What Is Liberty?

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Liberty (AKA Freedom), the supposed object of Libertarianism, is hardly ever defined or discussed analytically by libertarians. Liberty, as used by libertarians, is a glittering generality of propaganda: an emotionally appealing phrase so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that it carries conviction without supporting information or reason. But liberty is susceptible to analysis and that analysis reveals enormous problems with libertarian ideology.

A good model of liberty should be consistent with observations from law, economics, and anthropology. If it is based on observation, we can call it a positive model, like other models in the sciences. (But not necessarily philosophy.)


Libertarians Avoid Saying What Liberty Is

Libertarians are big on prescriptive (philosophically normative) descriptions of what they want as liberties. But they evade positive statements of what liberty IS.

For example:

This absence of satisfactory definitions of liberty or freedom is typical of libertarian literature. The most libertarians seem to do is to arbitrarily declare that negative liberty is the only true liberty: but that does not explain other people's conceptions.

Usually libertarians provide some examples of what they consider liberty, but examples do not provide a definition. For example, if I tell you birds and mammals are examples of vertebrates, that doesn't tell you if fish are vertebrates or what vertebrates really are. And of course it can also lead to faulty generalizations, such as that vertebrates are warm blooded.

Liberty as a glittering generality of propaganda.

When a libertarian uses the naked term "liberty", they are being deliberately vague, exploiting a glittering generality of propaganda. If you want to be specific, identify exactly which liberties you are talking about. "My liberty" is just as vague.

Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom. Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist. I do not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean word recorded by historians of ideas.
Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty"

Berlin goes on to say: "I do not propose to discuss either the history or the more than two hundred senses of this protean word, recorded by historians of ideas."

Hohfeld's Definition of a Liberty

Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld created the standard legal classification of right, duty, privilege, no-right, power, liability, immunity and disability in his 1913 article Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning. (Privilege means liberty.) Libertarians (and lay people in general) are usually ignorant of these important definitions. His definition for a liberty is roughly:

A has a legal liberty (privilege or no duty) from B when B has no legal right for A to do or not do something.

Note that B could legally or illegally interfere with A's liberty in any way, removing that liberty. For example, if A wanted to cross a narrow bridge, B could block his way (which may or may not be legal.) Hohfeldian legal liberties are very weak because they impose no duty on ANY others to not interfere, so EVERYBODY has liberty to interfere.

Every Liberty Has Externalities

Pretty much every action or inaction has externalities, things that can affect other people. Even just breathing: you consume oxygen and release heat. That sounds trivial, until you consider that we can construct circumstances where that could spell life or death for others, such as in a closed container. The liberty to homestead land has the externality that when all the land is homesteaded, there is none left for others to have the same liberty. There are many other externalities having to do with the environment. For that reason, we might want to limit various liberties.

In so far as I live in society, everything that I do inevitably affects, and is affected by, what others do. Even Mill's strenuous effort to mark the distinction between the spheres of private and social life breaks down under examination. Virtually all Mill's critics have pointed out that everything that I do may have results which will harm other human beings.
Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty"

Liberties Always Conflict

Most obviously, you can have a liberty to restrict other people's liberties. For example, freedom to enslave means no freedom from slavery and freedom from slavery means no freedom to enslave. Don't kid yourself that either of these are not real and desired freedoms: major wars have been fought over them. Requiring equal liberties means restriction of the liberty of those who want unequal liberties, and vice versa.

Conflicting liberties inevitably cause loss of liberty to some parties, as if there were a law of conservation of liberty: liberty cannot be created or destroyed, only redistributed. The question is then who should have what liberty and why? Before we can answer that with more than handwaving, we need a model of liberty.

A Positive Model Of Liberty

A good model of a liberty should be consistent with observations from law, economics, and anthropology. If it is based on observation, we can call it a positive model, like other models in the sciences. (But not necessarily philosophy.)

A person (P) is free to do or be a thing (T), to achieve a goal (G), using an ability (A), with a resource (R), when all others (O) do not interfere, despite opportunity costs (C), because of reason (B).

This is not as complex a model as it could be, but suffices to capture most of of the ideas of liberty. For example:

Pete is free to Trampoline, to achieve a Goal of exercise, using his Ability to jump, with a trampoline as his Resource, when the Owners do not interfere, despite the opportunity Cost that they could use it themselves, Because Pete can bribe them with a rental fee.

Let's look at parts of this answer more closely.

  • To achieve a goal means to benefit in some way, to satisfy a value, our motivation: it's the reason Pete might want to do this. Freedoms we don't value are meaningless to us.
  • Both Abilities (internal to our bodies) and Resources (external) are essential to almost every liberty: without them you cannot do or be a thing. Increases in abilities or resources can increase your liberties. For example, if I want freedom to get over a wall, a ladder could be a resource that provides the liberty or physical conditioning could be an ability that provides the liberty. There is no sharp boundary between abilities and resources: they can blend into each other, and both are necessary.
  • Everything you do or be has opportunity costs to others. They might be small, but they are still there. For example, others might be better off if you do not trampoline because they could instead.
  • There might be many different opportunity costs for others, and many different reasons why they refrain from interfering. For example, the trampoline owners don't interfere because they were bribed, while others don't interfere because of the government coercion of the property system (they could be taken to court) and still others just might not care because their opportunity costs are negligible.

Why Is A Positive Model Important?

It is called facing reality. Stating only prescriptive (philosophically normative) descriptions of what you want as liberties ignores the conditions needed to create them and the side effects of those liberties. A model helps reveal what is implicit in a liberty. That can have enormous practical consequences. This model, for example, shows why liberties cannot be unlimited: because of competition for limited external resources (R) and because of the need for reasons (B) for others not to interfere (which restricts the liberty of those others.)

Confusion of Liberties with Rights

Rights are liberties that are coercively defended: others are forced not to interfere. If you have a right to cross a bridge, your liberty is defended by law. But the important thing is that rights are created by enforcing duties on others, destroying THEIR liberties. You may want liberty to cross a bridge, and get a right to cross the bridge; but that means everybody else loses their liberty to interfere with your crossing. They have a duty to not interfere. That coerced duty to not interfere is the reason B in the model above. That is a huge externality!

Creation of a right means that a choice has been made by the defender of the right about how liberty should be distributed. It doesn't matter whether it is a right of rule for a dictator or a right to an item personal property: a coercive choice has been made that one will have that liberty and everyone else will not. A right such as property in something is a liberty for one, and the opposite of a liberty (a duty) for everybody else.

How Does This Model of Liberties Relate to the Capability Approach?

Amartya Sen's and Martha Nussbaum's ideas of Capabilty Approach are prescriptive oughts based on ideas of the kind of lives people would have reason to value. This model attempts to be descriptive of what is, not an ought. The chosen capabilities would be realized as liberties in the model's sense.

Development Versus Abandonment

Liberty can be classified as two types: development and abandonment. Development increases freedoms, while abandonment ("negative liberty") leaves people with whatever they have, no matter how insufficient.

Why We Need To Choose Which Liberties We Value

Examples That Could Be Explained By This Model

Triadic Liberty

Positive and Negative Liberty

Why Ability and Resources Are Essential to a Liberty