Freedom vs. Liberty

In one of his typically long and well-written posts, Steven Den Beste starts from the very basics of the Founders' intentions to show why he supports gay marriage but opposes a Constitutional amendment granting it. The entire entry is worth reading, but I must take issue with a point he makes about tradeoffs of liberty.

In any society, all recognition of liberties is a balancing act, a matter of tradeoffs. There must be always be compromises. Your desire to pop me one in the nose has to be balanced against my desire to not have my nose broken. Your wish to not have your home invaded by strangers has to be balanced against my wish to go where ever I want any time I want. Marilyn's need for privacy has to be balanced against Mark's wish to peek in her window while she's changing her clothes. It isn't possible for all of us to have everything we want. All of us have to accept certain limits on our liberty because those limits make possible the liberty of others in other ways. So we've decided that you don't have a right to break my nose, and I don't have a right to invade your home, and Mark doesn't have a right to watch Marilyn undress. We all accept some limits because we in turn benefit when everyone else accepts the same limits. (Few of us want our noses broken.) We try to make those tradeoffs so as to increase liberty overall, for as many people as possible.

I have seen many people frame the issue of freedom this way - that total freedom leads to sanctioning of crime whereas total lack of freedom leads to tyranny, and thus a balance must be achieved to have a free yet lawful society. The fulcrum lies at some intermediate quantitative point on the continuous axis bounded by complete freedom and complete tyranny.

However, Steven is unfortunately conflating freedom and liberty. They are two different concepts that are often used interchangably (admittedly by me also). Freedom by itself is a meaningless concept. Should I have the freedom to shoot my gun wherever I want? Should I have the freedom to burn down your house? Should I have the freedom to deface your artwork?

People who read this site know that I consider myself a classical liberal, or what is known in today's terms as a libertarian. Upon telling this to someone, he remarked sarcastically, "That's great. Saddam Hussein is a libertarian too. He does whatever he wants wherever he wants to whomever he wants." Unfortunately, that is how many people view libertarianism. They see it as a philosophy that overshoots the point of optimum balance on the zero-freedom to complete-freedom axis.

It should be obvious at this point that framing the issue this way is non-sensical. A better approach is to use liberty as the standard. Whereas freedom implies no limits to individual action, liberty implies barrier from outside coercion. While freedom of the self might imply the sanctioning of the individual to do whatever he desires, including hurting others and their property, liberty of the self implies that every individual is owed protection from others' attempts to hurt his person. While freedom of property might imply the ability of the property owner to use that piece of property to hurt others and their property, liberty of property means that others may not violate the property of any individual.

In other words, freedom = license of action, whereas liberty = barriers to coercion.

Liberty, not freedom, is the only proper foundation for any logical and internally consistent framework of rights. A right does not outline what you may do, but rather what others may not do to you. A right to speech does not mean that you may say whatever you want, but rather that others cannot coercively prevent you from saying what you want. A right to private property does not mean that you can throw your brick through my window, but rather that others may not throw bricks through your window.

The logical extension of this framework results in a society in which human relationships are voluntary.

The Founders understood this distinction when they built upon the words of John Locke in the Declaration of Independence to write down the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.

Contrary to what Steven says, there is no tradeoff or balancing act. There is no axis having complete freedom at one end and complete tyranny at the other, at least in the writings of the classical liberals like Locke. Liberty simply implies barriers to coercion. The exact delineation of those barriers is a function of any common law system. Reading the above quoted paragraph again, it is evident that liberty would imply that a priori, there is no right to break another's nose or peek through her window. It is not any vague 'we' or 'society' that has decided this, but rather the fact that rights to self and property are natural.

I suspect that most people who view rights this way also call themselves libertarians whereas those who do not make the critical distinction between freedom and liberty do not call themselves libertarians. Having read Steven's previous writing, I suspect that it is also one reason why does not call himself a libertarian.

Share this