Examining the Political Significance of Liberty

  • 04 Pages
  • Published On: 2-12-2023
1. Introduction

John Mill has viewed liberty as a means to protect against the tyranny of the political rulers. This was his view of liberty at older times when the rulers derived their authority from conquest or inheritance and mostly did not hold the authority at the pleasure of the governed. The power of the ruler was regarded as a necessity to protect the weak from another strong authority. However, the power might also be abused and as such liberty sets a limit on the power (Mill, 1859, p.8). This essay will explore the concept of liberty or freedom and their political importance. This essay will refer to thoughts of John Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to examine the topic of this essay.

2. Liberty as limitation on governing authority

Mill stated that by setting a limitation of the power of the ruler, liberty came into existence as political liberties or rights, which if the ruler breached would justify a specific resistance. It also came into existence in the form of constitutional checks, where the consent of a community or a representing body was a necessary condition to acts of the governing power (Mill, 1859, p.9). The governing power normally submitted to the first form of limitation. It did not, however, on the second form of limitation. The second form of limitation holds more importance as subjects entitled to such liberty aimed to ensure its complete limitation (Mill, 1859, p.9).

According to Rousseau, liberty is described as the ability or inability of a community to politically free itself from the arbitrary preferences of its members. Thus, there is an objective of transparency providing substance to liberty where preferences of individuals are not guided by whimsical wants and desires (Putterman, 2010, p.10). The preferences must be based on the rationale collective will of the community. Collective will or interest takes primary objective over individual will or interest. As such, liberty must be grounded on justice and not arbitrariness (Putterman, 2010, p.10). The aspects of liberty as considered by Mill indicate an existence of the ability of the governed to put a check on and ensure compliance of the governing powers. There is a consequential action of the community in case the governing power does not comply with the liberties or rights of the community. The way liberty is described by Mill seems to differ from that of Rousseau even though they seem to mean the same. Rousseau puts the general objective of liberties in the form of justice and transparency that the governing power should abide by. The objective could be achieved by following the collective will of the community. Reading both the viewpoints, there is one area where the community must strive to ensure its liberties are intact by ensuring the governing power consent to that. Thus, the collective will that Rousseau propounded seems to be the overall objective of liberty. The next section will explore the degree of importance of liberties as a means available to the community to protect their liberties and in the functioning of the governing power

3. Liberty acts as constitutional checks and ensures consent to collective will

People’s right to liberty is codified in the legislation. For example, the Human Rights Act 1998 is an appropriate example for this. Section 1 provides for rights and fundamental freedoms set out in European Convention of Human rights. Section 12 and Section 13 provide for promoting freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion respectively. Section 11 provides for safeguarding for other existing human rights. Section 6 prohibits a public authority to act in non-conformity with ECHR right. Section 4 empowers the court to declare a provision of a law or a law incompatible with ECHR.

The provisions of the Act of 1998 demonstrate an existence of a legal framework that places a check on the governing states. The UK Parliament is the supreme authority, which is an elected body (Cooper, 2018). Provisions of the Act of 1998, particularly Section 4 empowers to court to act as a check on violation of human rights. There is, thus, a combination of positive freedom and negative freedom of a person. The former is, for example, the right to freedom of expression and the latter is, for example, the right of freedom not to be interfered with. The two aspects of liberty or freedom are highlighted by Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty. According to Berlin, the liberty that Rousseau speaks about is not liberty, the negative freedom that is not to be interfered with. It is liberty that is to be possessed not by some, but by all of the members of a society qualified to a share in the public power (Berlin, 2016, p.111). The public power can interfere with every aspect of all of the citizen’s life. However, the positive liberty if given would destroy many of the negative liberties that are held by people as secret (Berlin, 2016, p.111). This aspect of interference by public power could be seen in section 5(1) of the Act of 1998 where the Queen could interfere while the court is considering declaring incompatibility. This gives power to the state to interfere against the exercise of negative freedom. Mill stated that even if the government is elected by the people, it does not mean people have freedom. He stated that the governing power is different from the governed. The democratic government is not the government of “each by himself”. It is “each by the rest”. As such, he did not see any difference between the tyranny of the majority and of prevailing feeling and opinion and the tyranny that breaches men’s public freedom (Berlin, 2016, p.112). This last view seems to present a situation where the state or the Queen uses its power to interfere into people general right to freedom. It presents the extreme form of abuse by an elected government, which is no different from an autocrat that wills power due to inheritance or conquest that Mill observed.

Rousseau spoke about civil freedom, democratic freedom and moral freedom. According to him, a political system that is founded on a social contract would offer a number of different freedoms to its citizens. Civil liberty or civil freedom is without any external constraint (Simpson, 2006, p.48). However, it maybe interfered with by the exercised on state’s power. State power is limited by common good. However, state defines common good and as such the protection of civil liberty is not substantial. Mathew Simpson observed that the kind of civil freedom that Rousseau spoke about is an ideal situation where everyone does what they like but submit to the good of the community and refrained from harming one another (Simpson, 2006, p.54).

The problem with this characteristic of civil liberty is that the state decides common good and for that sake the state can interfere with someone’s common freedom (Simpson, 2006, p.54). For example in the case of R (Gillan and another) v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and another [2006] UKHL 12, the court held that “stop and search” provisions provided under the Terrorism Act 2000, Section 44 is lawful based on national security reason and does not breach ECHR rights. Such situation always presents a possibility on excessive exercise of state’s power leading to harassment of civilians. In order to avoid any excessive exercise of state’s power, Rousseau presented two checks, based on his theory of political power, on state’s power to interfere. Firstly, the law must apply to citizens in an equitable manner as all citizens are equal members of the social contract. Any interference must follow general rule of law thereby protecting the civil liberties. Secondly, any legislation cannot be enacted before it is submitted to the free suffrage of the people (Simpson, 2006, p.55). These two aspects hold true for the UK as the UK is bound by rule of law (Cooper, 2018). Law applies equally to all. A law is enacted after a public consultation. Hence, the concept and practice of liberty ensure the rule of law is intact and adhered to by the state. The concept of liberty indicates that individuals have a boundary within which they could exercise authority to express their freedom. It also means there is a corresponding authority of the society or the state over individual freedom. Mill states that the boundary for citizens, as Rousseau also stated, is in the form of refrain from injuring somebody’s interests and in the form of right to a share for their labours and sacrifices while defending the society (Mill, 1863, p.145).

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4. Conclusion

To conclude, liberty is a law that applies to both the governed and the governing. It guides both the actors in the functioning of the society. In defines their boundaries of their actions and their limitation. It acts as constitutional checks on the governing power and also sets out clear path for the people to exercise their rights.

Both Mill and Rousseau provide clear aspects of the concept of liberty or freedom. They also presented situation where the governing authority could exceed their power. At the same time, they also give a legal regime that curb such exercise of power.


Berlin, I., 2016. Two Concepts of Liberty. In R. Blaug, ed. Democracy: A Reader. Edinburgh University Press.

Cooper, T., 2018. Need to Know: Edexcel A-level Politics. Hodder Education.

Mill, J.S., 1859. On Liberty. J.W. Parker and son.

Mill, J.S., 1863. On Liberty. Ticknor and Fields.

Putterman, E., 2010. Rousseau, Law and the Sovereignty of the People. Cambridge University Press.

R (Gillan and another) v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and another [2006] UKHL 12

Simpson, M., 2006. Rousseau's Theory of Freedom. Continuum.

The Human Rights Act 1998

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