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Don’t Take Liberties with Liberty

Have you ever thought about the relationship between the words liberty and freedom? Frequently, the words are used interchangeably, but I have always preferred liberty.

Perhaps my preference goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s reference to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps it traces to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” Perhaps it is because “with liberty and justice for all” is “the most important phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance,” according to Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen. In a more analytical sense, it could come from John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” and its contrast between freedom to act and the absence of coercion, or Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive liberty (often the meaning when people talk of freedom) and negative liberty (protecting individuals from the tyranny of others) in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

All of those have no doubt influenced my views on freedom versus liberty. But what I most remember as my biggest trigger was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech. It mixed freedoms that were consistent with liberty with freedoms that were not, demonstrating how demagogues have been able to more successfully misrepresent or twist freedom than liberty.

FDR’s first two “essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—were not problematic because both can be enjoyed universally. The freedom of one individual to speak or worship does not detract from the same freedom for others. The only government role created is preventing others’ intrusions on those rights. They are aspects of liberty for all, defending citizens’ rights against man-imposed coercion, including that exercised by the agency with the greatest coercive power—government.

However, FDR’s third freedom—freedom from want—cannot be similarly universal. It commits government to provide some individuals more goods and services than they would have gotten through voluntary interactions (including voluntary charity) with others. But expanding recipients’ freedom in that sense necessarily constricts others’ equal freedom to attain their desired goods and services with their resources. Such freedom must violate liberty.

FDR’s fourth freedom—freedom from fear—was also insufficiently generalized. It proposed guaranteeing that “no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.” Such protection against other governments’ depredations is certainly a valuable defense of liberty in the world. But it says nothing about constraining a nation’s freedom to aggress against its own citizens, which history has shown is a widespread threat to liberty.

Since FDR’s third freedom requires domestic government aggression to get the required resources for its “benevolence,” his “freedom from fear” omits the most significant agency most people must fear when it comes to their liberty. So, his list of freedoms was something quite different from liberty for all.

In my reading on the topic of liberty, including for my 2016 book, Lines of Liberty, liberty has more strongly connoted the absence of an outside constraint imposed by government than freedom. Liberty seems clearer on what it is liberty from—man-imposed coercion—while freedom is more agnostic about what it is freedom from. Perhaps Ludwig von Mises stated what has become my view most clearly in his book Liberty and Property: “Government is essentially the negation of liberty. . . . Liberty is always freedom from the government. It is the restriction of the government’s interference.”

Further, I have found that liberty seems to more strongly suggest a general or universal condition than the word freedom. I can enjoy additional freedom from want through government’s use of what John Hospers called others’ “expropriated money and property,” but such freedoms cannot be general or universal. That is, they cannot provide liberty for all. Such enhancements of freedom for some require taking away others’ equal freedoms. Liberty, in contrast, expands everyone’s joint freedoms, broadening the canvas for peaceful, voluntary actions.

It is also instructive to consider the usage of liberty with regard to travel or movement. As Justice William Douglas wrote in Kent v. Dulles, “The right to travel is a part of ‘liberty’ of which the citizen cannot be deprived without the due process of law. . . . Chafee, Three Human Rights in the Constitution of 1787 . . . shows how deeply engrained in our history this freedom of movement is.” That, in turn, reflected Blackstone’s description of the liberty to move to “whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct.”

This protection against rulers’ power to restrict citizens’ movements is part of liberty as a general freedom from government coercion. However, it is only a negative claim against government interference with their choices. It gives citizens no positive claim on the beneficence of government (i.e., forced charity from others) to get them from point A to point B. If the government fails to coerce one person to give bus fare to another, it in no way limits his freedom from government dictation. And that is the essence of liberty.

It seems to me that the greater linguistic precision and self-consistency of liberty can also be seen in economists’ well-worn TANSTAAFL adage, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Its lesson is that while something could be made free to a particular individual (easing one’s fear of want), the fact of scarcity means there’s still a cost that someone must bear. Therefore, if something is made free to one individual through government, the burden must be imposed on others. Such a freedom not only falls short of being universal, but it actually requires the violation of the same freedom for others. And that usage of the word freedom makes it more distortable than the word liberty. For instance, slaves could equally well be described as being made free or being liberated, but the same equality of freedom and liberty does not apply to free lunches.

Those on whom such burdens are imposed are often simply ignored when so-called freedoms that are inconsistent with liberty are discussed. They fail William Graham Sumner’s test of asking, “Who holds the obligation corresponding to his right?” which is a logical extension of Frédéric Bastiat’s book That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen.

Consequently, I have come to more clearly distinguish between some specific freedom or privilege for some and liberty as universal freedom from government coercion. Freedom can be used to mean liberty, but it can also be used to mean freedom for some that denies the same freedom for others, enforced through government coercion. And a host of abuses can find a foothold in that confusion.

An online search of liberty turned up similar distinctions. Liberty was defined as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.” Independence, autonomy, sovereignty, self-government, self-rule, and self-determination were common synonyms, and constraint was cited as an antonym. That is generalized liberty.

Freedom is a word brimming with hope and possibilities. As Leonard Read said in his book Pattern for Revolt, “Freedom is an assertion of man’s God-given free will, a resurrection of man from deadening arbitrary authority.” But I have frequently seen it manipulated to mean something that reduces general liberty by increasing government coercion. Further, some of the most ringing words of America’s founders are expressed in terms of liberty (e.g., John Adams’s statement that “liberty is [government’s] end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope”; Samuel Adams’s assertion that “the most glorious legacy we can bequeath to posterity is Liberty”; John Dickinson’s declaration that “liberty . . . her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power”; and Patrick Henry’s belief that “Liberty is the greatest of all earthly blessings”). That is why my preference is for liberty, which reduces misrepresentation and clarifies the set of freedoms which provides the best hope and the greatest possibilities—universal freedom from government coercion.

Perhaps we should follow the lead of the common phrase “I took the liberty (to do something).” In one sense (especially to one who has no objection), it can mean one does not need permission. Legitimate liberties are things that we do not need special permission to do because we all share such in- or unalienable rights. In another sense (especially to one who disapproves), it can mean that there are acceptable boundaries to people’s liberties or that overstepping them is allowed. But that just reminds us that the appropriate boundaries of one person’s liberties are marked by the requirement that they do not violate other people’s equal liberties.

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