9.2 Individual Freedom to Flourish

Individual freedom to flourish is an important component of governance acceptability, balancing individual liberty and collective needs.

At the start of this book it was noted that there are different concepts of ‘freedom’.  Individualists and collectivists have different perspectives (2.2).  These positions emerge strongly in politics: 

●  Individualists emphasise personal liberty, defining it as freedom from constraints and protection of property rights (6.2.2). They want to pay as little tax as possible and minimise the role of the State.

●  Collectivists believe that the wellbeing of the community requires individuals to surrender some liberty (6.2.3). They believe that we are collectively responsible for ensuring, as far as possible, that everyone is free from hardship and has a reasonable opportunity to live a fulfilling life.  This requires taxes to be collected.

This book argues that extreme positions in either direction are dysfunctional and that a centrist compromise needs to be reached – since both individual freedom and the well-being of the community are important (6.2.6).  Agreement on these topics is reached in democracies by voting for political parties.  An authoritarian government would not offer negotiation (6.3.1), but it would be most unwise for it to ignore what people want. 

The American Declaration of Independence reflects the dichotomy between personal liberty and collective well-being:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The reference to “Liberty” is an individualist concern, but there is also a collectivist strand in the Declaration: the words that “Governments are instituted among Men” to secure the “equal” rights of “all men” to the “pursuit of Happiness”. 

John Stuart Mill articulated the individualist viewpoint in his essay On Liberty, which included his ‘Harm Principle‘:

“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” [Chap. I, Para. 9] 

A key area of contention in this statement is the expression “against his will”.  The individualist argument is that those who want governance that is more extensive than a “minimal State” ( could only have this by imposing their will on other people: a “philosophy of violence and coercion”, as Milton Friedman expressed it. 

Rousseau though, in The Social Contract, articulated a collectivist viewpoint.  He argued that people do not lose their freedom by contracting with others because:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” [Book 1 Chap. 6]

Rousseau failed to acknowledge the need to restrict the scope of governance, though, and he failed to mention the need to avoid oppressing minorities.  He argued that those who didn’t agree must be “forced to be free”. 

A balance is needed between Mill’s concept of individual liberty and Rousseau’s collectivist vision.  Isaiah Berlin articulated this clearly, as described in an essay by Michael Ignatieff:

“Without the equality of life chances created by shared public goods—decent homes, good schools, affordable transport, universities accessible to anyone with ability—liberty would remain the privilege of the rich and fortunate. So freedom from—from arbitrariness, injustice and monopoly power—had to advance hand in hand with freedom to—to choose your rulers and create a shared world in common.”

It is suggested here that a framework of ‘freedom with responsibility’ is required, as illustrated below:

Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ needs to be restated:

People should be as free as possible, subject to them not harming others and meeting their obligations to society.

Individual freedom to flourish must be constantly renegotiated as circumstances change, so the political system needs to enable negotiation (6.8.4).  Negotiations can only be constructive if people understand each other’s viewpoints and share a common language when they are trying to reconcile their differences.  The following sections are an attempt to clarify the arguments:

●  Constant vigilance is needed to prevent oppression by those with power (9.2.1). There are numerous examples of abuse of power in different political systems, past and present.

●  The scope of governance should be limited, to meet individualist concerns (9.2.2). The objective is to minimise the constraints on individual liberty, within the limits of the restated harm principle above.  Choice should be offered where possible.

●  Governance can also meet the collectivist aims of ensuring that everyone has meaningful opportunities to flourish (9.2.3). This requires human rights to be guaranteed and people’s security to be protected.

●  A scope is suggested for people’s responsibilities to society (9.2.4). It includes paying appropriate levels of tax and abiding within agreed standards of behaviour.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/92a.htm.