Defining Liberty

When philosophers get together, you can be sure of one thing: A lot of words will be spilled to little or no effect. This proposition is amply demonstrated by a virtual symposium on “The System of Liberty” at The Online Library of Liberty.

Thousands of words leave the reader in search of a useful definition of liberty — any definition of it, for that matter. This is as good as it gets:

[I]n conventional English, the words “liberty” and “freedom” appear to be used to refer to variety of related but not identical things. My view is that “freedom” and “liberty” are not in the first instance philosophical concepts, unlike, say, “epistemic justification” or “social contract.” Instead, these are conventional concepts in natural language, though they are concepts that philosophers appropriately take great interest in. Thus, there is a default presumption that philosophers should yield to common usage when discussing what “liberty” really means….

In closing, I think there are three main questions about liberty:

1. What is it? …

There’s a lot of hooey about Hobbes and Locke, and so on, but it’s all to no avail.

Well, what is liberty? Bereft as I am of indoctrination in the mumbo-jumbo of philosophy, I am especially qualified to tell you. It is a social construct that cannot be defined by a priori philosophizing.


liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.


Liberty … is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

However, when I say that

liberty is a social construct …. is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America [see this]. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

I am in danger of philosophizing, so I’ll leave you with a specific definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

To sum up:

The problem with [the usual definitions of liberty] should … 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 [the usual definitions] — 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.

If you prefer to read thousands of words, go here:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society