Edmund Burke on liberty as “social” not “individual” liberty (1789)

Edmund Burke

A year before he published his full critique of the French Revolution Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote to a young Frenchman and offered his definition of liberty. His was not “unconnected, individual, selfish liberty” but a “social freedom” which is “secured by well-constructed institutions”:

Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

In this passage from a letter written to a young Frenchman François Depont in November 1789 only 4 months after the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke makes a very clear distinction between two theories of liberty. The first is the individualist notion of liberty (described by Burke as “solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish”) which was based upon the natural rights of the individual to the unfettered enjoyment of their life, liberty, and property. This was the notion of liberty accepted by most of the American Revolutionaries and the more moderate constitutional branch of the French Revolutionaries. The second notion, the one he preferred, was “social” in nature, where various institutional and legal “restraints” were in place to prevent any one person from “regulat(ing) the whole of his conduct by his own will”. The strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories was hotly debated in the late 18th century which you can follow in this collection of texts on The Debate about the French Revolution. The issue often came down to the following questions: to what extent do existing institutions make the exercise of liberty possible, to what extent do those same institutions violate the rights of individuals, and how does one resolve that tension?