Study Material



-- Amaresh Ganguly

 Zakir Husain College

After reading this lesson you will be familiar with:

·         The Concept of Rights.

·         The Concepts of Liberty and Equality  

The most basic concepts of politics are Rights, Liberty, Equality, Justice and Property, The other important concepts are State, Democracy, Citizenship, Identity and Civil Society.  


The Concept of Rights 

It had not always been felt throughout history that all human beings are entitled to rights (and recognition). Kings and religious Clergy/Priests for instance in many societies have had more rights than commoners. But the with the onset of early classical liberalism there had been a demand raised for equal rights and recognition on the basis that all men are born equal particularly by the newly rich trading bourgeois who felt that while they had the same wealth as feudal lords and princes they did not have the same legal and social power. Later socialism added it’s own interpretation to the concept of rights and recognition who were followed by the Positive Liberals in the early part of the twentieth century. By the middle of that century the concept of rights was well accepted and fairly universally excepting in the cases some special countries like South Africa and some Islamic states like Saudi Arabia in the Middle East where women have till today been not granted the status of full human beings both in theory and practice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 cemented the legitimacy of rights forever in a way. 

Each school of thought defined rights and recognition in it’s own way. The central question or theme on the basis of which views have differed has been on what basis rights and recognition should be given to the individual? . Over three hundred or so years in the development of the concept since the birth of liberalism different theories have been propounded which have based their justification for rights (and recognition) on different bases. The main theories of rights have been:

1.      Theory of Natural Rights

2.      Theory of Legal Rights

3.      Historical Theory of Rights

4.      Idealist/Moral Theory of Rights

5.      Social Welfare Theory of Rights

6.      Recent Liberal Theory of Rights

7.      Marxist Theory of Rights.


The Theory of Natural Rights was the first plea for rights in the western world on the basis that naturally by birth man is entitled to some rights and there are no requirement of birth, family position, social position, wealth etc that can be imposed. John Locke, the classic liberal had declared all men are born with some inherent rights and ‘God gives them to his children just as he gave them arms, legs, eyes, and ears’. The social contract theorists like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau argued that man had these basic rights before the origin of the State and he surrendered some of them to a superior authority, i.e., civil society to safeguard his other rights from encroachment to obtain the benefits of community living. Hobbes called the right to life a natural right, Locke the rights to life, liberty and property whereas Rousseau said that liberty and equality are gifts of nature. They argued the individual cannot surrender these rights to the state. The theory of natural rights came under attack and disapproval of later thinkers. The great utilitarians did not find the idea that man had rights before the advent of and prior to the relationship with the state. They argued rights can only be conferred by the law. English political and legal thinker Edmund Burke argued rights can only be on the basis of customs and sentiments of the society in which an individual lives. The main points of criticism of the natural theory have been along the following lines: 

(a)    If an individual’s rights are absolute then the society cannot touch them even in conflicting situations where the interest of the most members of society by restricting those rights. For instance in a famine, if a man asserts his right to property on one side and hoards food and on the other hand many others lose their rights to life as a consequence, there is conflict.

(b)   It was argued rights are there due to social recognition for the same. So there cannot be any inherent rights. Green pointed out every right must be justified in terms of ends, which the community considers good and that which cannot be attained without rights. The positive liberals like Green and Laski related rights with useful functions in society. 

(c)    The natural theory assumed one can have rights and obligations independent of society but many thinkers have argued the question of rights emerges only in the society and in the context of social relationships.

(d)   Also many thinkers have felt to use the term ‘natural right’ lands one in a tricky situation because one cannot define and justify what ‘natural’ means.

 The Theory of Legal Rights was propounded by the legal philosophers, and utilitarians like Bentham, who argued all rights of man are derived from law and law itself is based upon utility. Law and rights he said are simply two aspects of something, which is essentially one: law the objective aspect and right the subjective. The state draws up and lays down a bill of rights and so the rights are not prior to the state but from the existence of the state itself. It is also the legal framework of the state that guarantees rights. It is again the state which changes the content of rights whenever it wants. But they accepted that rights may not necessarily be the creation of the state but they become rights only when they are enforced by the state. The legal theory of rights was rejected by the later positive liberal thinkers (and others) who argue along the following lines:

(a)   The legal theory did not cover the whole range of rights. There are rights we enjoy from our society that often don’t enjoy legal recognition but they exist nevertheless.

(b)   It seems the legal theory only accepts only those rights, which are drawn up by the state and legally enforced and recognised. Laski argued men enjoy rights not merely as members of the state but also as members of the society and various associations and relationships in society. He found the idea of limiting rights to one source, the state, unacceptable and strange.

(c)    If the state and the law are the sole source of rights then there is no right against the state. The liberal writers like Green and Laski saw the need to resist the state in certain circumstances. As Laski argued the material source of rights is the community’s sense of justice and not the law. Law is nothing but the concretisation of the feelings of the community and hence the obedience to the state is obedience to right and not might and obedience to the law is obedience to the justice and not authority. 

 The Historical Theory of Rights has its origin in the writings of Savigny and Puchta in Germany, Sir Henry Maine and Edmund Burke in England and James Carter in the USA. The position taken by these thinkers was that all rights are derived from the character of the state and the law, which are in turn basically entirely historical in nature. They are all a product of history. Burke argued for instance that the French Revolution gave rights to the French people, which were not a part of their historical common consciousness, and so after the revolution and the execution of the King the system could not sustain and the revolution turned into a dictatorship. Rights are the crystallization of custom, the historical school argued, which in the course of time become rights.  If there is a tradition of certain rights or there are rights which people are accustomed to having then people start assuming they ought to have those rights. Or in other words custom is the original form of law and most of the rights according to the historical school are those, which turn out to have had the sanction of the longest and least broken custom. It appears the historical theory was principally an attack on the natural law theorist and on the analytical school of jurisprudence to regain the old conservative traditional positions. The theory obviously does not bother to distinguish between what would be right and wrong in customs as a source of law. If somebody argued that he had a right to keep slaves, indulge in polygamy, apartheid etc could he be allowed to stand his ground. Will people wait for the day when abominable customs and traditions change so that they can have basic rights. Progressive reform and social justice comes to a stop if this theory is accepted and hence this theory is almost laughable.

The Idealist/Moral Theory of Rights holds that the basis of all rights is morals and neither nature’s actions, nor law, nor customs etc. Every individual has a moral self and the need to develop his personality and rights provide the environment to help man in his journey of moral upliftment. Since everybody in society has the same aim of developing his personality it implies that rights arise only in the context of a society and the rights of the individual are to be in harmony with those of others. So the individual’s rights are a part of serving the common good as well. Rights are recognised by the society and enforced by the state and so there is no question of rights without the state. So positive liberals Green supported the moral theory and aw it as supportive of their idea of a welfare state.  The moral theory bases its concept of rights on morals but it has been pointed out that moral rights are contextual rather than universal because they are limited to people who share a common code of morality.

 The Social Welfare Theory of Rights was a combination of the various theories of rights that came before it like those that were based on natural rights, legal, ideal or historical. This theory was developed by the positive liberals and to support their prescription of a welfare state. The major contributors were T.H. Green, G.D.H. Cole, L.T. Hobhouse, Harold Laski, Ernest Barker etc. Their central proposition was that a law, custom, natural right etc should all yield to what is socially useful or socially desirable. As Hobhouse put it: ‘Genuine rights are conditions of social welfare and the various rights owe their validity to the functions they perform in the harmonious development of society’. Laski commented on this concept of rights extensively in his book A Grammar of Politics and made the following major points as follows:

(a)    The concept of Rights emerges only in the context of a society. A right is at once a private claim of the individual and a right shared with others together in a community situation. Hence when promoting individual rights the common good is and must be served. 

(b)   An individual can claim and justify rights only in relation to the functions he performs in society for the social good. 

(c)    Rights are a claim against the state and the state must enable the realisation of rights. The state can put limitations on rights in the interest of social welfare of the society as whole but if these restrictions become unreasonable then it looses it’s moral authority and then the individual has not only a right but a duty to resist the state.

(d)   Since establishment of rights are a condition for social welfare, the state must guarantee some rights like the right to work, a right to a minimum or adequate wage, a right to reasonable hours of work, education and the right to participate in industry. The state also needs to limit the right to property.

(e)    The authority of the state must be limited, democratic and decentralised. The state must not be alien to the citizen and there must be active and proper communication between the two.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century there has been a new wave of Liberal Theories of Rights dominated by thinkers like John Rawls and Robert Nozic who in turn have inspired other writers in the same tradition. While Rawl was clearly a positive liberal in the Keynesian tradition Robert Nozic was a in the neo-liberal tradition that is really a re-incarnation of the early classic liberals in many ways. So while Nozic argued for unbridled free markets and free trade capitalism, and a minimal state, Rawls argued for the welfare state concept while preserving the capitalist system. Nozic asserts ‘individuals have rights and there are no things persons or groups may do to them (without violating their rights)’[1]. What he basically meant by that was the right to own property and to profit unrestrictedly from using that property through trade but the moral logic he adopted to build his theory was based on celebrating the individualistic nature of man. He argued individuals must be the ends and not the means and hence individual’s rights are supreme and society can not restrict them I the interest of the common good. Respect for rights he suggested was respecting people’s rights to be equal. He negates the idea of welfare rights of the individual as held in the positive liberal tradition. His far right concept of property rights excludes any welfare rights and their protection by the state. He also suggest all political institutions are coercive by definition and must command the unanimous assent of the governed. Every individual lives in his own exclusive domain and must not be disturbed. He is the owner of himself and his talents and property and he should have full freedom with no restrictions even in the interest of societal good to put them to whatever use he wants. Rawls on the hand used the words ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ interchangeably. All rights emerge from justice. To do justice rights are granted and they may also be taken away for the same reason. He was of the view rights should guarantee a fair share of economic resources. The social and economic inequalities should be managed and such that those with the least material goods such as income , wealth, education etc get a larger share than they have been getting. But Rawls does not wish to change the basic structure of the market economy with it’s inevitable creation of extreme material inequalities but wants the system of taxation for instance to be so designed that leads to some level of redistribution of goods to the worse off in society. He advocated that people’s rights to social goods should not be dependent upon their natural endowments. 

 The Marxist Theory of Rights would be a bit of a misnomer because the Marxists never really attempted to propagate a separate theory of rights but offered a great critique of the liberal ‘bourgeois’ concept of rights. He argued economic inequalities lead to political inequalities and make most constitutionally guaranteed liberal rights meaningless. Marx made the following points in his criticism of the bourgeois concept of rights:

(a)    Most rights guaranteed in a liberal constitutional set up are abstract and formal and useless really unless institutional changes were introduced by law to make the rights a living reality. For example the right to life means nothing if it doest mean the right to means of subsistence on which life depends. Marx made the point that property ownership does not merely give the holder of property the power over the thing that he owns but also power over men because the property is also a means of production and using that means of production men earn their living. The owner of the property or the means of production can easily exclude who ever he fancies. That means whoever is excluded for whatever reason becomes jobless and hence must starve.        

(b)   Equality of rights is an essential condition for achieving social justice but it is not enough. That is because the rich always are protected and given justice differently from the poor due to the influence of the money power. Hence Marx declared ‘every right is in general a right of inequality’ in a liberal set up. A right to be equal only ends up meaning a right to be unequal due to the power of capital or money or property of the rich.

(c)    Rights granted by the state constitutionally can never make them a de facto reality but they are dependent on the economic structure and cultural development of society for a real existence.

(d)   Rights were hence not as important as setting up a classless society in a revolutionary struggle which is the only way to achieve socio-economic and structural conditions that will endure on a permanent basis and not get corrupted or distorted and guarantee real de facto equal rights.             


 The word liberty is derived from the word liber which means ‘free’. We all want to be free and have as much freedom as possible. But what exactly to be free means or should mean. Should there be restrictions on freedom and what and how much? . What if the freedoms enjoyed by two people leads them to come into conflict. Such questions have been attracting thinkers from the earliest times.

 Almost all liberal thinkers commented on liberty but they all brought their own flavour to it and one can't assert that there is an exact uniform view. Also this is one concept on which the views have been more philosophical and ethical than either political or political-economic. Hobbes defined liberty as the ‘absence of external impediments, which impediments may oft take part of man’s power to do what he would do’[2]. For the German philosopher Hegel, liberty strangely was simply obedience to the law. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important thinkers in the liberal tradition, commented ‘the only freedom that deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it’[3]. Later after the limits of liberal capitalism became apparent. Marxian and Socialist thinking emerged to interpret liberty as (1) liberation from the coercive social apparatus and institutions (which the working class faces), and (2) to establish an atmosphere in which man could build a world according to the needs of humanity as opposed the needs of capital and capitalists who own the capital.

 Post the socialist critique of the liberal interpretations of liberty, the positive liberals in the early part of the twentieth century refined the old liberal notions. Laski, for instance, defines liberty as the ‘absence of restraints upon the existence of those social conditions which in modern civilisation are a necessary guarantee of individual happiness’[4]. And McPherson defined liberty as living life to the fullest. (Obviously he meant if you had all the freedom and liberty but not enough food or decent shelter and were worked like an animal or a machine all day, liberty would be a theoretical meaningless notion for you.) 

 So at one stage of history, liberty merely was understood to be ‘absence of restraint’ in the free competition of men with being law being as ‘silent’ as possible and ‘state interference’ at its least. Soon it was realized after the experience of a century or so, that liberty needs to be ‘attained’ by all and can not merely be left to the lack of impediments. The state and social institutions need to actively help in that process of attainment it was left. So while the earlier concept of liberty which was in the nature of  bar on the state was a sort of a ‘negative liberty’ the latter conception asking for the involvement of the state and society in helping people get achieving liberty was ‘positive liberty’.

 There are three problems or aspects that arise when analysing or thinking about the concept of liberty:

(i)              the nature of liberty

(ii)            the institutions to safeguard liberty and

(iii)          hindrances to achieve liberty.

As far as the ‘nature of liberty’ is concerned the early Liberal thinkers were obsessed with individual liberty, may be because they were principally fighting against medieval orthodoxy, feudalism, ignorance, and a society based on privileges of kings and landed feudal lords. They were arguing that once man is freed from these chains, man will individually, each according to his preference, find his own individual happiness. All that was needed was rule of law and political rights, representative government with separation of powers and independence of the judiciary. Political parties were conceived and became the principal ‘institutions’ to safeguard liberty. It was realised it is not enough for the rights and freedoms to be granted but there was a need for institutions like political parties, parliament etc. But since the number of people who would unselfishly and honestly uphold liberty and who had the means to do so was extremely small due to the class divide in society, Socialist and Marxist ideas of liberty emerged which argued that ‘hindrances’ in the path of liberty are not only the absolute and dictatorial political institutions, the removal of which will provide liberty, but also much more deep rooted and difficult problems like poverty, hunger, ignorance, alienation, and economic inequality etc. (They also argued women, who were one-half the population of course have always been denied liberty.) They argued that a collective initiative was needed from humanity as a whole in which some people may even loose their individual liberties which liberalism considers as sacred. So the emphasis moved on from preventing the state or anybody else denying an individual living his life to asking what would the quality of that life be? .

 Liberal thinking on liberty changed from negative liberty to positive liberty over a century and a half, from Adam Smith to Hobhouse and Laski, from the notion of ‘silence of laws’ as liberty to ‘the presence of socio-economic conditions and political conditions’ to ensure true freedom.

 The development of the initial concept of negative liberty happened over a century or so as a result of the contribution of thinkers like Adam Smith (1723-90), John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, Bentham and John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Later in the second half of the last century, mainly among some economists, advocating maximised free markets and free international trade, the early concepts of liberty made a comeback. Thinkers like economists like F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Robert Nozic etc and Sir Isaiah Berlin, also sometimes referred to as neo-liberals, are the principal advocates of this latest trend in liberal thought.

 The most eloquent of the early liberals who advocated what we now call Negative Liberalism was John Stuart Mill (1806-73) whose essay On Liberty (1859) went beyond mere liberty from the interference of the state. It also talked of liberty for the individual from the pressures of society, public opinion and social customs and conventions. He really saw liberty as the means to an end, the end being self-development. (This was also the concern of the classical Green thinkers like Socrates and Plato.) As long as an individual did not harm others or interfere with others interests he should be free to pursue his own development and interests the way he wanted or deemed good. So even if a person wanted to smoke, drink, gamble, take drugs, watch pornographic films all day and even decide to commit suicide, he should be free to do so because these are his personal individual decisions and he needs to have full liberty to pursue his own path of growth.

(It is safe to assume Mill would had no problem with many of the modern debates of the day like marriage between homosexuals or allowing full freedom for abortion or allowing euthanasia. He would have heartily supported all of them. Quite something for a man of that long ago clearly.)  

 Mill also of course, like other early liberals, extended his theme of personal liberty to the economic sphere to advocate what Adam Smith had advocated a hundred or so years back - that is the capitalist model of classical economics, which saw maximum economic benefit for all in allowing and promoting maximum economic licence and freedom for operations in trade and commerce.

 Mill was convinced social and political progress depended mainly on the originality and energy of the individual and his free choice and so every encouragement was needed for each person to assert himself in his own peculiar way. For this reason very interestingly he objected even to state provisions for education because he feared this may lead to brain-wash or to the moulding of each person like another. Most significantly for his times, he was even suspicious of democracy for he felt it could lead to the tyranny of the majority over the minority and wanted protection for the minority from the interference of a democratic state. He commented:

‘The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic… such phrases as ‘self-government’ and ‘ the power of the people over themselves’, do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people… precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitations, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community… and in political speculations ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society is required to be on its guard’[5].

 (This was probably the earliest realisation by any thinker of the perils of oppressive rule by a majority that democracy clearly can lead to. This was also the reason one has to assume why Mohd. Ali Jinnah asked for the partition of India and the creation of a separate state of Pakistan at the time of the partition of India for he feared that without the presence of the British the Hindu majority would use it’s majority position to create a parliamentary tyranny against the Muslim minority. Also another example of a more personal liberty being violated would be the recent reports from some states where some universities have tried to impose a dress code on women students barring them from wearing jeans to college and have received the support of some elected representatives for the same as well. Clearly this would be a case of a minority of the population of girl students who want to wear jeans to college having to face a bar on their personal liberty with the support of democratically elected representatives who are by definition winners of majority support in a society. Similarly but morally at a different level perhaps would  be the recent case of the issue of closure of Dance Bars in Mumbai where a minority of the people, those who work for dance bars and those visit them are seeing their personal liberties, the liberals of the Mill pattern of thinking would argue, being trampled upon and extinguished by the majority. One can look for and find numerous examples from our colourful and varied democracy even, where in however small a way, there is a tyranny of the majority.)

Apart from Mill in more recent times, the neo-liberals like Sir Isaiah Berlin, Cranston and Milton Friedman have gone back to many of the views of the early negative liberals. Sir Isaiah for instance has commented that ‘you lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings’[6]. He even said that if a man is free to purchase food or go on a world tour, but can not do so for lack of money, it his fault – he has the liberty but he himself is incapable of enjoying it. He comments:

‘If my poverty were a kind of disease, which prevented me from buying bread or paying for the journey, or getting my case heard, as lameness prevents me from running, this inability would not naturally be described as a lack of freedom, least of all political freedom’[7]. He clearly distinguished between the presence of liberty and the socio-economic and political-economic conditions necessary for enjoying liberty. He says for instance:

‘Thus the distinction between freedom and the conditions for freedom is not a mere pedantic distinction, for if it is ignored, the meaning and value of freedom of choice is apt to be downgraded. In their zeal to create social and economic conditions in which alone freedom is of genuine value, men tend to forget freedom itself’[8]

 So clearly, the main characteristics of the belief system of the liberals - the classic early negative liberals and the more recent neo-liberals also to some extent are the following:

1.      All individuals are rational beings and know what his interests are.

2.      Liberty is essentially negative – the absence of restraints.

3.      The state or society can not interfere with an individuals liberty. The main liberties, which are all personal essentially, the liberties of thought and discussion, of association and assembly.

4.      There is no conflict between personal interest and collective social interest for it is by serving his own interests that an individual serves the social interest. Personal liberty is a pre-condition of any social progress.

5.      Those actions of individuals which influence or harm the society can be controlled and stopped by the state through the use of  laws and the justice system but this interference should be the minimum.

6.      There should be a constitutional guarantee against the state taking away personal liberties through laws. Even people’s representatives sitting in parliamentary democracy should not have the right to enact laws beyond a point that take away an individual’s liberties. Democracy is not a sufficient guarantee of personal liberties as it may lead to the tyranny of the majority over the minority.

7.      There is a difference between liberty and necessary socio-economic conditions for the realisation of liberty. Liberty may be against justice and equality. Free market capitalism is the only system for organising economic activity, which ensures the liberty of each individual and also optimises production and economic benefit in any society.

 The objection that one can have in accepting the above negative concept of liberty are of three kinds:

1.      Philosophical (One finds it hard to believe that man is either as isolated and individualistic or selfish or rational in choice as they assume. In fact most of us would argue that man is essentially a social animal. Man has lived in united and collective communities since time immemorial and has formulated social rules and customs for smooth functioning of societies. They have not been felt as a bar or restriction on free operation for character and personality development at all times and by all participants. There have been exceptions of course. And also of course the case of women and lower castes in the Indian context is totally different.) 

2.      Moral (Morally freedom to do as one wills or ‘free will’ can be quite difficult to digest at times. What if one man’s freedom is harming another and the man doing the harm cannot or fails to see that he is harming others. It can be argued moral norms exist not against freedom but they exist to ensure the right use of freedom.)

3.      Economic (Free competition and markets as will be later discussed often only leads to the wild volatile gyrations or up and down in prices of commodities and services, leaving for the duration of those extremes in pricing the poor and the vulnerable without the availability of those essential commodities and services even those without which life is not possible and can cause starvation for instance. Also free markets over time it has been observed leads to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those individuals and families who emerge the winners in the free market business competition that the early negative liberals and modern day neo-liberals advocate. What about others? . Should they be forgotten about? . What use is there to argue that the losers in the free competition or the poor have all the rights and they need only work their way up using those rights when clearly only a few at any given time can be the winners and all the rest must be the losers given the nature of the game. There can be only a few winners in any game and there is a winner only if there is a loser. This realisation led to the development of Socialist and Marxist thought and even to the new school of Liberal thinking that is called Positive Liberalism and is discussed below.)  

After the Socialist and Marxist critique of the liberal view of the world the middle of the nineteenth century onwards and following the historic lacuna that capitalism in the classical liberal sense threw up in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century (which peaked in the Great Depression of 1929), a new positiveconcept of liberty emerged which as explained above is also referred to as Positive Liberalism. The foremost thinkers of this new school of liberal thought were Green, Bosanquet, Barker and Laski. In more recent times McPherson, John Gray and John Rawls have also made noteworthy contributions. The positive concept of liberty emphasises the moral and social aspect of man and views liberty in relation to society, socio-economic conditions for the realisation of liberty, law, morality, justice and equality. Liberty according to the positive liberals is a positive thing and is not merely the absence of restraint.

 The most influential of positive liberal thinking that emerged was that of H. J. Laski. He defined liberty as follows:

‘By liberty I mean the eager maintenance of that atmosphere in which men have the opportunity to be their best selves.Liberty, therefore, is a product of rights… Without rights there cannot be liberty, because without rights men are the subjects of law unrelated to the needs of personality. Liberty, therefore, is a positive thing. It does not merely mean absence of restraint’[9]

Taking the opposite view of John Stuart Mill, he declared ‘Liberty thus involves in its nature restraints, because the separate freedoms I use are not freedoms to destroy the freedoms of those with whom I live’[10]. While he believed that personal liberty cannot be enjoyed in isolation from society he did nevertheless maintain that liberty should not be left at the mercy of the State because ‘state action is action by government… Liberty, therefore, is never real unless the government can be called to account; and it should always be called to account when it invades rights’[11].


Laski classified liberty into three kinds – private, political and economic. He saw all of them as essential for the development of the human personality. By private liberty he understood mainly the personal individual liberty, which he saw essentially as negative like the negative liberals. Political liberty he defined ‘means the power to be active in the affairs of the state. It means that I can let my mind play freely about the substance of public business’[12].  He saw the need for two conditions to prevail for political liberty to be real. One, education and the other, provision of an honest and straight forward supply of news. Economic liberty he defined as ‘the security and opportunity to find reasonable significance in the earning of one’s daily bread… I must be safeguarded against the wants of tomorrow’[13]. Thus he clearly sees political and economic liberty as meaningless without the necessary conditions being available for their realisation. The responsibility for creating these conditions Laski saw as principally a job of the government and hence Laski supported positive intervention of the state. Laski therefore put down three positive conditions that are required for liberty to be achievable and to be meaningful:

1.The Absence of Special Privileges: No person, family or class or group od persons in a society can be granted special privileges according to Laski for liberty to be achieved. Special privileges he opined are incompatible with freedom and search for freedom is a characteristic of all humans alike. Thus liberty is possible only when equality is there.

2. The Presence of Rights: Liberty can only be enjoyed in the presence of rights. There cannot ‘be liberty where the rights of some depends upon the pleasure of others’[14] and it is the duty of the state to maintain equal rights.

3. Responsible Government: The government must be responsible which means it is responsible for creating the socio-economic conditions and political conditions so that all can realise liberty and rights in actual practice. Or in other words the government should be a welfare state.

(Later in 1929 Laski reacting mainly to the rise of fascism changed his views somewhat. He wrote in the send edition of his book A Grammar of Politics in 1929:

‘In 1925, I thought that liberty could most usefully be regarded as more than a negative thing. I am now convinced that this was a mistake, and the old view of it as an absence of restraint can alone safeguard the personality of the citizens’.

 In more recent times, the liberal thinker McPherson has forcefully argued for positive liberty and has preferred to rename it developmental liberty even though he has argued there is no division between negative and positive liberty. Not accepting the logic for the classification or division of liberties he has argued negative liberty is the absence of any extractive power and it is counter-extractive liberty. Counter-extractive liberty meaning that in which there is no exploiting force in the society and it is a precondition to developmental liberty. McPherson defined liberty to mean availability of life (or life’s basics) and labour (or employment) to each member of society. He suggested that capitalist mode of production, based on private property, should be replaced by some other system. Liberty cannot merely be the negative liberty he argued because the liberty of one individual (to trade and engage in accumulation of wealth through business for instance without any limit or bar of the state) can destroy the liberty of another individual (the worker for instance who becomes like a slave to his owner employer after some time). He comments since ‘each individual’s liberty must diminish or destroy another’s, the only sensible way to measure individual liberty is to measure the aggregate net liberty of all the individuals in a given society’[15]. By focussing on total liberty of all in a society McPherson is giving importance to the social dimensions of liberty.

 John Gray put the same thoughts more clearly:

‘The political content of the positive view of liberty is that if certain resources or amenities are needed for self-realisation to be effectively achievable, then having these resources must be considered a part of freedom itself’[16]

(It is the content of the above thoughts of the positive liberals starting with Laski’s in the early part of the twentieth century that led to the gradual development of the concept of welfare state as freedom enhancing or establishing institutions particularly after the Keynesian revolution in Economics. In India too, what is referred to as ‘Nehruvian Socialism’ - for the welfare state that Nehru launched after independence from the British - had its roots in this school of thought.)  

Liberty – The Two Concepts




1. Focuses on the personal aspect of man’s liberty and regards it as inherent to the personality of an individual.

1. Looks upon it in totality in the socio-economic and political conditions of society.

2. Sees liberty mainly as absence of restraints.

2. Emphasizes the essential availability of positive conditions for meaningful realisation of liberty by individuals in society.

3. Sees the state as an enemy of personal liberty.

3. Sees the state as the essential responsible agency for creating socio-economic and other conditions, which will ensure the realisation of liberty.

4. Emphasizes the personal philosophical and political aspects of liberty.

4. Emphasizes the social and economic aspects of liberty.  

5. Does not wish to associate concepts of rights, equality, morality and justice with the concept of liberty.

5. Regards liberty, justice and equality as mutually related and different aspects of one and the same thing.

6. Wants the state to be minimised and as tiny as possible.

6. Wants a welfare state that will actively intervene to create adequate socio-economic and political conditions for a meaningful realisation of liberty.

7. Believer in the concept of each man for himself. Free competition between free men that will maximise utility for society as a whole with no special allowance or care shown for those left behind or the losers of the free competition.

7. Believer that man is a social animal and hence collective effort for collective benefit via the welfare state is the way forward if necessary by denying the absolute right to private property. (The Socialist also supported this view.)


It has already been explained how and in what circumstances the rise of radical Socialist and Marxist thought happened as a reaction to early negative liberal thinking just as that classical negative liberal thinking had emerged in reaction to the feudal-monarchical mercantilist order that preceded the rise of liberalism. The early liberals were supporters of free market capitalism that by the middle of the nineteenth century had begun to show its limitations. While there was great development new industry and technology led manufacturing and great wealth as a consequence for some individuals and families, there was also emerging oppression, exploitation, unemployment and starvation and liberty it was clear was while being available in theory was not available in practice for the vast majority.    

 The Socialists (as indeed the later positive liberals) were unwilling to accept the absolute nature of the right to property and property accumulation that the Negative Liberals advocated. They argued that liberty has no meaning if you did not have the basics – food, clothing and shelter. And that free market capitalism eventually leads to the real (as opposed to theoretical) undermining of liberties in this sense because a vast majority loose or don’t have the basics.  Further that there needs to be central planning and intervention in the economy and government ownership of productive resources, either fully or substantially, for the creation of conditions that will aid the realisation of liberties.

 Marxian Socialism went further and suggested the complete abolition of private property  or any productive resource (not the most fundamental basics like personal belongings etc). Karl Marx (1818-1883), the most influential socialist thinker in history, went so far as to predict that on its own a point is reached in a capitalist free market economy where the majority of the population, the working class, rise in revolt at their plight of exploitation and misery at the hands of the upper classes and owning classes, and overthrow their rule to establish the rule of the ‘proletariat’.

 Marx carried out an incisive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the sort of capitalism that prevailed in his day in the middle of the nineteenth century and argued that all commodity value is determined by labour content – direct and indirect in the form of capital equipment like machinery. For example, the value of a shirt comes from the efforts of the textile workers who put it together, plus the efforts of the workers who made the looms.  By implying that the value of the output is really the value of the labour ultimately, Marx showed in a mathematically argued theory that the part of the output that is produced by workers but received by capitalists amounts to “unearned income” which Marx saw as an injustice. He also argued that technological advances enable capitalists to replace workers with machinery as a means of earning greater profits, but this increasing accumulation of capital has two contradictory consequences. As the supply of available capital increases, the rate of profit on capital falls but at the same time, with fewer jobs, the unemployment rate rises, and wages fall. Marx’s predicted the “reserve army of the unemployed” would grow, and the working class would grow progressively alienated from their jobs because working conditions would deteriorate. So he concluded this unbalanced growth could not continue forever. He predicted that there would be an ever increasing economic inequality which would lead to the gradual emergence of class consciousness among the downtrodden proletariat. Business cycles would become ever more volatile as mass poverty resulted in macroeconomic under consumption. Finally a cataclysmic depression would sound the death knell of capitalism. Just as happened with feudalism before it, capitalism would contain the seeds of its own destruction.  

(The Great Depression of the 1920s in the western world, particularly in America, and the overthrow of the Russian Czar and the Russian Revolution were the high points of Marx’s predictive model coming true - it has to be accepted. But then Positive Liberal thinking arrived on the scene and under the leadership of economists like J.M. Keynes massive reforms were carried out to the capitalist model, and capitalism the 1920s and 1930s onwards, wasn’t the same as that of the nineteenth century. Massive investments and interventions were undertaken by the state in the economy (by creating massive productive resources in the public sector) and the business environment and concepts like ‘minimum wage’ and maximum working hours introduced for workers under President F.D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) rule, for instance, in America. All measures that nowadays would be promptly dubbed “leftist” and hence somewhat suspect under the neo-liberal influenced and dominated economic and social policy environment that we live in.)  

 He felt deeply for the animal like plight of the working class at the receiving end of both the business owning employers (capitalist class) and the state and state institutions, who were usually under the influence of the capitalist owners. This led him to give a call for the overthrow of the capitalist class in the Communist Manifesto (1848) saying: ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains’. His also penned the following words that appear on his gravestone:

‘Up till now philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, though, is to change it’.

 Marx was the first major thinker to carry out an entirely economic interpretation of history and he was probably the first to focus on how economic interests mainly lie behind and determine our values. He would argue for instance, why do business executives and owners support parties that want to focus on economic reforms that will help them expand business and profits whereas labour leaders support parties that advocate putting in place and raising if necessary minimum wages or introducing unemployment benefits and legislative acts for employment guarantee. Marx was convinced principally people’s beliefs and ideologies reflect the material interests of their social and economic class.   

  The Marxian concept of Liberty is based on the Marxist concept of freedom.

 Marx and Engel argues that in a capitalist bourgeois society Liberty comes to have no real meaning ultimately for the vast majority. And this majority eventually gets alienated from society. Since this vast working class gets dehumanised and loses the objective of  living for self-development because of poverty and exploitation and social injustice, there is no question of the development of moral and social personality using legal and constitutional guarantees of liberty. Marx argued in a constitutional capitalist democracy there might be all the liberties available legally but in such a society neither the rich man is free nor the poor man. The rich man is the slave, rather than the master, of  the wealth that he owns and the poor man is the slave of his unmet material needs. Man is not an isolated being but is defined in relation to the society he lives in for man is a social animal. Marx defined liberty to mean freedom he did not regard mere absence of restraint as freedom. Nor did he agree that personal and political freedoms are the highest ideals and other freedoms are based on these. He linked freedom to the essence and purpose of man. Marxist thinkers Huberman and Paul Sweezy explain this as follows:

‘Freedom means living life to the fullest – the economic ability to satisfy the needs of the body in regard to adequate food, clothing and shelter, plus effective opportunity to cultivate the mind, develop one’s personality, and assert one’s individuality’. Rejecting the liberal individualist position, that says man seeks maximised happiness and pleasure (in the absolute sense), and that therefore is the priority, Marxism rejects ‘all attempts to seek man’s purpose outside of social relations in the realm of abstract ideals, the sphere of the instincts, or that of individual psychology, in activity directed to the satisfaction of selfish interests, not to mention attempts to find it outside the world of real things…  Man’s purpose in the Marxian view is creative activity directed towards improved well-being and the achievement of free all round development for society and all its members’[17].  Or in other words, man’s purpose is not merely his own well-being or self-interest than it will be contrary to his essence. Man cannot separate his happiness and development from social happiness and development. Marx advocated a ‘revolutionary’ and conscious effort at overthrowing oppressive systems and creating new systems which will be in tune with the socialist concept of humanism. According to the Marxist view ‘a life devoted to the joy of others, their happiness, freedom, equality and welfare, for the triumph of genuinely human relations, conscious struggle for a new social order, for socialism and communism’[18]  - that is what constitutes the meaning of life and real happiness.

 The best thinkers in the liberal tradition have taken the position as Rousseau took that ‘man is born free’. Marx argued man is not independent from natural and social laws as immediately after his birth, he becomes the slave of natural forces like hunger, weather, illness, etc.

 One of the most important facets of the Marxian approach to liberty and freedom is its analysis from the class point of view. If the Liberal view of freedom is accepted, Marxists would argue, what it means or comes to mean eventually is that freedom for the owners of property will mean freedom to own private property without restrictions (without urban land ceiling laws for instance to illustrate with the help of an example we urban Indians are familiar with), of earning profit from employing property without restrictions (like taxes for instance), of employing someone or removing him (with the least labour laws or none at all) etc etc. On the other hand, Marxists argued, for the property-less it can only mean in effect or in reality the freedom to starve, to be laid off from one’s job when the employer doesn’t need him anymore or if he doesn’t like him for any reason, working conditions and salary terms that are bad and exploitative but which must be accepted because that is what the contract with the employer stipulates (full freedom of contract is of the essence of liberal constitutional democracy) and there are no other jobs available to earn one’s living and avoid starvation etc etc. So Marxists argue, in a class-divided society freedom will be meaningless for working people. For them freedom means emancipation from exploitation, starvation, poverty, excessive hours of work, social insecurity, etc and hence for him freedom can only mean the struggle for the establishment of a class less society which is only attainable via a socialist revolution.

 To summarise the main points of the Marxist view on freedom and liberty:

1.      The issue of liberty is associated with humanism and can only be considered with due consideration to it.

2.      The essence of man is in his social relations, the sum total of it. In a class-divided society based on private property, man is alienated eventually and his existence contradicts his essence and hence in that case the question of his freedom can not arise.

3.      Freedom means the availability of conditions for the multi-dimensional development of man as a social being which alone leads to self-fulfilment and self-realisation.

4.      There cannot be free will ultimately as man’s free will is subject to the objective laws of nature and society (material want) which exist independently of human will.

5.      Man can achieve freedom by developing scientific understanding of these objective laws.

6.      Once scientific understanding is attained, there should be revolutionary social activity on that basis to change society because without changing society and nature, freedom is not possible.

7.      In a class-divided society the freedom of owners of property is built upon the un-freedom of the property-less. So freedom in such a society is class determined.

8.      Freedom is only possible in a classless society and because in only such a society man gets the socio-economic conditions for the free development of his personality.

9.      The struggle for a socialist revolution is thus justified and is really a struggle for freedom.                                                                                                            

                               Liberty  –  The Liberal  VS.  The Marxist View


Negative Liberalism is based on the philosophical concept of free will and believes free will being the absolute ideal there should be no social or political restrictions on individuals. Positive Liberalism also believes in the absolute validity of individual free will but advocates state creation of some soci0-economic conditions to make free will meaningful.     

Marxism believes there can not be free will because the laws of nature and society restrict fee will and make it meaningless. But Marxism maintains that by understanding the scientific laws of nature and society and by working to counter them, one can make gradual progress towards greater freedom and free will.

The principal purpose of man is to serve his own selfish ends and to seek happiness in his own way and society is an artificial invention that exists to serve individual ends. Man needs liberty for personal development and the fundamental character of liberty is personal and not social. 

Marxism suggests there can be a contradiction between man’s essence and his existence. Man’s essence is the sum total of his social relations and in a capitalist society because of alienation the essence of man does not correspond with his existence and he gets dehumanised.  

Negative Liberalism regards the State as an enemy of individual freedom but considers it necessary only for the purpose of maintaining security and law and order or, governance. Positive Liberalism wants the state to enlarge and grow as big as necessary to create socio-economic conditions for the meaningful realisation of individual liberty.  

Marx believes both the State and Class divisions in a society need to disappear for a free society to be established.   

Liberalism is focused on the political aspects of liberty even though Positive Liberalism does regard it also necessary that adequate socio-economic conditions be created.

Marxism and socialism regards all the other liberties to be based upon economic liberty in a true sense for all and believes till economic exploitation is eliminated no liberties can be realised. Marxism goes further and advocates the abolition of all private individual means of production and the state to take over. 

Liberalism talks about freedom in abstract philosophical terms linking it to the philosophical concepts of free will and free soul of atomised individuals, and maintains personal freedom can be restricted by society, social organisations and institutions. So the less of these the better.

Socialism and Marxism views freedom in relation to social, economic and historical circumstances.

Liberals have no problems with society being divided along class lines and believe freedom and liberty can be provided to all classes, both rich and poor. Freedom according to Liberalism basically means free choice. They believe all classes and individuals can co-exist harmoniously in what they call an ‘open society’.

Marxism regards class struggle as fundamental and maintains in a class-divided society, a class struggle will always eventually inevitably break out since freedom is basically only available to the business owners of means of production and the working class is usually exploited. So only in class less free society is freedom for all possible since a wolf and sheep cannot live side by side. The struggle for the establishment of a class less free society is therefore a freedom struggle and is referred to as a ‘socialist revolution’ by them.   

Liberals are divided on the issue of negative and positive freedom. Classical early liberals and present day neo liberals, both support basically the idea of a negative concept of liberty and freedom. But the revisionist liberals of the early 20th century like Laski called for a positive concept of liberty. Positive Liberals don’t specify the exact conditions necessary for achieving liberty but want the ‘democratic state’ to take upon itself this task.      

Socialism and Marxism also support the positive concept of freedom but unlike Positive Liberalism defines the exact conditions necessary. Marxism for instance defines an exact “scientific way” way to achieve liberty and specifies abolition of private means of production, equality, socialist revolution and material development as the means to that end.    



Equality is a somewhat modern concept. Not always has humanity felt the need for equality between men as at present. In the western world kings and monarchs had a divine right to rule and so did feudal lords in the areas under their rule and priests and the clergy often assumed to know the best on most matters. Everybody else was there to serve the king and the church.

(In our country the brahmin was at the top of the heap and had the sole right to lay down the ultimate wisdom on all matters, the kshatriya had the sole right to armed military might and the vaishya enjoyed a monopoly of making money and accumulating wealth through trade and money lending. The dalit or the shudra had no superior rights, only a monopoly similarly, on all the inferior rights and jobs of society. And this continued for thousands of years.)

 In the Greek period there was a feeble rather limited attempt made at establishing equality but it was only the in the 17thcentury in Europe that demands for rights and liberty began to be raised and only in the 18th and 19th century that equality was demanded.

 The initial demands were raised by the newly rich among traders and businessmen, or bourgeois, who questioned why was it that while both they and the feudal lords and monarchs had wealth and economic status but the legal status was not the same. In England for instance, as Tawny puts it:

Since most conspicuous of them in equalities were juristic not economic, it was in the first place legal privilege, not inequality of wealth, which was the object of attack….The primary aim of reformers was the achievement of the first (legal equality), since once the first was established, the second (economic equality), in so far as it was desirable, would, it was thought establish itself’[19]. Similarly in France, the issue was not economic equality but the uniformity of legal rights, and the struggle for equality ‘set the new aristocracy of wealth on a footing of parity with the old aristocracy of land[20].

 While in the 18th century the voice for legal and political equality was raised mainly, it was in the 19th century that a more vigorous demand for social-economic equality was made as a result of the rise of a new working class. The march of lazes faire capitalism in the 19th century while creating great wealth for some families on one side also created great poverty and economic inequality on the other. Hence the demand for economic equality arose and was raised by humanists, utopian socialists, Marxists and positive liberals. This demand for economic equality was not for negative political and legal equality but a demand for positive equality and it implied a check on private property, a check on exploitation of the poor by rich, and it implied a positive role of the State with regard to the overall economic system of society.

A very important milestone in the struggle for equality was in the early part of the twentieth century when women got the right to vote as a result of the movement by suffragettes. Also in the same century the freedom movements in colonies likeIndia from imperial powers like Britain marked further movement in the march of equality.

 Defining Equality is tricky. It is far more abstract than immediately apparent. Most people sub-consciously associate equality with the ideas that words like same, identical, equitable similar etc indicate. H.J. Laski commented ‘no idea is more difficult in the whole realm of political science’[21] than equality. Rousseau distinguished between natural and conventional equalities. Inequalities created by nature (one man being lame for instance or blind and another being neither) are natural inequalities whereas inequalities created by society (like caste, gender, rich-poor, worker-capitalist, malik-naukar etc) are conventional inequalities. Socialists and Marxists have argued conventional inequalities particularly economic ones have the power to over-shadow all natural inequalities. Marx comments:

‘…what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality, I am ugly but I can buy for myself the most beautiful women. Therefore, I am not ugly, for. The effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore, I am not lame. I am dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid, but money is honoured and hence its possessor….I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?[22].

(It is thoughts like the above that lead socialist and Marxists to be so wary of the abusive power of economic inequalities in society.) 

 Laski, the most influential positive liberal thinker, set down the following conditions for equality:

1.      End of special privileges in society

2.      Adequate opportunities to all for developing the full potential of their personalities.

3.      Access to social benefits for all with no restrictions on any ground like family position or wealth, heredity etc.

4.      Absence of economic and social exploitation.

Recently Bryan Turner has attempted a comprehensive concept of equality by suggesting that equality should have the following component concepts:

1. Fundamental equality of persons: which is expressed for instance in statements like "all our equal in the eyes of God".  .

2. Equality of opportunity: means access to important social institutions necessary for social growth should be available to all without discrimination. If there are any selection criterion it should be based on qualities like interests, achievements and talents.

3. Equality of condition: where there is an attempt to make the conditions of life equal for relevant social groups. It is not enough for instance to say that there is free competition if some people are starting with fundamental disabilities whether economic or any other, and there is no level playing field.

4. Equality of outcome: or in other words equality of results or of consequences which seeks to transform inequalities that we start with to social equalities at the end.      

Equality has mainly four dimensions – legal, political, economic and social.

 Legal equality refers to equality before the law and equal protection of the law. The concept is all men are created equal and hence deserve the same status before the laws. The law is blind and will make no allowance for the person being dealt with. He may be wise or a fool, brilliant or dumb, short of tall, rich or poor etc but he would be treated the same by the law as others. But there are exceptions – for instance a child would not be treated as an adult man or woman and allowance would be made to a child.

(Legal equality does not necessarily mean real equality unfortunately because as we all know legal justice is not free and the rich can hire the best lawyers and even bribe judges in some cases and get away with injustice. In a strictly liberal set up while you will have theoretical equality before the law you will need time and money to make use of it and if you did not have it the legal equality promised to you would be meaningless.)    

Political equality basically refers to universal suffrage and representative government. Universal suffrage means the right to vote to all adults and one-man-one-vote. Representative government means all have the right to contest elections without distinction and contest for public service. It does not mean however that all will be forced to vote and give his or her preference. Or that if some people are dissuaded not to vote or vote one way or the other due to undue influence, the state can do much about that. Also no political inequality can be alleged, as per the strict liberal understanding of the term, if most people or, a large segment of the population, don’t vote, thereby diluting the representative character of the government.

(For instance in America, which regards itself as a democracy offering full political freedom and equality to all its citizens, it has been found that just about half the country usually votes in elections. The people not voting are mostly the poorer half and blacks particularly poorer blacks. In the liberal tradition this is not a cause for particular concern as long as constitutionally, equality is guaranteed and present for all.)

 Mere political equality guaranteed technically or constitutionally also does not mean real political equality for it has been found that money power in elections come to a play major role in liberal democracies giving people, groups and classes with the money power and the willingness to exert it, an advantage in pushing their political interests that is quite formidable to neutralise. So sheer money power usually and often manages to control the result of elections to a large extent.

(It is believed President George Bush and his Republican Party spent a few hundred billion dollars in his election campaign last year almost all of it raised from large business houses and corporate groups. It is not conceivable how his party and he himself can resist taking the side of corporate interests versus that of the common people, should the need to choose in a particular issue arise. Hence it is clear political equality is a very difficult idea state that is almost never established in any liberal democracy. It may be mentioned here that in India it can take even cruder forms where voters are sometimes paid cash illegally or even offered a night of free drinking by candidates and parties to vote for them. Also of course, it is an open secret that most Indian political parties have corporate friends who donate hundreds of crores of what is usually black money paid in cash for fighting elections etc.) 

It is not merely the actual money spent by candidates and parties but the whole range of money relationships that helps. Media plays a huge role in modern day liberal democracies particularly in those with a large middle class and even though media is supposed to be free, they in reality cannot be so because they owe their economic survival and viability substantially to corporate advertising and therefore they need to be sensitive to the political sensitivities and interests of the collective business and corporate agenda. To the extent that media influences people, these agendas then get transmitted or propagated, whether by design or otherwise, or due to compulsions or otherwise, whatever they may be, and hence ends up skewing the level of political equality that would have otherwise possibly existed in practice without their presence.

Quite apart from the above, in most democracies like India, there are powerful executive bureaucracies and members of the judiciary services, who are not elected by the people (as with politicians) and who cannot be thrown out in elections if people are fed up with them. The members of these groups due to educational and family backgrounds often come from higher economic, class (and caste) categories usually and maintain an ongoing powerful influence on policy formulation. These groups clearly are more politically equal than others. When a judge of the Supreme Court for instance stops a policy measure of the government and declares it illegal, which was put in place by elected representatives of the people in free and fair elections, however illiterate or non qualified educationally they may be, from the purely political (as opposed to the legal) point of view, he is clearly enjoying a position of greater political equality than most other of his fellow citizens.

(There is even a liberal theory of democracy referred to as the ‘Elitist Theory’ of democracy, which claims political equality is a myth, as political power is always enjoyed, and should always be enjoyed by an elite. Hence there is no need and it is futile to make efforts to grant greater political say or equality to the poor and economically weaker citizens.)

The notion of Economic or social equality implies rather differently to different people. Early liberals meant by economic equality merely the right of choosing one’s trade or profession irrespective of family position or economic status and the right or freedom to contract so that everybody in the land is treated equally as far as contractual obligations are concerned. Gradually the position began to change towards a notion of equality of opportunity for everyone to live the life of a full human being.

(No doubt this was partly due to the Socialist and Marxist critique of capitalism which developed great acceptance worldwide before the onset of positive liberalism culminating probably with the Russian revolution of 1917 and its emphasis on economic equality which they defined almost as identical economic conditions for all.)

It was understood and accepted gradually equality should mean no one in society should be so poor that he or she lacks the basic needs and the basic opportunities for mental and physical development. As Rousseau put it, ‘by equality we should understand not that the degree of power and riches be absolutely identical for everybody, but that no citizen be wealthy enough to buy another and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself’[23]. H.J. Laski gave the positive liberal notion of economic equality finer shape and meant by equality availability to all things without which life is meaningless. He said the basics must be accessible to all without distinction in degrees or kind. All men must have access to the essentials of food and shelter. He insisted equal satisfaction of basic needs as a precondition for equality of opportunity and advocated for that creation of economic equality by reduction of the extremes of economic inequality. (Whether by progressive taxation or interventionist welfare schemes for the poor for instance. It was the onset of the welfare state as a consequence of the influence of ideas of positive liberal thinkers like Laski and economists like Keynes that policies like mixed economy, differential taxation, regulation and raising of wages by stipulating minimum wages etc, all of which basically seeks to tax the rich to provide welfare for the poor were introduced. The positive liberals and Keynesians claim this changed capitalism for ever into a welfare system and did much to eradicate poverty and economic disparity and levelled the ground for all citizens from the point of view of economic equality. The great economist and thinker John Kenneth Galbraith has even claimed that this almost made economic inequality a non-issue in the western world for many some decades. In the last few decades particularly the 1980s onwards influence of neo-liberal thinking which is similar to the old classical early liberal thinking has taken such a strong hold and put the clock back so much in that sense that any suggestions and ideas that are similar to positive liberal welfare ideas are immediately seen as leftist socialist or Marxist and hence scary from the point of view of the neo-liberal dominated policy establishments worldwide.)

The Marxist view of equality associates equality, particularly economic equality, with property and class-exploitation. In fact, the link between equality and property has been pointed out by some non-Marxist liberal thinkers as well, like Rousseau and Gans. Gans comments for instance: ‘Societies that have no use for private property, such as nomadic and hunting tribes, find it easy to be egalitarian, but societies that enable individuals to collect such property do not’[24]. In Marxian analysis equality is only established with the abolition of classes or a class divided society and that is only fully achievable by the abolition of private property. The Marxian idea is to establish a society where there will be no private property or economic classes and each will have or will be given ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his need’. The job of distribution will be of the state. Lenin and other Marxists attack the positive liberal social democratic notion, that by intervention of the state economic disparities can be removed and the basics for living guaranteed for all, for they believe, without abolishing private property sooner or later economic exploitation and disparities will creep back in due to the power of money of the upper classes.          

Social equality refers to the absence of discriminations on the basis of colour, gender, caste, sexual orientation etc. Quite apart from the legal, political, and economic aspects of equality over the years it has been realised the residual social discriminations that have existed for thousands of years in some societies can be very difficult to undermine even with a rapid march of constitutional political and legal rights and economic development and removal of economic inequalities. Women got the right to vote even in Englandas late as in the 1920s. Blacks in South Africa and parts of the United States until just a few decades back were barred from large areas of their own country. In many countries scavengers are forced to live away from society in ghettos not due to economic or political reasons really but due to social conditionings in society. Even today there are villages in India where members of the lower castes are treated almost like animals by members of the upper caste and even if anybody from among them managed to get rich or powerful he or she would not be treated differently.

(The former Chief Minister of Bihar, Laloo Pradad Yadav for instance has narrated many times how in his childhood he could not walk past the house of any upper caste member of his village through public roads in slippers or any other footwear. The norm was all members of the lower castes must be bare foot.)

 Neo-Liberal thinking, propounded in particular by thinkers like economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek[25] that holds such great sway on policy formulation worldwide at present, particularly at international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, believe liberty and equality are fundamentally opposed to each other and hence inequality has to be tolerated for the sake of liberty. (They also believe ultimately tolerating inequality will be of the maximum benefit to the economy as a whole as a result of the growth in private economic activity.)

The main features of this neo-liberal belief system are:

1.      Liberty is natural and so is inequality. So it is ordained by nature that liberty and inequality are not compatible.

2.      Liberty principally means absence of any restraint or coercion, but establishing equality would mean some restraints or some levelling which is fundamentally against the idea of liberty. Also the economic well being of an individual is dependent on his personal efforts and ability rather than on society. The liberty to own private property without any restriction is a natural liberty and should not be restricted in the interest of equality. 

3.      When in an effort to establish equality, the powers of the state are increased as they must be, to whatever level, that is a threat to liberty by definition. Equality needs a positive interventionist state whereas Liberty needs a negative and minimised State.

4.      Without free market capitalism the power of the State cannot be checked and without such a check liberty is always incomplete and under threat. Thus Liberty and Capitalism complement each other but Equality and Capitalism are fundamentally in conflict. (This view was first articulated by Milton Friedman.)

5.      The Elitist Theory of Democracy which must be regarded as part of the neo-liberal tradition, advocate the presence of an economic and political elite without which according to them democracy descends into a mobocracy and populism, and liberty ceases to be available eventually in such a system. Since without an elite there can be no liberty or democracy, establishing equality by eliminating elites, destroys liberty. Hence Equality and Liberty are opposed to each other.


 1.   Write and essay on the political concept of rights? . 

2.    What is Liberty? . Distinguish between negative and positive liberty with reference to the views of important thinkers.  

3.      What are the different kinds of equality ?.

 Suggested Reading:

1.      H.J. Laski, A Grammar of Politics, 1925

2.      Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867

[1] Robert Nozic, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 1 (op. cit.)

[2] Hobbes, Levaithan, op. cit.

[3] J.S. Mill, Three Essays-Liberty, Oxford University Press, London 1975, p. 4

[4] Laski, Liberty in the Modern State, George Allen and Unwin, 1961, p. 42 

[5] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Everyman, pp. 67-8

[6] Sir Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, in A. Quinton (ed.), Political Theory, Oxford University Press,        1967, pp. 141-152  

[7] Ibid.

[8] Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford, 1969, p. LIV

[9] H.J. Laski, A Grammar of Politics, 1925, p. 142 

[10] ibid., p. 144

[11] ibid., pp. 145-6

[12] ibid., p.146

[13] ibid., p.147

[14] ibid., p. 150

[15] C.B McPherson, Democratic Theory, Oxford, 1973, p. 117

[16] John Gray, Liberalism, Open University Press, Edinburgh, 1986, pp. 57-8

[17] M. Petrosyan, Humanism: Its Philosophical, Ethical and Sociological Aspects, Moscow, 1972, pp. 159-60

[18] ibid. , p. 163

[19] R.H. Tawney, Equality, London, 1952, p. 95

[20] ibid., p. 98

[21] H.J. Laski, A Grammar of Politics, p. 152

[22] K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow, 1974, pp. 120-21

[23] Rouseau, Social Contract., George Allen and Unwin, London, 1924

[24] H.J. Gans, More Equality, New York, 1973, p. 62

[25] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, 1962 and F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty,London, 1963