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13 January 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:17am

How the right claimed “liberty” and made it a toxic word

Defending civil liberties was once a defining principle of the left, so why has the term been co-opted to mean unbridled individualism?

By Harry Readhead

The frequent appeals to “personal liberty” made by anti-maskers and lockdown sceptics make a depressing addition to the Covid debate for anyone on the left who believes in liberty.

It isn’t just that those appeals don’t add up to a very good argument. It’s that a small group on the libertarian right (and assorted contrarian types who have joined their ranks) have claimed the word “liberty” for themselves, degrading its meaning to suit their own ends.  

But we’ve been here before. During the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century, there was also a strident minority resisting the rules brought in to save lives, often by means of invoking liberty. (There were conspiracy theories then, too, one of which claimed that elites had released cholera to cull the poor; this is probably worth remembering every time you read about 5G or mysterious Chinese labs.)

What’s interesting is that the basis for the public health measures put in place at the end of that century and afterwards was provided in part by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which became a classic text on the subject. According to Mill’s “harm principle”, liberty may be suspended if its expression harms someone else. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which laid out the values of the French Revolution, said much the same thing 70 years before.

But though the lockdown sceptics’ arguments have been discredited, we still find ourselves in a semantic muddle. And the reason for this is that many on the left have granted those self-described libertarians the exclusive right to define liberty, by forgetting or neglecting the libertarian strands of their own tradition, as well as their defenders. 

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[See also: Why lockdown sceptics should accept the overwhelming case for restrictions now]

After all, liberty isn’t the preserve of the right. Many great thinkers on the left – Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Herbert Read – fused a respect for liberty with a concern for social justice. You might even mention Gore Vidal, or Christopher Hitchens, whose libertarian leanings stayed with him throughout his political life.  

Defending (and, indeed, demanding) civil liberties was once a defining principle of the left. Bound up with it was a leftist defence of liberty that differs starkly from the absolute variant on the modern libertarian right. Orwell, invoked by the right whenever absolute free speech is questioned, wrote that “there always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure”. According to the leftist tradition, liberty may be (and often is) put to one side in pursuit of another cause: “Freedom without equality is exploitation,” as Rosa Luxemburg put it.   

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To defend liberty, in other words, is not to give up your critical faculties, your common sense, or your regard for others. It isn’t to become an evangelist for unbridled individualism. It’s just to respect personal freedom and agency in the context of wider society.

And yet, turned over to sundry contrarians and the fringes of the libertarian right, inside and outside parliament, untrammelled individualism is what the word is now associated with. Liberty – a political construct, used synonymously with but distinct from freedom – is coming to mean a kind of absolute, do-whatever-you-like autonomy that has no regard for the harm that autonomy might do to others. On that view, being told you’re not allowed to swing an axe into someone’s face would be an attack on liberty. This is obviously ridiculous, but the fact is that the left has allowed a small group on the right to give liberty whatever meaning it likes.

This isn’t just an academic point. The left’s desertion of liberty as an ideal has some dispiriting real-life consequences. There has been weak opposition from the left to the roll-out of warrantless mass surveillance as well as its means, much of it fraught with bias that has very real consequences for social justice. The news over the summer that the right to peaceful protest might be restricted was met with little more than a shrug. (The architect of that plan, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described the Black Lives Matter protests as “currently unlawful” due to Covid-19.) And one can’t help but feel that the news the government has reportedly dropped its plans to let people define their own gender might have provoked a stronger reaction if a zeal for social justice could have been fused with an appeal to liberty.

As for the pandemic, a nuanced critique of the Coronavirus Act from across the spectrum has been lacking. Those who would think of themselves as liberal have been silent, despite the criminalisation of many forms of human behaviour without real debate, to be ratified retrospectively. Perhaps this is necessary in this case, but the lack of opposition sets a dismal precedent.

As it is, the word liberty has been left to those who gleefully tweet photos of themselves sans masks. That’s something the left should find off-putting. Compassion and a real emphasis on the common good are necessary during a crisis such as the pandemic. But that doesn’t condemn the idea of liberty to meaninglessness or irrelevance.  

[See also: Richard Seymour on why the hard right fought against lockdown]

Harry Readhead is a member of the advocacy group Liberty