Perspective Society

Liberty for the individual

While the previous era was about exploring the world through land or the seas, the present talks about exploring oneself. How did we come about this transition? The rise of Democracy and its co-existence with liberty are the catalysts.

Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.

George Washington

In the last century, our society has witnessed multiple watershed moments in the past which have resulted in the culmination of the present. Individualism has slowly become the centrepiece of society. While the previous era was about exploring the world through land or the seas, the present talks about exploring oneself. How did we come about this transition? The rise of Democracy and its co-existence with liberty are the catalysts.

Liberty is fundamental to the functioning of modern democracies. Unlike previous totalitarian orders, where the focus was on the personality at the head of the state; democracy shifts the focus to the individuals of society. The people are necessary for the existence of a modern nation-state. People are what make a nation, a nation. A government exists, only by the will of the people. Democracy was adopted on the notion of granting liberties to the common populace. These liberties extend from freedom of speech, movement, practicing-professing-propagating religions of their choice to wearing clothes they want, eating the food they wish to eat, meeting the people they want to meet. It cannot be denied that liberty nearly encompasses all aspects of our lives.

Without it (liberty), people are less motivated to achieve their aims and aspirations. Humans psychologically are driven to satisfy their basic needs. However, to go beyond them requires liberty. The Soviet Union, which was based on Marx’s Communism, did not reward the people for the contributions they made through their labors. They were eligible only for basic sustenance. Anything beyond basic sustenance was the property of the state and was taken away from the individual. Economically (and socially) the Soviet model began to rot and disintegrate compared to the free and capitalist model of the United States of America as time passed.

In the United States, the existence of liberty had a large role to play in its economic and social growth. Since the people could go beyond their basic needs, they could aspire and achieve whatever they set out to do. They could bear the fruits of their labor. It allowed them to think; to think beyond limitations. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries were made in the U.S. Scientific rationalism and discoveries necessitates the absence of dictation and oppression. Both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were superpowers with some of the best minds at their disposal, yet the latter could only ‘catch up’ to the former and never vice versa.

Our constitution too ensures liberty to its people. It forms the basis for achieving other civil liberties as well. You can achieve equality through liberty, but not vice versa (as was the case in Soviet Union). India is the largest democracy in the world. The constitution secures to its citizens, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. All these values are necessary to practice democracy. The very functioning of the nation depends on these values.

Let us take the example of the power of every citizen to vote. A majority view the vote through its extrinsic value of having the freedom to choose our own government. However, it represents far more than that. The principle of one person one vote, ensures equality among the people. Your freedom to vote or not vote is also a form of freedom of expression. When your elected representative changes their political party and loses their seat (under the defection law), you get justice as they did not respect the choice you had made.

What is the way forward for India then? As a democracy India needs to embrace liberties of individuals. Conservatism is similar to Soviet Union’s oppression of the people. Every single individual makes the society what it is. Creating an environment of individual liberty gives the people the opportunity to explore themselves. They will inadvertently contribute to the growth of the nation. To illustrate this with an example, let us talk about ‘career choices.’

For the readers who have not been exposed to Indian society, the career choice of children involves not only themselves, but the entire family too. The approval of the members of your family precedes working towards your career. An age-old stereotype is that of doctors and engineers. There was a period in Indian society when becoming a doctor or an engineer was concluded as the only career that one could opt for. Though this has slowly faded away, it impeded our progress as a society. We ended up with a generation of doctors and engineers who were far cry from being interested in their work and in turn, became a liability to their professions. Professions apart from these also suffered as India could not create internationally recognized films, scientific discoveries, world-renowned brands, or go beyond cricket in sports. The examples are many, but the core idea is that individual liberty would have allowed us to thrive in multiple fields rather than a select few.

However, am I advocating absolute individual liberty? No. Absolute liberty can have the same effect as over-polishing a surface. When a surface is polished beyond a limit, the friction increases rather than decreasing. Similarly, individual liberty must be within a personal sphere of influence. John Stuart Mill gave the ‘Harm Principle.‘ It states that ‘actions of individuals should only be limited when they begin to harm other members of society.’ Therefore, we cannot forego our responsibilities towards society in our mission for self-exploration through individual liberty.

“Individual liberty and interdependence are both essential for life in society.”

Mahatma Gandhi

In conclusion, individual liberty will allow exploration of ideas and aspirations by individuals. This individualism is a pillar of democracy. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union by suppressing it and eventually experience a downfall. Yes, absolute individual liberty is undesirable as it may have the opposite effect. We live in a society and co-existence (coupled with individual liberty) is crucial for the survival of the humanity.

Priyamvad Rai

The cover photo of this post was clicked by our photographer Srishti Garg.

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