Liberalism, a word that contains the idea of liberty in its very name, is accordingly an ideology or group of ideologies which value human freedom, and seek to promote this value in a political context. Different forms of liberalism can have both different conceptions of freedom, and different views on how liberty is best promoted and preserved, and the political systems which should be employed to bring this about. Whether liberalism emphasises freedom at the expense of other values, then, is dependent upon what kind of liberalism one is criticising and what kind of freedom this liberalism advocates.
It also depends on what “other” values one finds important and whether these are sacrificed in the interest of individual liberty. Classical Liberalism places the highest value upon the freedom of the individual, and sees the state as existing solely to guarantee man’s “natural rights” of life, liberty and property. The classical liberal state is thriftily minimal, existing only to safeguard those “natural rights” which were turned over to its jurisdiction under the social contract, and all else it leaves to the free market.
Economic liberalism as an essential factor in individual liberty is characteristic of classical as well as other kinds of liberalism, since the ability to freely buy and sell, and relate to others economically is seen as a necessity for any kind of individual liberty to exist (as well as the free market being the best model for general economic prosperity). State interference in the economy amounts to state interference in the free transactions and activities of individuals, and is thus an infringement on liberty.
It could be argued, then, that classical liberalism puts emphasis on economic freedom at the expense of economic equality, or a fairness of some sort. Since it gives the state no right to address economic hardships and allows capitalism a free reign, it allows the values of equality, obtained for example in state redistribution of wealth or appropriation of capital, to be neglected. One could argue, furthermore, that the promotion of economic freedom specifically, in the laissez-faire sense, actually comes at the expense of real freedom itself.
Because classical liberalism sees freedom only in the negative sense, i. e. in freedom from constraints on one’s natural rights (by the state or others), it does not acknowledge that those born into poverty, for example, are born into a condition created by the system they advocate, which they are completely unable to escape. In this condition, the individual does not have the ability to, for example, choose where and how often they work, choose what to eat, or where they live; they do not have the money or leisure for education – they are imprisoned by economic hardship.
The “freedom to”, positive freedoms, are not recognised by classical liberals, and thus individuals whose conditions are manifestly unfree would be considered free nonetheless. The conception of individual liberty as something more than securing from threat one’s “natural rights” is something one finds in other forms of liberalism. The main value which underpins utilitarian liberalism is not freedom at all, but the value of “the greatest happiness”.
John Stuart Mill views the greatest happiness as being best achieved by allowing the individual the maximum liberty which can be maintained (and still fulfil the greatest happiness principle). This is because the development of the “higher pleasures” of the person – intellectual refinement etc – is dependent upon a degree of freedom of thought, expression and action, because humans are generally unhappy as slaves. Utilitarian liberalism does not entirely ignore other values then, since liberty is seen to an extent as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, but it does emphasise freedom to a large extent.
It is questionable, again, whether the advocacy of laissez-faire values is really necessary to personal freedom, and although laissez-faire capitalism does allow for some to develop themselves through enterprise it does not provide the same opportunity for everyone to do this, and thus one could question whether this economy really does maximise utility (as well as whether it provides the same degree of opportunity for self-development to everyone).
Social liberalism which places an emphasis on equality of opportunity and positive freedoms is more difficult to criticise for its neglect of other values. Although social liberalism, fundamentally, aims to promote liberty, its conception of liberty is vastly different from that of classical liberalism. Equality of opportunity is argued for on the basis that it gives every individual in society the best chance of developing as a human and ridding individuals of constraints on their opportunity to attain autonomy, happiness, and real freedom.
Those who have a different idea of liberty could criticise this approach on the basis that the entitlement of one individual to this equality, is the obligation of another to provide it – that the social constraints which must be placed on others to bring about this equality of opportunity are unjustifiable infringements on the rights of individuals (for example, taxing the rich to give to the poor).
One could ask, however, whether it is really possible to lay too much emphasis on freedom, and whether there are other values. If one did believe that freedom was the only value, and the only thing worth preserving to its greatest extent, other values such as certain moral imperatives, etc, would be unimportant. In addition, every form of liberalism aims to maximise freedom in some sense, and there are still a diverse range of methods for obtaining it.
This is because, as we have seen, there are different views on what actually constitutes freedom: whether it is merely the absence of a constraint by the state, or whether it involves informal social and economic relationships. Freedom could be constructed from a set of different values – equality, security and order, opportunity to develop oneself and share thoughts and experiences with others, participation in the government of oneself and one’s society.
Although liberalism as a whole tends to take the individual out of social contexts and above humanity on the social level, the value of freedom, and thus some kind of liberalism (most probably a social liberalism, rather than classical liberalism which from today’s perspective could be seen as harsh) can be a coherent and just combination of various ideals for the construction of a just society which maintains the integrity and rights of the person.