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Freedom has always been of the highest importance to Americans and to every other people who have had a taste of it. We do not need to be persuaded of its value. We sense that it is bound up with the quality of our personal lives; and we use it explicitly to judge the actions of our government: If the actions promote or protect our freedom, we favor them. To put it mildly: we feel strongly about this word. If our freedom is threatened too severely, we will fight to defend it. We have done so in the past. No one would dare openly attack an ideal so strongly defended.
What is happening, though, is that the concept of freedom, the meaning the word has for all of us, is being undermined. This has been going on for some time now, and the specialists who deal in such abstract regions political theorists, political philosophers and legal theorists are well aware of it. For instance, Lon Fuller wrote some years ago that "the concept of freedom has been undergoing a progressive deterioration and dissipation of meaning." If this process of dissipation of meaning proceeds much further, we will no longer be able to cry that a proposed governmental policy violates our freedom, because "freedom" will not mean what it used to mean. Already this objection is weakened by the fact that the meaning of the word is so fundamentally in dispute.
Why is this happening?
There are several reasons. Freedom is one of those words that has a "cash value" as it were. If you are trying to get the government to adopt a particular policy, you can claim that freedom will be one of the outcomes of the policy. Or if a law already passed is under attack, you can defend it by claiming that it promotes freedom. Partisans seek to get this word on their side.
Since the debate is always in terms of predicted outcomes ("I'm sure freedom will result from this policy"), it is easy to make claims of this kind: predicted outcomes are in the future. Still, sometimes it just isn't easy for the general public to swallow the claim that this or that law is going to increase freedom. Sometimes in fact, common sense suggests it will do exactly the opposite.
What can the partisans do to get their bill passed? Freedom is too well established for them to attack it directly. Partisans who are going to benefit from a set of government projects need to emasculate the word freedom so that it cannot be used against these projects. The way to do that is by arguing that the word freedom does not really mean what people think it means.
This scenario suggests a set of malicious partisans out to do in everybody else. Can we really believe that? Actually, it does not matter. If the concept of freedom is in disarray, then partisans can claim that their policies lead to it and that the other interest group's policies lead away from it.
Some of the disarray came about quite innocently. One way human knowledge has made progress over the centuries, when faced with complex or unclear concepts, is by analysis. To analyze a concept is to show that it is equivalent to several other concepts that are either simpler or clearer or less problematic. But when those other concepts are as problematic as the original concept, we have not made progress. Not only have we not made progress, but we have generated several additional problems: we now need an analysis of each of the new concepts in order to understand what they mean, and then we have to show how all these new concepts fit together.
This is one of the things that has happened to the concept of freedom.
But there is another cause that has led to the attempts to dilute the meaning of freedom. For some people, talk of freedom has always generated a sense of insecurity. After all, liberty was used as a battle cry in the revolt of the American colonists against the British. More seriously, liberty was a goal of the French Revolution.
Besides this, for other people those who have the advantage over the rest of us in that they know with absolute certainty what is right and what is wrong freedom has always raised the danger of "sin." Some people use their freedom to do things we don't think they ought to do. Apparently then, freedom itself is not necessarily a good thing.
This question whether freedom is a good thing has troubled a number of people. On the one hand, when it is my freedom that is in question, freedom is undoubtedly a good thing. When it is your freedom, then I'm not so sure. Similarly, when I, in exercising my freedom, do something stupid or do something I know to be wrong, it is not my freedom I blame, but my lack of information or lack of will power or Satan or circumstances beyond my control. But when you do something stupid or wrong, I begin to wonder whether you should have been allowed the freedom to do it in the first place.
Some people have, therefore, wanted to have it both ways: they have wanted to say that freedom is a good thing and they have wanted to say that people ought to do what is right. How can one have it both ways? You guessed it: By defining the word "freedom" in such a way that "freedom" means doing the right thing.
But has anybody really done that? Yes. And it began soon after the word freedom was introduced into practical politics. In the late seventeenth century, John Locke held that the three fundamental human rights were life, liberty and property. The counter-attack was not long in coming; and it came in the form of a re-definition of liberty. Montesquieu wrote: "In governments, that is, societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will and not being constrained to do what we ought not to will." Even Rousseau, who's most widely known remark is "Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains," sought to make his stress on freedom palatable to the powers of his society by writing: "To obey the laws laid down by society is to be free."
But when it was seen that society did not collapse as people acquired more freedom, the attack on liberty subsided for awhile. The rising new class of industrialists and entrepreneurs gave the word their support. And the framers of the American constitution could not well leave it out altogether since it had been one of the battle cries of the revolution.
In fact, by the time Mill wrote his famous essay on liberty in the middle of the nineteenth century, the idea of defining liberty did not even occur to him. Everyone knew what it meant and its meaning was not in dispute. He was writing to argue in favor of the benefits of liberty and to discuss the problem of the conditions under which a society could legitimately limit a person's freedom (a problem we shall be much concerned with here also). He needed only to remind his readers in passing that "liberty consists in doing what one desires." In other words, the common sense notion of freedom was completely adequate as far as Mill was concerned.
As philosophers after Mill began to discuss liberty in more detail, it appeared that there were problems with the common sense definition. Consider the follow argument:
Freedom is good.
Sometimes people, in doing what they want, do bad things.
Therefore, freedom cannot mean doing what you want.
In more concrete terms, Smith wants to kill Jones and does so. Since killing is not a good thing, and since Smith wanted to kill, how can freedom mean doing what you want?
An argument like this makes it look as though we must either stop saying freedom is a good thing or stop saying freedom is doing what you want to do.
For some thinkers, the solution was to define freedom as doing something good. "For man is not free but enslaved when he seeks merely the satisfaction of his own unrestrained desires. He becomes free when and insofar as he endeavors to act as a moral being." Those who propose such a re-definition of liberty are criticized, of course. Oppenheim, for example, calls this version of freedom "desirable unfreedom."
Think about this for a minute. We started out trying to define what freedom means and we have ended up prescribing what people should do and telling them they are not free unless they do as we say. The definition of "freedom" has been turned upside down. It has been defined as exactly the opposite of what it originally meant!
Well, maybe that only means that we have made progress in recent years.
What is wrong, of course, is that our freedom that ability to do as we please which we so prize has been taken away from us. With this new definition, we still have something called "freedom", but we no longer have the right to do what we want.
Well, we may not like it, but that doesn't prove it is wrong. How are we going to get around that argument above that led to this problem?
When people use their freedom to hurt other people, most of us agree that certain limits ought to be set to their freedom. But if freedom is a good thing, how can it be good to limit it?
This apparent paradox dissolves as soon as we look more closely at a particular case: If Smith uses his freedom to hurt Jones, then Jones's freedom has been curtailed by Smith's action. What Jones wants is not to be hurt by Smith. To allow Smith to hurt Jones is, therefore, to allow the limitation of Jones's freedom.
What we have here, in other words, is not a question of whether it is good to limit Smith's freedom, but whose freedom is going to be limited, Smith's or Jones's. In other words, we have a conflict of liberties. A theory of how to resolve conflicts of liberties is as important as a theory of liberty itself. Or, to put it more generally, we need a theory of what the limits of freedom should be.
But there are good reasons for not trying to build this limitation into the definition of freedom. When we keep the meaning of "freedom" separate from the question of the advisable limits to freedom, we can say that "such and such is what I mean by freedom; however, freedom ought to be limited in various ways." In other words, we first define "freedom" and then say under what conditions it is justifiable to limit it. A person who exceeds these limits can still be described as free but is said to have misused his or her freedom or simply to have done something wrong.
This is different from saying that unless a person's behavior is limited in this or that way, it simply is not "freedom." Saying it this way requires us to say that a person who exceeds one of the limits has suddenly (by definition) ceased to be free. Such an approach would lead easily to such locutions as: "to be free is to stay within the limits," or "to exceed the limits is slavery," etc. This is the sort of talk George Orwell called "doublethink".
Another argument for clearly separating the definition of liberty from a theory of the limits to liberty is this: Suppose a man commits a crime because someone is holding a gun at his back and forcing him to do it. Because the man was not free when he committed the crime, he could not be held responsible for committing it. In other words, freedom is a necessary condition for responsibility. Now, if we were to set up the definition of freedom in such a way that any person who transgressed the prescribed limits was by definition "not free", then a man who voluntarily committed a crime would be "not free" when he committed the crime (since crime is beyond the limits). Therefore, he could not be held responsible for committing it. In other words, people could not be held responsible for any actions they engaged in beyond the prescribed limits, since they were not "free" at the time.
But these sound like rather abstract difficulties. Are there any practical reasons for not building the notion of limits to freedom into the meaning of freedom?
Yes, and they are even more serious. Embedding the notion of limits to liberty in the concept of liberty without saying what those limits are effectively destroys the value of liberty as an ideal. How so? It puts us in the following situation: Whenever a person's freedom is interfered with, those doing the interfering can always say, "Oh yes, but that is one of the limits of liberty." And people could never defend their freedom to do X, since opponents could always claim that doing X exceeds the limits to freedom. This is the situation we are in at present.
Besides all this, there are other practical reasons for clearly distinguishing between freedom and the limits to freedom: the question where ought the limits of liberty to be set is a more difficult and more controversial one than the question what is liberty. By separating the two questions, we make it easier to find a concept of liberty that can be agreed upon.
So, a theory of limits to liberty is needed. But how can you develop a theory of the limits of freedom until you have said what freedom is? And to try to develop a theory of limits with only a vague definition of freedom or an unspecified one may result in more constraints on freedom than the theory of limits anticipates. By contrast, a more detailed and adequate concept of freedom may actually aid the task of developing an adequate theory of limits.
But trying to hide a theory of limits to freedom inside the meaning of freedom is not the only challenge to our liberty. There are those who want the meaning of the word freedom restricted to "non-interference." In this conception, "freedom" means nothing more than not being prevented from acting.
Philosophers have labeled this conception "negative freedom". By contrast, defining freedom as "ability to do what you want" is dubbed "positive freedom." This splitting in two of the word freedom then leads naturally to a debate over which is the right meaning of the word, "negative freedom" or "positive freedom". And this is exactly what has happened. In fact, this debate is carried on with great passion on both sides.
Why? Why are two groups, both claiming to be strongly in favor of freedom, attacking each other?
The situation becomes even more puzzling when you stop to think about "negative freedom." Why is anyone strongly in favor of it? If being free merely means not being interfered with, then if you fell on the sidewalk and broke your leg and nobody interfered with you but left you there to starve, you would be said to be completely free. If this is all freedom means, who would adopt it as a goal of society, let alone fight to keep it? What is going on here? Who would ever argue in favor of adopting such an emasculated concept of liberty?
The puzzle dissolves, however, when you realize who the partisans are. Those arguing in favor of "negative freedom" are business organizations and their sympathizers. "Non-interference" means that government should not interfere with their business practices.
What has happened here is that some people have first selected which policies they favor and then changed the definition of freedom to fit those policies.
In addition to favoring such government policies, these partisans are afraid that if liberty means "positive freedom", someone will argue (as many do) that poor people are not very free, since poor people cannot do very much of what they want to do (since they cannot afford it). The government should promote freedom. Therefore…Heavens! It seems as if "positive freedom" might justify the Welfare State!
But this is not a necessary consequence of "positive freedom". What policies a society should adopt to maximize the freedom of its citizens is a complex question. It is by no means obvious that a welfare state is the best such policy. Also, since welfare for the poor must be paid for by the middle class, the freedom of people in the middle class is being decreased (or limited). We have, then, a situation of conflicts of liberties; and this is to be settled, not by changing the definition of freedom, but by developing and defending a theory of the limits of liberty and by figuring out how a society can contribute to maximizing everyone's freedom.
Unfortunately, I have still not revealed to you all of the attempts to reduce our freedom by changing the meaning of the word.
Posted January 10, 2005
This book details all the unsuccessful attempts to define freedom and makes clear why they are inadequate. It then presents an air-tight definition of freedom, discusses the problems involved in specifying limits to freedom and shows how it can be done, and resolves the conflict between liberty and justice. You can't buy a more informative, more complete or more level-headed book on freedom.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.