The history of democratic constitutions is inseparable from people’s call for freedom. It started with the atrocities committed during the wars of religion which raged in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the face of such experience, people came to think about the question what the prerequisites are for peace. They demanded that human beings be free to decide on their own, without others‘ interference, on one of the most fundamental matters of their lives, namely their faith.
Without fear or favour
As powerful as people’s call for freedom has been in history – and still is today -, as diverse are their notions or concepts of freedom. The philosopher Judith Shklar described freedom as follows: „Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favour about as many aspects of his or her life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult.“
This standard is based on very fundamental experience that is shared all over the world:
- Human beings fear violence and arbitrary rule, which paralyses them and hinders them to shape and live their personal and communal lives.
- Individuals meet with prejudice on grounds of their colour or religion. It is often impossible for them to escape such prejudice or to effectively respond to it.
In European history, such experience took the form of oppression of people who adhered to a faith other than that of those in power, or supported ideas different from theirs. It took the form of arbitrary rule to which people were subject. It usually was – and still is – from states that such oppression emanated. This is why the right to freedom is at the heart of most modern constitutions. No individual who lives in a country with a democratic constitution shall have to fear the state. Whoever lives in such a state should be able to count on the state protecting him/her against violence and to rely on his/her freedom to develop within the limits defined by the state.
Foundations of democracy
The freedom from persecution, the freedom to choose one’s own faith and political ideas, the freedom to express one’s opinion and to exchange ideas with others, the freedom to assemble and put forth demands – these are the foundations of democracy. Only when individuals are in possession of these freedoms can they share their ideas and thoughts with others and can social and political problems be solved in public dispute and discussion. In the absence of these foundations a democracy cannot work.
Freedom is not unlimited
Freedom does not mean, however, that every individual is free to do whatever he or she pleases. Freedom cannot be unlimited or unrestrained. Whoever claims freedom only for himself denies it to others. What is required is therefore not only to be thoughtful and considerate in dealing with others, but above all to accept that others dress differently, have a different religion, use other languages to communicate with one another. To put it another way: What is needed is not only tolerance but acceptance.
The limits of freedom must be redefined over time. When civil rights were first enshrined in constitutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, what was to be guaranteed was above all freedom from state oppression. In the next stage, the freedoms to be safeguarded were those necessary for individuals to have a say in shaping politics. Over time, however, people became aware that especially women and children – also and in particular within families – lived in fear and were denied any power to make their own decisions. Also it became evident that large business enterprises can pose a threat to, and actually restrict, the freedom of individuals. And in today’s world many of us became aware that freedom of expression is not unlimited – as the internet and social media are disseminating prejudice and hatred at unprecedented speed. Conversely, many of us are wondering whether it is not necessary to restrict freedom in order to maintain security and order in a world facing terrorism.
As the limits of freedom undergo continual redefinition, the freedoms enshrined in the constitution are subject to statutory reservation. This means that each freedom guaranteed by the constitution may be regulated in more detail by ordinary legislation and that this legislation may also provide for a limitation of these freedoms.
What do human beings need to live in freedom?
When we are talking about the limits of freedom we must also think about the requirements that must be fulfilled for human beings to be able to live in freedom. Experience has shown that it is not sufficient to guarantee freedom from state interference or from physical or mental violence. For a life in freedom to be possible, certain general conditions must be fulfilled. They include adequate material provision – when somebody is hungry or without shelter, he/she has only limited or no freedom to determine his or her own life (see the text on Social Justice and the Welfare State). They further include education – and access to it –, which empowers individuals to claim their freedom and use it in a responsible way. Education is also necessary to meet the challenges posed by a life lived in freedom. For life in freedom to be possible it is also necessary that security and order prevail in communal life.
Fulfilment of the above conditions supports freedom. However, it cannot exclude that certain individuals turn against others, use violence and seek to destroy free societies and states. If we want to live in freedom, we must accept this insecurity as a matter of fact that is unavoidable. Whenever, in a democracy, there are discussions about freedom being under threat, the question at issue is therefore how freedoms are to be regulated and, if necessary, limited. What may never happen in this context, however, is that security is rated higher than freedom.
Freedom and responsibility
When individuals can live free from fear and persecution, they can also become free to develop their talents and capacities. And they become free to care for one another, also outside the immediate circle of their family and friends. They can organize their lives in communities, in the public sphere (see the text on Education, Public Discourse and the Media) and in the state, i.e. in politics, and assume responsibility for one another.
There is a close link between freedom and responsibility. When we use our freedom, we want to make deliberate decisions. We decide to live and to act in this and no other way. This also means that we assume responsibility for our acts.
If, however, we attribute everything an individual does to his or her origin, to tradition, to his/her family or his/her environment, we are in fact saying that an individual is not free. What we are saying is: „He/She couldn’t help it!“ When we start arguing along these lines – and prejudice against others often contains such statements -, we cease to recognize others as individuals capable of acting in a free and responsible manner.
What follows from a democratic constitution is the obligation to make prevail the right of each individual to live his/her life in freedom. This is achieved by means of numerous statutes. Among the legislation of primary importance is criminal law, which prohibits the use of all kinds of violence and threats. Other laws in this context are those which regulate the action of police, administration and the courts of law and thus safeguard against persecution by the state. Other laws protect the freedom of expression and of the media, the right to assemble, to demonstrate and to form associations. Another important field of law is marriage and family law, which regulates the freedom to marry, if so desired, as well as the freedom to dissolve such union.
Freedom and independence
The constitution contains yet another concept of freedom: the freedom – i.e. independence – of the state from other states and the freedom of its citizens to make free democratic decisions. The importance of these freedoms is illustrated by the fact that the knowledge of the constitutional provisions in which they are enshrined is particularly widely shared among the Austrian population.
One of these provisions is Article 1 of the Federal Constitutional Act (Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz): „Austria is a democratic republic. Its law emanates from the people.“ This means that the citizens are to be free to participate in the formation of political opinion. The constitution is not to be subordinated to any other system of rules, e.g. to religion (see the text on Freedom of Religion).
The second is the federal constitutional law in which Austria in 1955 declared to be a neutral state. The signing of the Austrian State Treaty on 15 May 1955 is associated by many Austrians with the exclamation „Austria is free!“. In the Austrian coat of arms, the „Federal Eagle“ (Bundesadler), the sundered iron chain has since been a symbol of freedom. In 1938 Austria had become – after its annexation by Germany – part of the Third Reich. The National Socialists were in power until 1945. They were defeated in the Second World War, and the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) liberated Austria and re-established the republic in 1945. Until 1955, Austria was divided into four occupation zones. There were great concerns that it would end up partitioned like Germany. In lengthy negotiations Austria finally secured ist continued existence as a democratic republic. In return, Austria had to declare its will to remain neutral and to refrain from joining any military alliance.