Not long ago, I was re-reading Rose Wilder Lane’s 1936 “Give Me Liberty,” which traces her evolution from communist to devotion to liberty. Lane’s book made me think about why, although freedom and liberty are often interchangeable words, I have always preferred the word “liberty” to the word “freedom.”
In a nutshell, I would say that I think “liberty” provides superior clarity, which better limits demagogues who seek to misrepresent it. To me, it more fully incorporates the critical sense of “for all” — defending all citizens’ rights against man-imposed coercion, including that exercised by the agency with the greatest coercive power — government itself — which is crucial because many freedoms for some can be expanded by violating freedoms for others.
That is, “liberty” more strongly connotes the absence of an outside constraint imposed by government on anyone than “freedom,” which strikes me as agnostic on what it is freedom from and how that freedom is won. Ludwig von Mises put it clearly when he wrote, “Government is essentially the negation of liberty…Liberty is always freedom from the government. It is the restriction of the government’s interference.”
Enhancements of my freedom that require taking away from others’ freedoms cannot provide “liberty and justice for all.” Universal liberty, in contrast, expands everyone’s joint freedoms, broadening the canvas for peaceful, voluntary interactions.
Consider “liberty” with regard to travel or movement. Justice William Douglas wrote in Kent v. Dulles that “The right to travel is a part of ‘liberty’ of which the citizen cannot be deprived without the due process of law…‘Our nation,’ wrote Chafee, ‘has thrived on the principle that, outside areas of plainly harmful conduct, every American is left to shape his own life as he thinks best, do what he pleases, go where he pleases’.” That, in turn, reflected Blackstone’s description of 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 where they want to be. In contrast, as economists’ well-worn TANSTAAFL adage (“there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) makes clear, something made free to one individual through government, which has no resources it does not extract from its people, requires it to force that burden onto others. Slaves can be equally described as being freed or being liberated, without confusion, but the same is not true of lunches.
Unfortunately, those on whom such burdens are imposed are often simply ignored when “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?” And a host of abuses can find a foothold in that confusion.
My online search to check my understanding turned up similar distinctions. It defined liberty as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority (italics added) on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views,” and added independence, autonomy, sovereignty, self-government, self-rule, and self-determination as synonyms. Further, it added constraint as its antonym. That is generalized liberty.
Don’t get me wrong. “Freedom” is a magnificent word, full of hope and possibilities. But I have too frequently seen it manipulated to mean something that reduces general liberty by increasing government coercion.
Further, some of the most ringing, inspirational words of America’s founding are expressed in terms of liberty (e.g., John Adams’ statement that “liberty is (government’s) end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope,” Samuel Adams’ assertion that “the most glorious legacy we can bequeath to posterity is Liberty,” John Dickinson’s “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 I wish for “liberty,” which reduces such misrepresentation and clarifies what type of freedom provide the best hope and the greatest possibilities—universal freedom from government coercion.
Gary M. Galles is an economics professor at Pepperdine University.