What Do We Mean By Liberty, Exactly?

Since our launch, we’ve fielded a variety of questions from curious Utahns wondering more about what we’re up to. One question recently came in which merits a public response. A reader asks:

In your view, what is liberty? Is “Liberty … the right to do what you ought to do” (Lord Acton) or is “Liberty … the right to do what one desires, with certain restrictions” (John Stuart Mill)? How do you distinguish between economic liberty and social liberty?

Abraham Lincoln once remarked that “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty.” Truer words were never spoken. “Liberty” is a word frequently cited, but far too infrequently defined; were you to ask ten people on the street how they might explain it, you’d probably get ten different explanations. Thus, the reader’s question is important so that Utahns understand how we define it. After all, saying that we are “advancing the cause of liberty in Utah” only makes sense if you understand what liberty actually is.

Let’s first address each of the quotes used, but in their fuller context.

Lord Acton was an English historian and politician during the 19th century. He is well known for the popular quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” with which we emphatically agree. Acton was a man of no small stature, widely considered to be one of the most learned people of his age, and an eloquent defender of religious and political freedom.

The quote referenced by our reader reads as follows (context is important!):

There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state. It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority. According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding him. Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails: whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in American, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority—it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised.

It is somewhat ironic that a quote used by some to attack libertarianism actually strongly supports it. The snippet used suggests that liberty means “doing what we ought,” or in other words, behaving morally according to an established “order.” Thus, it is argued that because many libertarians wish to use their freedom to do things that are immoral (according to this order), that their definition of liberty is invalid.

Reading the complete quote, however, one realizes that this interpretation was not what Acton was saying. First of all, the “ought” part is not even his own thoughts, but merely his paraphrasing of what the Catholic church’s interpretation of liberty was at the time. Further, Acton explained that the Catholic view rejected the notion that “general interests” (the “public good,” some might say) might supersede, and thus violate, individual rights. In other words, even the definition of liberty being used in this case stubbornly affirmed the primacy of individual rights over whatever demands society might make against an individual.

But it gets even better. This view, Acton explains, “condemns” the modern state, which uses coercion to impose its mandates and institutionally violate the individual rights just mentioned. Acton’s defense of religious liberty is readily seen in his sensitivity to it being altogether “lost where this system prevails.” He makes no exception even for the Republic in America, noting that even “in the form of the utmost diffusion of power,” the state is still “omnipotent over the individual” and “founded on servitude.”

Clearly Acton’s words strongly support, and not oppose, a libertarian political philosophy—and powerfully so.

But let’s throw away the context, and assume for a moment that the out-of-context snippet was Acton’s belief, namely, that liberty means doing what we “ought.” Our reader is not the only one to make this case; in a debate last week at FreedomFest in which I participated, Sutherland Institute president Paul Mero argued for conservatism using the same context-free line from Acton. “For Latter-day Saints and conservatives alike,” Mero stated, “governments exist to protect the ‘right of being able to do what we ought.'”

Is this true? Are we only entitled to liberty when we “do what we ought?” Are those who use their freedom to pursue vices such as smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, fornication, and prostitution, for example, implicitly justifying the state’s use of coercion against them, whether through fines, imprisonment, or physical assault?

Clearly not. Liberty—in the political sense, meaning the relationship between the individual and the state—would not exist if it didn’t allow people to pursue both virtue and vice. The state is not justified in assaulting people because they happen to ingest a drug; immorality and irresponsibility do not justify statism.

To be sure, liberty in the fullest sense of the word—encompassing not just the political realm, but the social, moral, and religious realms also—does require that a person do what he “ought.” No person will in fact be free if he is in financial bondage, or depression, or harbors feelings of rage and jealousy. Liberty in this more expansive context does require that people voluntarily choose to observe a moral order that persuades them to be better and live morally.

But we’re not talking about this type of liberty; the question being asked by our reader is in reference to what the state is justified in doing, and in what cases it may override our natural, individual rights. We agree with Acton that the state is the greatest violator of liberty, and that the general interests of society do not, even through majority vote, justify violating a person’s rights. As Acton wrote on another occasion, liberty is “the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” This is a stinging rebuke of the state and the tyranny of the majority used by conservatives and liberals alike to promote their preferred policies.

But enough of Acton, for our reader provided another quote worthy of our consideration. The second and final quote comes from John Stuart Mill, a philosopher and political economist, and a contemporary of Acton’s. Mill was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian statist, and is well known for his book On Liberty—a work argued by some to be confused and contradictory. In short, Mill was no ideal representative of and advocate for liberty.

The quote provided by our reader suggests that Mill believed liberty is “the right to do what one desires, with certain restrictions.” In fact, this quote does not exist but for an op-ed from the aforementioned Paul Mero, wherein he employs the same arguments used in his debate with me last week. What the reader and Mr. Mero appear to be referencing is a passage from On Liberty where Mill attempts to define “human liberty” as requiring freedom of conscience, freedom of action, and freedom of association. It is the second freedom which may be what the reader is referring to, and which reads as follows:

…the principle [of human liberty] requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.

The word “harm” is of course subjective, and thus a higher standard must be employed to determine whether an actual violation of another’s rights has occurred, and therefore justifies intervention to pursue justice. If my neighbor were to steal my car, throw a rock into my home’s window, abuse my child, punch me in the nose, or commit any other act of aggression, then he has violated my liberty and I am justified in using force against him.

But if my neighbor ingests a plant I disapprove of, or wishes to rent his basement to a person I would rather him not, or engages in a business transaction I find morally problematic, etc., then I am not justified in using force and therefore cannot ask the government to do so on my behalf.

So while Mill was not quite on target, he was close—as was Acton. Thomas Jefferson put it better: “…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 right of an individual.” Liberty requires that people be free to act as they please, even if that entails engaging in vices, so long as they do not legitimately violate the rights of others.

This latter definition answers the reader’s concluding question, which was “How do you distinguish between economic liberty and social liberty?” This is like asking about “black rights” versus “women’s rights” versus “gay rights”. Rights do not exist within subsets of mankind; all men (and women) are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Thus, we speak only of individual rights. Similarly, there is no “economic liberty” and “social liberty,” but rather individual liberty. We are either free to act (whether in society, or the economy, or elsewhere), or we are not.

And this is the important question. Are we free? Has the state become “omnipotent over the individual,” as Acton believed? Do you and I have the unrestrained ability to exercise our natural rights, or must we seek permission from the government to do so, while operating within the arbitrary boundaries it has set for us?

So, what is liberty? Liberty is, in the potent words of the French political economist Frédéric Bastiat, “the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice.” In other words, it is the freedom of thought, movement, action, and association, and all that these freedoms imply, provided that a person’s actions do not violate another person’s life, liberty, or property. In those cases, as outlined above, justice may be served against the aggressor.

Liberty is, quite simply, the state of being free from oppressive and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the state. Viewed in this way, the vast majority of what the government aims to be and do is illegitimate; society, not the state, must be the primary provider of goods, services, and information. The proper role of government is only to protect persons and their property. If we ever see such a system of government in our day, then the political liberty we’ve defined here might finally be given a chance. We long for that day.