In reaction to the medieval ideas of ascribed status and religious conformity comes Liberalism. The basic idea of which is to have a society whose members are free to pursue their own ideas and interests with as little interference as possible (Ball and Dagger, Liberalism Introduction p. 65). Ideas on how to get there have been a point of argument since liberalism began. Many writers, theorists, and economists have studied and given ideas of what liberty is and how to ensure it. Take Thomas Hobbes for example. He saw liberty as “the absence of external impediments” (the State of Nature and the Basis of Obligation, p. 71). But he also believed that every one should posses certain rights to basic freedoms. Adam Smith, another philosopher agreed with this theory of a “welfare” type of system and the freedom to trade freely. He believed in mankind working to contribute to the greater good and saw liberty in guaranteeing that trading was as unrestricted as possible. He also saw private profit as good for the public. (Private profit, Pubic good, p. 102) Still other thinkers were more community or society minded than this. Thomas Paine spoke of government as being a necessary evil. He wanted elected officials to work for the betterment of society though new contracts for each generation. Paine feared that the elected officials could form separate interests that were not in the interests of the greater society. As a result of this fear he saw “prudence” in holding elections often as a remedy for this. Believing that the returning of elected officials to society would help keep them in touch with its goals. (Government, Rights, and the Bonds between Generations, p.92) He also believed that with absolute form of government, though he called it a disgrace to human nature would allowthe people to more easily find the root of a problem.(p.93) Thomas Jefferson too believed in rights being up held by government. Rights such as Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (Declaration of Independence of the United States, p.95) were at the forefront of this idea. But, Jefferson feared the formation of separate interests just as Paine did. Jefferson went so far as to say that it was the right and duty of the people to alter or abolish the government if it infringed on liberty as he saw it. (p.95)
A central theme in each of these writings seemed to be freedom of thought and individuality. Two writings speak to it more fully than the others. Those writings are John Stewart Mills’ “Liberty and Individuality” and John Locke’s “Toleration and Government”. In “Liberty and Individuality” Mills develops these ideas very clearly. He wrote that liberty included absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological (p. 109). Secondly he spoke of the liberty to live as one sees fit as long as it does not harm others, even if others find it foolish. Mills makes a third statement that a freedom to unite for any reason not involving harm to others should be in place. He believed that a society without these liberties is not completely free. He went on to say that the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others or theirs.
John Locke continues this type of thinking in “Toleration and Government” where he writes that god has never given such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion. “Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the people.” He reasoned that no man could disassociate himself far enough away from his own interests. Locke goes on to justify a freedom of religion as a prerequisite to a free society. Toleration of all ideas was liberty, to Locke. Tolerance would enable people to think freely with out fear of being looked down upon, and allow society to think and grow as new and better ideas came about. Locke believed in society first and the individual secondly. Though all of these men had slightly different views on liberty and how it should be up held or implemented each of them agreed on the