The Meaning of Liberty

If you were a physicist who was writing about Einstein’s special theory of relativity, would you bother to list the ways in which non-physicists define the concept? I doubt it.

But at least one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians — a new group blog whose eight contributors (thus far) are professors of law and/or philosophy — advances the proposition that “liberty” means whatever non-philosophers think it means. The contributor in question, Jason Brennan, justifies his preference by saying  that liberty “is a concept philosophers are interested in, but it’s a not a philosopher’s technical term.”

That may be so, but I would think that philosophers who are going to use a term that is central to the theme of their blog — the connection of libertarianism to social justice — would begin by searching for a relevant and logically consistent definition of liberty. Brennan, instead, casts a wide net and hauls in a list of seven popular definitions, one of which (negative liberty) has three sub-definitions. That may be a useful starting point, but Brennan leaves it there, thus implying that liberty is whatever anyone thinks it is.

His evident purpose in doing so is to leave the door open to a positive definition of liberty, while dismissing those who maintain that logic demands a negative definition of liberty. Consider Brennan’s list, which he calls partial and in which he uses “freedom” for “liberty”:

  1. Freedom as Absence of Obstacles: Someone is free to the extent that no obstacles impede her ability to do as she pleases.

    [a.] Freedom as Absence of Deliberate Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one deliberately interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [b.] Freedom as Absence of Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.
    [c.] Freedom as Absence of Wrongful Interference: Someone is free to the extent that no one wrongfully interferes with her ability to do as she pleases.

  2. Freedom as Capacity: Someone is free to the extent that she has the power, ability, capacity, or means to do as she pleases.
  3. Freedom as Autonomous SelfControl: Someone is free to the extent that she exhibits sufficient deliberative self-control, such that she is authentically the author of her actions.
  4. Freedom as Non-Domination: A person is free to the extent she is not subject to another person’s or group’s arbitrary will.
  5. Freedom as Moral Virtue: A person is free to the extent she has the power to recognize and act upon her moral obligations.
  6. Freedom as Absence of Pressure: A person is free to the extent she feels no social pressure to do anything.
  7. Freedom as Absence of Reasons: A person is free to the extent she has no grounds or reasons for making decisions.

And so on. Notice that 1a­–1c are just more specific version[s] of 1.

[A person who insists on using the politically correct “she” in place of the traditional and, in truth, gender-neutral “he” is likely to be a person who is driving toward an acceptable answer instead of the right answer.]

I am struck by the fact that none of the definitions offered by Brennan is a good definition of liberty (about which, more below). This suggests to me that Brennan and (possibly) the other contributors to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism will offer views about the connection of libertarianism and social justice that have nothing to do with liberty, but which merely reflect their various visions of preferred socioeconomic arrangements* and the uses (or non-uses) of state power in the attainment thereof. I therefore humbly suggest that the next order of business at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism ought to be a concerted effort to define the concept that is part of the blog’s raison d’etre.

To help Brennan & Co. in their quest, I offer the following definition of liberty, which is from the first post at this blog, “On Liberty“:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

The problem with the definitions listed by Brennan should now be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of Brennan’s list — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

The implausibility of the second condition is critical to a proper understanding of liberty. Brennan says (in “Positive Liberty and Legal Guarantees“) that “[w]e often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; that is, compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of like minds about everything.

In sum, “peaceful, willing coexistence” does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of “beneficially cooperative behavior.” Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

The specific landscape of liberty — the rights and obligations of individuals with respect to one another — depends on the size and composition of the social group in question. It is there that the question of positive vs. negative liberty (really positive vs. negative rights) takes on importance. I will tackle that question in a future post.


* Sure enough, only a few hours after I posted this, we hear from the newest recruit to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Roderick Long (a left-libertarian whom I have addressed before). Long’s is a left-libertarian because he is against state power but, at the same time, against outcomes that can occur in the absence of state power:

On the one hand, I’m committed to libertarianism in a fairly standard sense: self-ownership, the non-aggression principle, Lockean homesteading, private property, and free markets. On the other hand, I’m committed to a fairly standard set of traditionally leftist concerns, including opposition to such social evils as worker exploitation, plutocratic privilege, racism, homophobia, gender inequality, militarism, environmental degradation, and the prison-industrial complex. (Call them all “oppression” for short.)

“Worker exploitation” is what happens when workers and employers are free to agree about the terms and conditions of employment, which is good for competent, productive workers and bad for incompetent, unproductive ones (the ones that unions protect). “Plutocratic privilege” is bad only if it is the result of crony capitalism; otherwise, it is merely a case of well-to-do individuals enjoying the fruits of what they have earned. “Racism” is a inescapable aspect of human nature, and it cuts in all directions; typical efforts to compensate for it result in the theft of property rights and the hiring and promotion of less-qualified persons. “Homophobia” is a personal choice, and efforts by the state to squelch it will surely result in the theft of property rights and denial of freedom of speech. “Gender inequality” is mostly a figment of the imagination of leftists who always fail to take into account differences in age, experience, and aptitude when lamenting the fact that women generally earn less than men and are “underrepresented” in certain occupations. “Militarism” is what has kept many a Roderick Long from going to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the gulags of Soviet Russia. “Environmental degradation” is vastly overrated, to the point where Americans pay more for a lot of things than they should (oil among them), and is becoming an excuse for prohibitively costly and needless regulations aimed at fighting a myth and scientific fraud: anthropogenic global warming. The “prison-industrial complex” has, in fact, kept violent criminals off the streets and led to a reduction in the rate of violent crimes.

I am surprised that Long doesn’t have “universal health care” and “living wage” on his list.

Roderick Long is to libertarianism as Adolf Hitler was to capitalism. Long wants a stateless world, but only if the “free” people in it have “correct” attitudes and beliefs.