supported persecution on behalf of its own faith.
A reaction against the extreme extension of State power has driven some philosophic minds into what is called Anarchism. Its principles, the attractiveness of which many of us have felt, do not solve the difficulty, for if anarchy means the withdrawal of legal control acting through State power, the door is opened to the rule of mere force, the force of the physically strong, in which the weak will go to the wall and individual liberty perish more completely than at the hands of the State.
Mazzini and Gladstone were, among the famous Europeans of the last generation, the two who seemed to those who talked with them most possessed by this faith.