By Jeremy Jennings, Standpoint Magazine
What do we mean when we speak of liberty? Where does our understanding of the concept of liberty come from? These are important questions and arguably should inform all our thinking about politics. Both, in very different ways, are addressed in Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane, £20) and Daniel Hannan's How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (Head of Zeus, £20).
In its most straightforward sense, liberty is usually taken to be a condition in which an individual is not impeded from doing what he or she wants to do. This was a definition of liberty first firmly established by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. "A free man," Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, "is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to." An individual therefore remained free for as long as he or she was not physically or legally coerced by either other individuals or by the state. The extent of a person's liberty, Hobbes argued, depended upon "the Silence of the Law".
At least two conclusions followed from this. The first was that, of all the forms of coercion, it was arbitrary coercion by the state that was most to be feared. Such, Montesquieu observed in The Spirit of the Laws, was the nature of despotic government. Second, this simple definition of liberty largely assumed that there was a part of an individual's existence that rightly should remain beyond the interference of either the state or society. This argument was set out brilliantly by Benjamin Constant in his famous lecture of 1819, The Liberty of the Ancients compared with that of the Moderns, and was to be developed by John Stuart Mill when, in On Liberty, he made the important, if problematic, distinction between the "self-regarding" and the "other-regarding" actions of an individual. It was only the latter that were amenable to control by society.
Of course, this understanding of liberty has not gone unchallenged. A definition of liberty in terms of non-interference, it is argued, begs the question of how liberty is actually realised. Having the right to own property, it is suggested, means little if as a matter of fact the vast majority do not have the wealth to acquire property. Accordingly, we can only be said to be truly free if we have the power to satisfy our wishes. Much confusion has followed from this proposition. As Friedrich von Hayek commented, liberty does not mean all good things. To be free may mean the freedom to starve.
But where do our ideas about the meaning of liberty come from? This is the topic addressed by Larry Siedentop in his erudite and elegantly-written Inventing the Individual. No doubt to the dismay of many, Siedentop's thesis is that our modern understanding of human agency, and therefore of the liberty of the individual, has its roots deep in the moral intuitions of Christianity.