What Is Liberty Exactly?

what is libertyMore or less every modern politician talks about “freedom” or “liberty.” Actually, they don’t talk about it as much as they use it as a magic incantation. They go on at length about “our free country,” but if you could get them to define freedom, that definition would be something along the lines of “what we have.”

Once we’re past such self-praising nonsense, we’re still left with the original question: What is liberty exactly? And then the trouble begins. There are dozens of definitions. This is a problem. We’re all going around talking about liberty, but no two of us mean precisely the same thing. If you’re looking for reasons why liberty gets so little real traction in the world, this would be a good place to start.

So, it’s about time that we clarified what we mean by these terms. And, since I’ve spent decades pursuing liberty, and since no one else seems to be addressing this, I’ll take on this chore myself.

First of all, I’m going to treat “liberty” and “freedom” as the same concept. After all, the word freedom comes to us from old English and liberty from old French, and they both mean the same thing: unconstrained.

The problem with unconstrained lies in the fact that we are constrained by the natural world, by everything from gravity to rocks to weather. Nature constrains us. Yet, we don’t feel oppressed by nature – it isn’t trying to hurt us or limit us, it simply is what it is, and we can use it as we wish too. Our bodies are part of nature, after all.

It is when other people force us to obey, use violence against us, or simply intimidate us, that we feel constrained and abused. (Which tells us all we really need to know about the nature of liberty and humanity.)

So What Is Liberty?

Here is a precise definition for freedom/liberty:

A condition in which a man’s will regarding his own person and property is unopposed by any other will.

That is the bedrock. From there you can add other aspects if you wish, but you cannot deviate from this core and still be talking about “liberty.”

For example, Thomas Jefferson used the same core idea (notice the inclusion of “will”), but added a political aspect:

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

The great John Locke also held to this core, but took it in a more philosophical direction:

All men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.

Personally, I like a very plain version of the same sentiments:

We should be allowed to do whatever we want, so long as we don’t hurt others.

I generally call these statements as Lockean, since John Locke was the first person to clearly define the concept of liberty in modern times. But, that’s just my preference.

These statements are clear, and they define liberty. No more really need be said.

You can ignore manipulative “freedom to” statements like Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Second Bill of Rights, whose proposed ‘rights’ included the right of everyone to their own home. This, of course, would require the enslavement of builders, suppliers and taxpayers. (Roosevelt never mentioned that side of the equation, of course.)

There’s only one thing which I will add to this discussion, and that is this: None of us have a monopoly on Lockean liberty.

Anyone who holds to Locke’s formulation is your brother and sister, and you must accept them as such.

We are past the time when we can be insular (if there ever really was such a time). You don’t have to agree 100% with the Ron Paul people or the free-market anarchists, or with anyone, but if they accept the core statements above, you must accept them as joint heirs of the Lockean liberties.

If you think someone is wrong, you can ignore the difference of opinion, or you can, respectfully, correct them. Better still, you could laugh at your joint human frailties and move forward together. What you may not do, is to cast them off as idiots; you may not resent them for honestly disagreeing. If they believe in John Locke’s liberty, they are your allies, not your enemies.

If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve to succeed.

Paul Rosenberg
What is Liberty Exactly?

7 thoughts on “What Is Liberty Exactly?”

  1. Thank you. This important truth, that we libertarians should unite on core principles rather than on petty disagreements (limited government vs. anarchy, pro-IP vs. anti-IP, free-immigration vs. restricted-immigration (of the Hoppe variety, not the statist variety), and a host of petty disagreements). Murray Rothbard, in his classic article “Do You Hate the State?,” recognized this important truth and was himself willing to work with radical, laissez-faire limited government libertarians even as he himself was an anarchist.

  2. Very good article.
    One more idea: “Liberty” is the freedom that can be put into the plural.
    As in “Oh freedom – what liberties are taken in thy name!” (Billy Bragg).
    A perfect summary.

  3. photo 80+old -facebook- no email? Liberty and freedom are best used in a political realm
    meaning – the absence of government oppression. Independence of mind and body within the personal constraints of a wise society dedicated to enhance and ennoble itself. Other wise – The orgy in the streets gang reign supreme.

  4. I tend to think of “Liberty” as the self-justified short-sighted self-serving nature of humans. Based upon an aristocratic desire of the common people to rise into similar stature without the benefit of common sense. Corruptly promoted by Church Leadership to feed coffers and promote power over government and to act independent of the law; i.e. organized crime. Recent proofs are the Governments proclaiming the requirement to be Islamic to be part of a country, and the governing Representatives choosing to continuously re-interpret the Qur ‘an to benefit their own position of power. The common people subordinated by their own fears in an unknown god.

    I tend to migrate toward Thomas Jefferson’s version. But even though his faith was Universalism and he abhorred organized religion, he had to consider the acceptance of others of his writings in order to have influence.

    Universalism of the time was the belief that the Universe is the only work of God; everything not touched by humans. That science was the only valid religion because it is based in excluding the influences of mankind and studies the works of God directly. A very unpopular notion of the time; as was his black wife Sally Hemmings that he traveled with, and had 6 children.

    Only 200 years earlier Galileo was ostracized by the Church for proclaiming the Earth revolved around the Sun. Where if Galileo had proclaimed that the Earth potentially orbited around God and not man then he might have had more influence and more support. As a result, I think Thomas Jefferson tempered his writings.

    “Rational Liberty is to pursue that which sustainably benefits the universe and all its inhabitants most broadly; to include life forms inconsistent with our own.”

    “The great purpose of life is to sustainably promote the greatest diversity of life.”

    1. Your narrative dismisses or demonstrates a misunderstanding of the “civil society” described by Alexis de Tocqueville. To describe liberty as self serving seems very cynical.

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