The Importance of Liberty and the Rhetorical Misuse of Freedom

First Published: 2021-12-04

The seemingly singular concern of modern political debate, dispute, and disagreement is the issue of how and in what forms government will command and control and restrict and regulate the actions and interactions of virtually everyone in society, as well as redistribute the income and wealth of some for the benefit of others.

Open the opinion pages of practically any mainstream newspaper or magazine, or peruse any of the mass media internet websites, and the message is almost always the same: the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and it is all because those in political authority are not using their governmental powers to remake society in a more “fair” or “socially just” way, and all because people are being left free from the direction and dictates of those who either should or do know how to make a “better world.”

It really does not matter which of the major political parties is either in power or out of power, or whether they go by what is mislabeled as “left” or “right,” or “progressive” or “conservative.” They all presume and take for granted the need and necessity for forms and degrees of political paternalism. What they are arguing over, most of the time, is not whether government should interfere with the peaceful, private, and socially voluntary interactions and associations of others, but for what purpose and through which methods shall the heavy hand of government manage people’s affairs.

Regulatory arm of government is everywhere

This is not an exaggeration. The federal government has over 450 departments, bureaus, and agencies whose duties are almost always defined as changing the actions of individuals or the outcomes of interpersonal activities of many in either the marketplace or the general societal setting. There can be no doubt about this when referring to the Social Security Administration, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Labor Relations Board, or the Federal Trade Commission, or the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Cabinet-level Departments of Labor, or Commerce, or Agriculture, or Education, or Health and Human Resources, or Housing and Urban Development, or Energy, or Transportation, just to name a few of those that many people may have at least heard of.

But what about the Commission for Fine Arts, or the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or the Office of Disability Employment Policy, or the Elder Justice Initiative, or Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation, or the Federal Financing Bank, or the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, or the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, or the Hour and Wage Division, or the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, or the Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, or the Marine Mammal Commission, or Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, or the Millennium Challenge Corporation, or the Multifamily Housing Office, or the Northern Border Regional Commission, or the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, or the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, or the Office of Postsecondary Education, or the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Service, or the Open World Leadership Center, or the Parent Information and Resources Center, or the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, or the Risk Management Agency, or the Rural Business and Cooperative Program, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, or the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, or the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

I have mentioned a few that stood out to me when looking over a list of those 450 departments, bureaus, and agencies, only because they seemed to highlight the reach of the federal government in matters having little or nothing to do with the fundamental responsibility of a government to protect the life, liberty, and honestly acquired property of the citizenry, while otherwise leaving all other matters to the personal and voluntary affairs of the people themselves.

Looking over that list of hundreds of branches of the federal government also makes clear the absurdity and total misinformation of those who daily insist that America is a wild land of unregulated “laissez-faire,” where anything goes, with government being some small, poor, and starved appendage to an “out-of-control” free market. If one adds to this list all the departments, bureaus, and agencies of the state and local governments that either extend or overlap with this network of federal intervention and planning of social affairs, a far easier question to answer might be to specify the corners of every American’s life into which one or more levels of government do not intrude and intervene.

Twisting the meaning of “freedom”

The word that is especially missing from practically all discussions concerning the role of government in society is “liberty.” The word “freedom” is used frequently enough, but alas, that is because the meaning of freedom has been so twisted and distorted that it is now used to indicate and designate all those aspects of human life over which it is expected that government will “free” people from want or worry.

Is that not what is meant by “free” healthcare, or “free” education, or “free” housing, or “freedom” from hunger, or “freedom” from “hurtful” words, or “freedom” from any of the other uncertainties or insecurities of everyday life? This is because in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the word “freedom” changed its meaning due to the efforts of a good number of socialists, welfare statists, and interventionists of various stripes.

A distinction was made between “negative” and “positive” freedom, with the former meaning the freedom “merely” from the aggressions of others against one’s life, liberty, and private property. But of what value is such “negative” freedom if one is unemployed, or starving, or without a place to live, or unable to acquire an education and the skills to earn a “decent living wage?”

What people needed and wanted was “positive” freedom, meaning (usually) the financial capacity to purchase or acquire those things that “really” make you free from want and worry? That is, being guaranteed a job, and being able to obtain an education, and being assured a “decent” place to live, and having the income to have a fair and just standard of living.

But since the necessities and the amenities of life do not fall from the sky or grow on trees to merely reach up and pick off, “someone” has to first work, save, invest, and produce virtually all the goods and services that enable all those “good things” to be available. What happens if some have the financial and other means to have standards and qualities of life better and above others to which it is, then, claimed they all have a “right” if they are to be “really” free? Then those who have “more” must be taxed or regulated in ways that transfer and redistribute some of what they have or have access to, to those others in society who do not.

“Positive” freedom to take what belongs to others

Thus, a society is not a truly “free society” unless all have access to and use of those same standards and qualities of life that some have while others do not. Income inequality beyond some usually undefined, but presumed relatively narrow, range then “measures” the extent to which a society is not free.

Freedom, therefore, does not mean absence of coercive actions by some against others. No, freedom means, instead, absence of physical (or even psychological) wants without which human life feels “hurtful” and “oppressive,” or “unfree.” But if those in the latter category are to have the necessary “freedom,” others must provide the means for them to have it; if those who have “more” will not voluntarily give to those who have “less,” well, then, that is what government compulsory redistribution of income and wealth is all about. Those “better off” will be compelled to be their brother’s keeper.

It is this notion of a “positive” freedom to have the means and capacity to have and do things that are considered “good” and “just” that has resulted in the proliferation of “rights.” If “freedom” means not only my “right” to be free from being mugged or raped or murdered by someone but also includes that broader definition of access to and use of wanted or desired things, then I also have a “right” to health-care, to an education, to a decent place to live, to a fair and living wage, to a retirement pension, to a guaranteed job, and the “right” not to hear “hurtful” words or expressions said by others.

Liberty as absence of political coercion

I would suggest this change in the meaning of the word “freedom” is an important reason behind the diminished use and reference to human “liberty.” Most people still understand what is meant if someone says, “I am at liberty to peacefully say what I want, write what I want, read what I want, live as I want, voluntarily associate with whom I want, try to earn a living the way I want, attempt to give meaning and happiness to my life as I want.”

It is generally understood that when someone says things like this, what is meant is that no one may use or threaten force to prevent or interfere with the individual’s own personal decisions and choices concerning such matters. The individual may not be coerced or compelled to act in any way that is not of his own voluntary and peaceful choosing.

Still today, it would sound and seem awkward to most of us if someone said, “I am at liberty to pick your pocket, at liberty to force you into a contract that I want you to sign, at liberty to make you supply me with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at liberty to threaten you if you do not pay my rent, cover my medical expenses, provide me with an education, at liberty to violently make you only use words that I like to hear or read.”

Such threatened or violent acts would be considered by almost all of us as the opposite of being free. How can you be free if a person can steal from you, or force you into associations and relationships and activities that you do not want to participate in of your own voluntary accord? The use of the word “liberty” in the way expressed in the previous paragraph would be understood as a misuse and mockery of what the idea of liberty generally still does and should mean.

Collectivists misstate the meaning of liberty

This explains why “liberty” has increasingly fallen out of use in political discourse, discussion, and debate. Once one introduces the question of liberty into the discussion, it implicitly raises the issue of whether there are areas of life into which neither private persons nor political paternalists should be considered to have the moral or legal authority to interfere with the choices and actions of peaceful individuals.

It is why those political paternalists and ideological collectivists express contempt for and disregard of any and all those who in some way call themselves friends or advocates of “liberty.” The paternalists and collectivists understand very clearly that nine times out of ten when someone holds up the banner of liberty in this way, they are insisting that there are aspects of individual and social life that government has no ethical and political right to tread upon.

That is why all such people, in their eyes, must be ridiculed, condemned, and delegitimized. Anyone who talks about liberty is an “extremist,” a “nut-job,” a “Nazi,” an anti-social “terrorist.” I want to be clear. There are kooks, nut-jobs, and “crazies” out there. But it is intellectually dishonest to tar and feather everyone who refers to “liberty” with such negative connotations.

Let me explain what I mean. Over the decades, especially during the Cold War years, I met real, true-believing communists who bemoaned that Stalin was no longer with us, or who thought Chairman Mao had been the last great hope for mankind, or who had wanted to visit Cuba to have the opportunity to see and maybe shake hands with Fidel Castro.

I also met European-style “democratic socialists.” They also truly believed that a collectivist society would be a morally superior one and advocated degrees of central planning and redistribution of wealth. But they also sincerely valued democratic government and the preservation of civil liberties. And during those Cold War days, a good number of those European democratic socialists strongly opposed the Soviet Union and the tyranny behind the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe.

I think that these democratic socialists were (and are) wrong in thinking that if a fairly comprehensive system of central planning and egalitarian redistribution is imposed on a society, that in the long run, either democratic government or civil liberties will survive. In this, Friedrich A. Hayek, in my view, was absolutely right in the arguments he offered in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

But it nonetheless remains the case that it was, particularly during the Cold War, a mistake and unfair to accuse and lump together every European democratic socialist as just another communist by a different name. Some of them were, as shown from the history of that time by the number of “socialists” who spied for or in other ways intentionally collaborated with Moscow’s “line” on international issues. But most European democratic socialists were not communists in the Soviet model, nor did most of them want to see the imposition of that model.

In like manner, it is an ideological and political subterfuge when the political paternalists, “democratic socialists,” and “progressives” in America today take the scandalously easy way out by classifying any and all friends of liberty as being the same as the nut-job with the swastika tattooed on his forehead, or the person who lives in the “middle of nowhere” Idaho and declares his two-acre property to be the independent nation of Mr. Billy Ray Bob, and who has never met a neighbor he did not threaten to shoot.

Misrepresenting liberty to avoid honest debate

Anyone who knows anything about the history and ideas of those who advocate for liberty — that is, individual liberty, private property, voluntary association, non-violent freedom of trade and exchange, and constitutionally limited government with equal rights for all under impartial rule of law — is cognizant of the fact that to lump such people with the nut-jobs is merely a smear campaign to discredit the intellectual opponents of collectivism, socialism, the interventionist-welfare state, and the latest versions of these that go by the names of “identity politics,” “systemic race theory,” “cancel culture,” or, more generally, “political correctness.”

It is a way to avoid doing honest battle in the arena of ideas. To not have to debate and defend their rejection of the philosophical and political principles upon which the country was founded in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. To get away “on the cheap” by simply tarring and feathering their opponents as “racists” or “sexists” or “homophobes.” It also enables them their usual denial that any and all actual Nazis are their National Socialist ideological cousins and not any relation of the classical liberals and free marketeers who oppose all brands of collectivism.

The meaning of liberty was expressed concisely by Thomas Jefferson, when he said, “The policy of American government is to leave its citizens free, neither restraining them nor aiding them in their pursuits.” Thomas Paine clarified what this meant when in his “Plan for a Declaration of Rights” (1792), he said: “Liberty is the power to everything that does not interfere with the rights of others; thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every individual has no limits save those that assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights.”

Liberty’s meaning and limits were stated by Jefferson, again, when he said, “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 the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

Living your life as you peacefully choose

Liberty understood in this way not only is inconsistent with but is the polar opposite of any political system that professes or presumes in any way to interfere with the peaceful and honest individual’s decisions, choices, and actions to live his life as he considers best, most fulfilling, more likely to lead to his greatest happiness and contentment as he defines it.

He may live as hermit or as “social butterfly.” He may choose to find some niche in the social system of the division of labor to earn his living in voluntary exchange with others with the goal of maximizing his earned income so to have the financial wherewithal to purchase as many of the tradable items that he thinks will satisfy his desires, no matter of what type they may be. Or he may choose to find some line of work that will enable him to earn the minimum income he considers needed to leave most of the rest of his time “free” for the quest of trying to become a great artist, or a world-renowned novelist, or just to be a beach bum watching life go by while sitting under a palm tree.

He may spend every dollar he earns on his personal pursuit of the crassest carnal pleasures, or he may choose to live modestly and give away most of what he earns to various “good causes” as he defines and values them. He may exhibit the most refined and cultured view of things, or he may demonstrate the most vulgar of tastes. The individual has the liberty in a free society to do any of these things, as long as he does so peacefully and honestly.

In his famous 1819 lecture, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” the French classical liberal, Benjamin Constant, expressed it in the following way:

Ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a Frenchman or a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word “liberty.” For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess their religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations and whims.

Liberty versus compulsory paternalism

This is why our modern-day collectivists of any and all shades of intrusion and control ignore or denigrate all references to and calls for liberty. Appeals to liberty challenge and threaten all their rationales and demands for more and greater government control and command over the social, economic, and political affairs of human beings, no matter who they may be, and where or how they live.

To directly attack the idea of individual liberty in any and all its aspects requires them to justify and defend the notion that they or those they want in positions of political authority should be able to force honest and peaceful people to live, work, and act in ways not of their own choosing. It obligates them to rationalize dictatorship, because that is what such intervention means, that they or some selected others should have the power to command and control and plan people’s lives, whether or not some or many of those people would rather continue to follow their own freely chosen paths for their time on Earth.

It cannot be denied that too many people either believe or can be swayed into believing that others need to be paternalistically watched over, directed, controlled, and indoctrinated to act and think in “better” ways. We would not be in the societal dilemma we are in, if not for too many of our fellow human beings being susceptible to such arguments and inclinations.

Classical liberal and free market “Austrian” economist Ludwig von Mises long ago warned us of these human temptations. As he said in his important work, Liberalism (1927):

The propensity of our contemporaries to demand authoritarian prohibition as soon as something does not please them, and their readiness to submit to such prohibitions even when what is prohibited is quite agreeable to them shows how deeply ingrained the spirit of servility still remains within them. It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.

We see this same willingness to call for the police as soon as something does not please some people, as I suggested earlier, regardless of whether the interveners wear the often-confusing labels of “Democrat” or “Republican,” “progressive” or “conservative,” or “left” or “right.” The differences between them usually come down to the aspects of life they want the government to manage and control, and very rarely an argument for a general non-interventionist policy of liberty.

This is why the idea and the meaning of liberty is so very important to understand, and why everything possible needs to done to remind people of its value, both in terms of the individual’s right of free action and its implications on the needed and necessary limits on government if a society is to be rightly understood as free. And why all must be done to see to it that the word “liberty” is not misused and abused in the same manner that the word “freedom” has turned out to be.

This article was originally published in the October 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.

Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity  (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.

He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).

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