The Concept of Freedom in Political Theory

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Why is the concept of freedom so contested in political theory? (Word maximum: 1,500)
Freedom is an important concept in Western politics, strongly entwined as it is with ideas of liberalism. Yet, as suggested by the question, the concept is one which is hotly debated. Indeed, political agents attempt to control the political agenda through promotion of their particular definition. This essay will look at the ways freedom has been defined by different theorists over the years. It will also look at how freedom is linked with and explained through different theories and ideologies. It will then go on to look at how these different theories and ideologies may shape the conceptions of freedom we find in our daily lives. Different political theorists, writing in different times, often of political turmoil, have considered freedom in many different ways. Three influential writers who took a normative approach were Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An important part of their arguments turned on their notions of a ‘state of nature’ – where natural law applied in absence of any organised political state. Hobbes (1651, cited in Brown, 2005), writing shortly after the English Civil War, argued that in a ‘state of nature’ individuals would be fearful for their own interests, resulting inevitably in war of all against all. To obviate this, Hobbes suggested that individuals should voluntarily accept restrictions – and invest their will in an absolute power (the monarchy) to make collective decisions for all. This restriction of individual freedoms would provide all with freedom from war. John Locke (1689, cited in Brown, 2005), writing shortly afterwards at a time during which many feared that King Charles II would indeed become an absolutist monarch, believed that a ‘state of nature’ would be a place of religion and morals where individuals had natural rights to property and life. They would surrender some rights to a state that would provide protection for some others. They would thus be free to enjoy their natural rights.Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762, cited in Brown, 2005) considered that freedom in the ‘state of nature’ as inferior to that which could be obtained in political society. Participation in the setting of rules for society and then obedience to them would bring a more complete freedom. Prudential theorists, however, like David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, rejected the concept of a ‘social contract’, arguing that there was no moral or other duty to obey and neither was there a ‘natural’ right to property (Brown, 2005). Rather, it was in people’s interests to live in a society which could make and enforce laws. However, the constructivist theorist Michel Foucault (1980, cited in Brown, 2005) saw at least freedom from power as something entirely more elusive. He viewed control and self-control as being all-pervasive in society and thought that those who struggled to be free of it did not understand its nature. But it is not just that freedom is a contested definition amongst political theorists; it is also a concept that is contested through its use and association with other theories and ideologies. Broadly speaking, freedom can be considered in two different ways – positive freedom and negative freedom (Smith, 2005). Positive freedom is often thought of as ‘freedom to’; in other words a society and political system which enables individuals to do the things and live the way they want. In contrast, negative freedom can be considered ‘freedom from’, in terms of absence of restrictions on individual behaviour. The idea of negative freedom has been criticised as it does not take into account the difference in circumstances between individuals. One may be free to take a cruise in the sense that it is open to all, but only people who can afford it can be considered to have a real choice and thus freedom. Through such arguments is the concept of equality linked with freedom. If equality of an outcome is sought,...
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