Differences in freedom and liberty | The Triangle

Differences in freedom and liberty

The anarchist poet Herbert Read said that English is a particularly flexible language because it has borrowed so extensively from other languages. His example was that in English it is easy to distinguish between freedom (German “Freiheit”) and liberty (French liberte).

I have been thinking again about freedom and liberty and will share the reflective equilibrium that has come from that rethought. Fair warning: it could be a hard slog.

Freedom is the condition in which an individual can make and carry out decisions according to their own will. As such, freedom is never absolute. Our freedom is limited both by the laws of nature and by the contrary wills of others. But when we talk about freedom, we are making a metaphysical assumption, whether we know it or not.

The metaphysical assumption is that our subjective experience of free will is an experience of reality. If, as some (or all?) materialists and some religious mystics assure us, our decisions and actions are completely determined by something outside ourselves, then freedom of will is no more real than the things we experience in a dream, and we are automata. For automata, freedom is meaningless.

Liberty, by contrast, is a legal condition; it is a condition in which the state reserves to some, or all, individuals the right to decide certain things. Thus, the state takes no action to limit those choices, and enforces the individual’s right to make those decisions, by prohibiting and penalizing attempts by other individuals to interfere with those decisions.

Liberty may not be equal. In a slave society, for example, the slave-owner has liberty to decide how the labor of the slave will be deployed; but the slave has no such liberty. Thus the revolutionary ideal of the enlightenment, the French revolution and liberal societies generally is for equal liberty.

In a society without a government or with a weak government, most people might have very little freedom, for two reasons. First, freedom may be limited by the ability of more powerful people with contrary wills to coerce the general public’s decisions. But second, and probably more importantly, my decisions would be conditioned on the need to protect myself against the contrary wills of others and the threats that they might coerce or do violence to the me.

In a struggle, we do not do what we should but what we must in order to survive and to prevent others from damaging us. Both game theory and social contract theory have a lot to say about this. Thomas Hobbes, the founder of social contract theory, and Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate and game theorist, both tell us in different languages that in order to increase our freedom, we will often have to give up some of our liberty.

Nevertheless, a regime of extensive and equal liberty, enforced by a strong state, can increase our freedom. For those who think freedom is meaningful, this is a reason to advocate for extensive and equal liberty.

Can we have equal liberty in a world of unequal property? The example of the liberty of the slave and the slave-owner poses this problem. Clearly, in a regime of equal liberty, some limits must be placed on property: in particular, slavery must be excluded. What else must be excluded? In order to have equal liberty, must we exclude “wage-slavery?” Libertarian socialists have always thought so.

It may seem that liberty is so obviously a good thing that no one could oppose it, but just the contrary is true. The liberty that we call “free speech” is the liberty to insult others in ways that others may not tolerate without violence. Some may support authoritarian rule on the reasoning that extensive liberty, even if equal, is disruptive, and leads to conflict that is destructive both of human well-being and of liberty itself, so that liberty is self-defeating.

Of course, this argument may be self-serving: those who support authoritarian regimes often seem to be among those who benefit from them. Nevertheless, it does seem that a stable regime of liberty is likely only present where there is a very widespread consensus that the liberty ought to be respected.

That in turn means that the liberties that can be reasonably proposed will vary from one society to another, that, for example, liberty may not be served when people are permitted to insult what others in the same society venerate. It seems that globalization, by bringing together people who venerate very different traditions, is creating societies in which liberty must be more restricted.

Unfortunately, I have no answers; only questions. Could a consensus for extensive liberty justify the limitation of immigration and of globalization? Is that even possible? In a globalized and pluralist nation, are we required to consider new limits on liberty? You must find your own answers.

Roger McCain is a professor of economics at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].