The word liberty is derived from the word liber which means ‘free’. We all want to be free and have as much freedom as possible. But what exactly to be free means or should mean. Should there be restrictions on freedom and what and how much? . What if the freedoms enjoyed by two people leads them to come into conflict. Such questions have been attracting thinkers from the earliest times.
Almost all liberal thinkers commented on liberty but they all brought their own flavour to it and one can’t assert that there is an exact uniform view. Also this is one concept on which the views have been more philosophical and ethical than either political or political-economic. Hobbes defined liberty as the ‘absence of external impediments, which impediments may oft take part of man’s power to do what he would do’ . For the German philosopher Hegel, liberty strangely was simply obedience to the law. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important thinkers in the liberal tradition, commented ‘the only freedom that deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it’ . Later after the limits of liberal capitalism became apparent. Marxian and Socialist thinking emerged to interpret liberty as (1) liberation from the coercive social apparatus and institutions (which the working class faces), and (2) to establish an atmosphere in which man could build a world according to the needs of humanity as opposed the needs of capital and capitalists who own the capital.
Post the socialist critique of the liberal interpretations of liberty, the positive liberals in the early part of the twentieth century refined the old liberal notions. Laski, for instance, defines liberty as the ‘absence of restraints upon the existence of those social conditions which in modern civilisation are a necessary guarantee of individual happiness’ . And McPherson defined liberty as living life to the fullest. (Obviously he meant if you had all the freedom and liberty but not enough food or decent shelter and were worked like an animal or a machine all day, liberty would be a theoretical meaningless notion for you.)