Unfettered freedom: the basis of the Good Society

ESSAY: Both the political elite and its critics believe there is a conflict between rights and responsibilities. They could not be more wrong.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

Nothing better illustrates the British political class’s cluelessness about freedom than the fact that they think there is a contradiction between rights and responsibilities. Every contemporary British leader, from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg, has offered some variant of the idea that rights must be carefully balanced with responsibilities, in order that people’s exercise of freedom does not turn them into selfish beings, concerned only with satisfying their own instincts, who forget or discard their responsibility to behave as decent citizens. As one New Labour document puts it, ‘responsibilities provide a balance to those who would take advantage of rights’ (1).

What is extraordinary and profoundly revealing about this idea is that, in fact, ‘rights and responsibilities’, or better still freedom and morality, are not contradictory at all. On the contrary, one makes the other: it is the exercise of freedom, and the exercise of freedom alone, which makes us truly responsible individuals, conscious of and engaged with the consequences of our actions. It is the freedom to think for ourselves, to speak as we see fit, and to develop lifestyles of our choosing which allows us to develop a true sense of moral responsibility. And it is the curtailment of our liberties by the contemporary political elite which, ironically, both makes us feel irresponsible and, in a very real way, actually makes us irresponsible.

From Blair onwards, the debate about freedom has been framed through the concept of ‘balancing rights and responsibilities’. At New Labour’s annual party conference in 1997, Blair gave an indication of his government’s attitude to the freedom question: individuals must ‘match their rights with responsibilities’, he said, and further still, ‘a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on… the duty to show respect and tolerance to others’ (2). He talked about ensuring that liberty could ‘coexist with community values and social order’, strongly implying that there is a contradiction and potentially even a conflict between ‘liberty’ and ‘social values’ (3).

Blair’s outlook – his idea that the state should be the referee between individual liberties and social duties – has defined the debate on freedom for the past 13 years. David Cameron’s Conservative Party likewise accepts that unfettered freedom is a potential enemy of the social good. According to Nick Herbert, a member of Cameron’s shadow cabinet, left unchecked ‘there is a danger that rights become not tools for protecting the individual within society, but advantaging the individual against society’. The Conservatives have proposed replacing the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and which itself contains hundreds of ‘responsibility checks’ on our liberties, with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (4).

Cameron’s Conservatives have accepted, wholesale, the Blairite idea of using the state to strike a balance between individual liberty and social stability. Herbert says that our response to ‘increasing individualism’, where some people apparently want the freedom to do whatever they please, ‘must surely be the strengthening of society and its bonds and the promotion of responsibility’ (5). This echoes Blair’s attack in 1997 on ‘narrow individualism’ and his promise to counteract it by developing ‘a new balance between the individual and collective in which liberty could coexist with community values’ (6). All our political leaders feel a need to ‘strengthen society’ and they imagine that the best way to do that is by attacking and defeating ‘narrow individualism’ (7).

New Labour brought this debate to a head with the Ministry of Justice’s publication last month of a consultation paper titled People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities. The paper explicitly discusses codifying individuals’ responsibilities to each other, the state and society, and explores how our liberties might sometimes have to be curtailed in order to ensure that we are fulfilling these responsibilities. New Labour is also keen to introduce a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which, according to the consultation paper, ‘would go some way towards addressing falling standards of behaviour’ and would help ‘entrench the ideal of social responsibility over time’ (8).

What is striking about the ‘rights and responsibilities’ debate is that our leaders clearly recognise that there is a social malaise today, a rupture in collective identities… yet the solutions they have put forward to this problem have only made it worse. In diagnosing the problem of a social malaise caused by ‘narrow individualism’ and individuals seeking to ‘take advantage of rights’, they are effectively projecting the profound, historic social and political crises that have generated contemporary atomisation on to the alleged greed and recklessness of individuals, as if people’s desires to live freely are themselves the cause of social decay.

And more importantly, in seeking to rectify things though problematising the idea of unchecked liberty, and trying to ‘entrench social responsibility’ from above, they fatally fail to realise that only freedom itself can give rise to any meaningful form of moral and social responsibility. They fail to recognise that freedom is not merely a fairly nice thing that people should enjoy in bite-sized morsels called ‘rights’ after they have fulfilled their social duties and obligations. No, freedom is the creator of moral responsibility, it is a social and moral good, it is in fact the only basis on which a Good Society can be created and sustained.

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty 150 years ago, ‘The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’ (9) In short, it is through freely choosing – through acting freely – that we exercise perception and judgement and become truly moral and morally responsible beings. Under New Labour’s tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’, we are assigned the role, not of morally responsible citizens, but of ape-like imitators of state-decided ‘standards of behaviour’. They have destroyed both liberty and responsibility.

Keeping our freedom in check

There have been two consequences of the decade-long focus on ‘balancing rights and responsibilities’. Firstly, the idea of ‘responsibilities’ has increasingly been used to undermine our freedoms, where we are effectively told that, yes, we have certain freedoms, but we must exercise them responsibly and cautiously in order not to harm other individuals or damage the fragile social fabric. This is really a new attack on liberty, carried out not by a jealous, jackboot-wearing state that forces us to hand over our liberties, but by a disoriented elite which marshals widespread concerns about social instability as a way of encouraging self-policing and timidity amongst the public. And secondly, our era of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’ has revealed a political elite which can only conceive of responsibility in terms of something which is codified by the authorities and then ‘entrenched’ across society – revealing their spectacular ignorance of what moral responsibility really is.

On the first point, with the promotion of ‘responsibilities’ as a necessary check on ‘rights’, what we really have is a new form of state intervention into our freedoms and choices (indeed, even the term ‘rights’, especially in relation to human rights, is not an unproblematic one – so-called ‘rights’, especially strictly checked and regulated ones, can also be used to undermine true liberty today). In the arena of rights and responsibilities, ‘social responsibility’ really means conformism to custom.

This is clear from the government’s People and Power consultation paper, which names two important British values as ‘freedom of the person’ and ‘freedom of expression’. However, it says these ‘values’ must be set against our ‘responsibilities’ – which in the instance of these two freedoms include: to ‘be non-judgemental, open and encouraging’; to avoid ‘forcing our opinions on others’; and to ‘accept the consequences of being outspoken’ (10). In short, yes we have the freedom to be left alone and to speak our minds, but we must self-regulate these freedoms in order to avoid antagonising or even simply offending other people. We are graciously given the right to free speech, but on the condition that we do not say anything too controversial or intemperate. Here, we can see how the interplay between ‘rights and responsibilities’ is one where state-defined responsibilities pretty much eradicate our rights.

The consultation paper even floats the idea of making our enjoyment of liberty conditional on our adherence to state-defined social obligations, suggesting that perhaps ‘certain rights should be conditional on responsibilities’ (11). However, the authorities do not need to list our ‘social responsibilities’ in a new legal instrument – because the idea that we have certain responsibilities, and that these responsibilities will inevitably impact on our ability to act and speak freely, is now broadly accepted and institutionalised in all but name. Many of New Labour’s most insidious attacks on our freedoms – to think, to speak, to gather in public spaces, to drink or smoke what we like – have been justified on the basis that we cannot have unfettered freedom and be socially responsible, and that there comes a point when we exercise our freedoms to such ‘extremes’ that our behaviour becomes irresponsible and thus damaging to society.

In the arena of speech, the authorities argue that we can have free speech so long as we do not use it irresponsibly. As a 2009 government document on rights and responsibilities put it, we have the ‘responsibility’ not to indulge in ‘abuses of the right of freedom of expression, for example extreme forms of hate speech’ (12). In the arena of ‘anti-social behaviour’, the government has justified its vast system of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – which involve the use of semi-criminal instruments to curtail the behaviour of specific individuals or groups of individuals – on the basis of ‘restoring civic responsibility’ (13).

The ban on smoking in public places is justified by the ‘social responsibility’ not to harm others with our passive smoke. We still have the ‘right to smoke’, says one government document (in our homes, anyway), but we must also ‘accept our responsibilities to other people who do not wish to be affected by passive smoking’ (14). Even worse, in some instances the government implicitly assumes responsibility, not for protecting the social fabric, but for protecting individuals from their own behaviour. In their smoking ban, drinking restrictions and censorship of junk-food advertising, the authorities exercise ‘individual responsibility’ on individuals’ behalf, on the basis that we are too stupid or greedy to do it ourselves.

In every case, we are assured that we still have all our rights – the right to speak, gather, smoke and stuff our faces – but are told that in some instances our responsibilities to society must override our ability to exercise those rights. Far from criticising this subtle yet far-reaching watering down of our freedoms, the government’s critics accept that ‘rights’ must occasionally be checked by ‘responsibilities’, only they make the case in slightly different language – more duplicitously still, they use the language of rights to attack our rights. Shami Chakrabarti, the head of the civil rights campaign group Liberty, says Britain doesn’t need a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities… because the Human Rights Act of 1998 already keeps our freedoms in check (15). This is true. For example, the Act grants us freedom of expression, but it says that since this freedom ‘carries with it duties and responsibilities’, it ‘may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’ (16). In other words, we don’t really have freedom of expression. The government’s critics in the human-rights lobby also accept that elite-defined ‘duties and responsibilities’ can and should impede on our liberties.

The curtailment of our rights through the idea of ‘social responsibilities’ is really a new form of state denigration of liberty, and one which is well suited to our times. In earlier eras, when there was often a clearer dividing line between sections of the public demanding freedom and a confident state determined to defend its power, the denigration of liberty tended to be executed in a more explicit fashion: through a police state, brute censorship, or new laws restricting movement and association. Today, when there is neither a widespread demand for freedom nor an elite possessed of the wherewithal or even the need to dismantle liberty root and branch, our freedoms can be bargained off in a more informal fashion. The balancing of rights with responsibilities really represents the exploitation of the fear of social instability, of a widespread perception that we are living through, in Tony Blair’s words, a period of ‘social disintegration’ (17), as a way of blackmailing people into self-policing their speech, behaviour and lifestyles in the name of preserving the status quo. It is the atomisation of the public, and the elite’s instinct for social control as a way of offsetting ‘social disintegration’, which has given rise to this tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’.

Codifying responsibility

The second impact of the doctrine of ‘rights and responsibilities’ has been the denigration of the meaning of moral responsibility. In both their belief that rights and responsibilities are potentially antagonistic elements that must be mediated, and their notion of a conflict between individual liberty (Blair’s ‘narrow individualism’) and social stability (Blair’s ‘community values’), the political classes demonstrate that they have no idea what freedom is, far less why it is the most important value in society.

The truth is that, far from being conflicting categories, it is only freedom that can give rise to meaningful responsibility. And far from individuals pursuing their liberties posing some kind of threat to bigger, more important ‘social interests’, it is only free individuals – engaged, choice-making individuals – who can create the basis for a stable, happy and Good society.

One of the most striking things about the contemporary elite is the way it understands responsibility. It cannot conceive of responsibility as anything other than a contractual thing, fashioned and imposed upon communities and individuals by external third parties. It doesn’t understand that responsibility – real, worth-its-name responsibility – comes from experience and engagement, from making choices and learning from the consequences, not from lists of duties drawn up in committee rooms.

New Labour has fashioned numerous ‘responsibility contracts’ to govern relations and duties between individuals and public bodies. It has sought to ‘build responsibilities into policy development’ (18). ‘Neighbourhood agreements’ are contracts ‘designed and agreed by the residents and the providers of services in an area’, which cover everything from individuals’ responsibilities in relation to their neighbourhoods (for example, to report any crime they witness) to public bodies’ responsibilities to respond to problems quickly and efficiently (19). ‘Home-school agreements’ outline both a school’s and parents’ ‘respective responsibilities with regard to pupil attendance, behaviour and homework’; here, even parents’ relationships with aspects of their children’s lives become codified (20). There are also contracts outlining individuals’ ‘responsibility to find work’, where in return for improved services from the welfare state, jobseekers agree to ‘make greater efforts to gain employment’ (21).

The government has considered further expanding these contract-style lists of responsibilities. In People and Power, it proposed, under the banner of ‘Patriotism’, codifying people’s responsibility to ‘protect important heritage sites’ and to ‘promote a positive image of Britain abroad’. Under the banner of ‘Respect for laws and institutions’, it considered codifying people’s responsibility to ‘better understand British institutions’. And under the banner of ‘Manners/politeness’, it floated the idea of introducing some form of contractual stipulation that we should all ‘treat others with respect, kindness and empathy’ and ‘employ politeness/courtesy’ (22). (Such patronising official reminders of our social responsibilities are already at work in London, where mayoral propaganda posters on public transport remind us to avoid eating smelly food, turn down our iPods, smile at people, and use polite language such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’).

The political elite’s attempt to magic up a sense of social responsibility through contracts is a product of two things: first, its instinctive recognition that there has been a fraying of collective, social outlooks in recent years; and second, its belief that ordinary people, left to their own devices, are incapable of negotiating their relationships and interactions with public bodies, communities, each other and even their own children. The creeping codification of responsibilities becomes a kind of crutch for society, for a real public realm, and the only way the political elite believes it is possible to create social dynamism and community interaction, so that everything from respecting the National Gallery to reporting crimes to being polite to reading to your child becomes an explicitly spelled-out responsibility. What the elite doesn’t recognise is that its codification of responsibilities, and its corresponding denigration of the ‘narrow individualism’ of liberty, is doing nothing to mend society and a great deal to damage it further.

As John Stuart Mill understood very well, we only become fully responsible beings, fully human indeed, when we make decisions and take actions freely rather than under pressure of censure, shame, or of doing ‘the expected thing’. ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing’, said Mill.

Mill argued that our moral faculties – our ability to exercise reason, to learn from experience, and to assume greater responsibility both for ourselves and in relation to society – can only work properly when we are free. ‘The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it… [However], he who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.’ (23) In short, it is only a free man who can assume true responsibility, precisely because he is free and is exercising his moral judgement rather than adhering to the pre-decided ‘standards of behaviour’ of an external force.

Yes, in exercising their moral faculties people will sometimes make mistakes. Yet Mill argued that it is better to be a free man who makes errors than a cosseted man who always does what is customarily expected of him and is considered to be ‘the right thing’: ‘[T]hough individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education – a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.’ (24) Today’s elite could never countenance such a thing – leaving people to organise their lives and relationships as they and their communities see fit, in the interests of expanding their own ‘mental education’ and ‘active faculties’ – and instead draws up codes for every social possibility and interaction.

As to the idea that too much individual liberty is a threat to social solidarity, Mill argued that in fact society is vastly improved by being made up of strong-willed, determined, even self-interested members. The prejudice against what Blair called ‘narrow individualism’ is widespread today, amongst both the elite and its critics. Human rights activists look down their noses at people who complain about not being able to smoke in pubs or drink on trains or eat what they want without feeling guilty, accusing them of having ‘petty’ demands. One human-rights campaigner says, ‘You may have the right to do whatever you want to your body – like continue drinking even when you’re drunk, for example – but what if that makes you violent towards someone else? Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand and should not be used and abused for trivial, petty wants.’ (25)

But these ‘trivial, petty wants’ are a key part of what it means to be free – and society ultimately benefits from allowing us to decide for ourselves how to live our lives. As Mill said: ‘Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself must maintain that society has no need of strong natures – is not the better for containing many persons who have much character – and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.’ (26) Society should not fear strong individual impulses, but allow them to flourish, said Mill: ‘The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue… It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them.’ (27) In contrast, today the political elite seeks to neuter the individual in the name of protecting society, not realising that a society composed of weak, cosseted individuals – where ‘the mind itself is bowed to the yoke’, as Mill put it – is a society that will almost certainly lack spirit and dynamism and which few people will be interested in signing up to. ‘The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it’, said Mill.

Amongst both the political elite and its influential critics, there’s a powerful disdain today for true liberty, for the exercise of individual subjectivity, for the right of individuals to think and speak and associate in ways that they and their social networks find agreeable, useful, enlightening or simply fun. And it is this elite disdain for people’s free exercise of their moral faculties which is itself degrading society and robbing people of any semblance of moral authority and responsibility.


In many different ways, New Labour’s creation of an insidious culture of unfreedom, of external intervention into almost every area of our lives, has diminished our ability to take moral responsibility.

The system of anti-social behaviour orders actually discourages individuals and communities from resolving problems of bad behaviour and taking responsibility for their neighbourhoods. In creating a new form of punishment designed to target specific out-of-control or simply naughty individuals, the authorities implicitly invite individuals to seek external arbitration of local problems. Individual and community initiative come to be replaced by the watchful eye and heavy hand of the external arbiter.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, New Labour’s Stalinist piece of legislation requiring every adult who works with children to submit to a criminal records background check, diminishes adult responsibility in relation to the care and education of the next generation. Today we get to work with children, not on the basis of our pluck, knowledge or determination to lead and enthuse youth, but on the grounds that we have been okayed – effectively licensed – by the authorities. Our responsibility towards, and authority over, young people is no longer based on our experience or internal drive, but on a nod from the bureaucratic arbiters of adult interaction with young people.

Even in relation to something like alcohol consumption, officialdom’s illiberalism appears to have had an impact on people’s ability to assume meaningful responsibility. It is frequently commented on that young Britons seem to drink in a more reckless and ostentatiously drunken fashion than earlier generations did. This is likely to be a result of the fact that, thanks to New Labour’s various anti-drinking initiatives, new rules and regulations in pubs, and its treatment of any young person found drinking in public as a criminal, there are fewer and fewer ways for young people to be socialised into the world of adult drinking. Effectively excluded from the adult world of pubs, and continually warned that drinking anything more than three pints will turn them into complete and utter wrecks, it is not surprising that young people lack the moral and intellectual means through which to negotiate the world of booze today.

And on it goes. Again and again, from the home to the workplace to the public realm, our responsibility is undermined precisely because our liberties are curtailed. The more constraints that are put on our thought and behaviour, the more difficult it becomes for people to take full and proper and satisfying responsibility for their lives and their experiences. Not a single one of the political parties in the running for our votes on 6 May understands what freedom means or why it is so important. They don’t understand that freedom is good for individuals, allowing us to live more independently and less burdensomely, and is also good for society, tying individuals together through free association, shared experience, and having to work out for ourselves what we want our society to look like. This means that whoever gets into Downing Street, the first thing we should demand of them is that they completely withdraw the state from our personal lives, homes and pubs and reverse every single attack on freedom made by the New Labour government. Because as we know from the past 13 years, to live by their petty rules is no life at all.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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(1) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(2) Quoted in Citizenships, Contingency and the Countryside: Rights, Culture, Land and the Environment, Gavin Parker, Routledge, 2002

(3) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002

(4) Conservative Party Speeches: Nick Herbert: Rights without responsibilities – a decade of the Human Rights Act, 24 November 2008

(5) Conservative Party Speeches: Nick Herbert: Rights without responsibilities – a decade of the Human Rights Act, 24 November 2008

(6) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002

(7) See John Major, Tony Blair and a Conflict of Leadership, Michael Foley, Manchester University Press, 2002

(8) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(9) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.

(10) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(11) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(12) Rights and Responsibilities: Developing our Constitutional Framework, Ministry of Justice, March 2009

(13) My vision for Britain, Tony Blair, Observer, 10 November 2002

(14) What is the Care Value Base?, Lewisham Local Council, March 2008

(15) Interview: Shami Chakrabarti, Guardian, 10 December 2005

(16) UK Human Rights Act 1998

(17) My vision for Britain, Tony Blair, Observer, 10 November 2002

(18) People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(19) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(20) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(21) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(22) These and other examples of contracts are discussed in People and Power: Shaping Democracy, Rights and Responsibilities, Ministry of Justice, March 2010

(23) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.

(24) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.

(25) Individual Vs Society’s Rights, Ice & Fire: Exploring Human Rights Stories Through Performance, 18 February 2010

(26) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.

(27) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, 1859: read it in full here.

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Topics Politics UK


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