Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Liberty vs. Freedom (2)

I try to use the word ‘liberty’ rather than ‘freedom’ and the term ‘at liberty’ rather than ‘free.’ Not because I don’t like ‘freedom’ and ‘free’, less because I don’t like the concepts behind them, but because ‘free’ has many meanings. Use of the more precise terms eliminates potential ambiguity in what I am saying and, more important, forces me to be clear about what I am thinking.

‘Free’ can mean things antithetical to liberty. People can be made free of sin, or free of the contradictions inherent to capitalism (per Marx) only by making them decidedly unfree in other ways. To be kept free of sin, somebody must prevent the people – by force and threat of violence – from doing those things some authority considers sinful.

Liberty can be extinguished in pursuit of freedom, depending on what is meant by ‘free’.

Origin and Definition

‘Liberty’ comes to us from the Latin ‘libertas’, itself a noun based on the Latin ‘liber’ meaning free. ‘Liber’, however, has not been adopted into modern English in any form I am aware of.

The American Heritage Dictionary (online at defines ‘liberty’ as :

1a. The condition of being free from restriction or control. b. The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing. c. The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor. See synonyms at freedom. 2. Freedom from unjust or undue governmental control. 3. A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference: the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. 4a. A breach or overstepping of propriety or social convention. Often used in the plural. b. A statement, attitude, or action not warranted by conditions or actualities: a historical novel that takes liberties with chronology. c. An unwarranted risk; a chance: took foolish liberties on the ski slopes. 5. A period, usually short, during which a sailor is authorized to go ashore.

The first three meanings refer to being unconstrained by human or state agencies. None of the definitions have anything to do with being immune to unpleasant conditions (hunger, fear), uncontaminated, available at no cost, or any of the other meanings of ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ that are not synonymous with ‘liberty’.

What I mean by ‘liberty’
Ludwig von Mises wrote:
‘This is what the modern concept of freedom means. Every adult is free to fashion his life according to its own plans. He is not forced to live according to the plan of a planning authority enforcing its unique plan by the police, i.e., the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. What restricts the individual’s freedom is not other people’s violence or threat of violence, but the physiological structure of his body and the inescapable nature-given scarcity of the factors of production.’
– Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality p. 3

In this passage, von Mises defines the ‘liberty’ meaning of ‘freedom’. I would simply substitute ‘liberty’ for ‘freedom’ and ‘at liberty’ for ‘free’ in the above passage.

Fredrich von Hayek defined freedom, or liberty as “independence of the arbitrary will of another”.

I accept the definitions given by Mises and Hayek. In my words, ‘liberty’ is “the condition of being not subject to the will of another person or institution under the threat or actuality of violence.” A person has liberty to the extent he is immune to violence, particularly legitimate violence. Liberty means being able to ignore the will of another without suffering violence to ones person, property, nor the suffering of violence by proxy: “do what I want or I’ll hurt your friend.”

The only constraints facing an individual in his or her pursuit of desires or implementation of a life plan are the realities of the physical world (which include the scarcity of desirable things), the limitations of his or her body and mind, and the requirement not to interfere with the liberty of anyone else. (Enforcement of this last limitation is why the state, with its monopoly on legitimate violence, is necessary for the realization of human liberty.)

This is merely a restatement of the American Heritage definitions 1&2 (above). Obviously, this is synonymous with the definition of ‘freedom’ commonly used in political contexts by Americans. Similarly, being ‘at liberty’ or ‘in the condition of having liberty’ is synonymous with ‘free’ as commonly used in the same context.

I prefer ‘liberty’ and ‘at liberty’ simply because there is less room for ambiguity, not because of any disagreement with the appropriate definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘free’

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