Alberto Mingardi  

What's 'freedom' (regular human beings version)?

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The Online Library of Liberty is hosting a symposium on George H Smith's most interesting book, "The System of Liberty." Jason Brennan, David Gordon and Ralph Raico commented on Smith's lead essay--and the whole thing is well worth reading.

Jason Brennan raises a very interesting point, building on chapter 7 of Smith's book:

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.

That's a point very well taken. Brennan sets forth from here to say that libertarians that argue for freedom as absence of coercion risk being out of touch with common parlance (I do summarize Brennan's views in an extreme form, thus losing all the nuances of his reasoning, for which I do apologize).

Well, is that true? Brennan is certainly right that "Nonlibertarian understandings of the word "liberty" have been mainstream pretty much forever"--but what about lay people? "Liberty" is of course as malleable as any other popular word in politics. And yet it seems to me that, among common people, there is a general understanding of liberty as a juridical and political concept--more than among philosophers that like to twist "liberty" in different ways. Nonlibertarian understandings of the word 'liberty' are indeed rather mainstream within the community of scholars, but lay people tend to understand - and perhaps dislike - freedom as absence of coercion. Am I wrong?


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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Eric writes:

I think that freedom/liberty means, to most people, "I can do what I want to do." It has little to do with other people. For example, if someone doesn't want to smoke marijuana he would say America is a "free country" because he personally doesn't feel the problem. If he pays little to no income taxes, he would say America is a free country because he doesn't feel what the top earners feel. If he's not a landlord, housing regulations have no impact on his personal perception of freedom. If he can say what he wants when he wants to without repercussions, it doesn't matter if a university has speech codes that affect other people who say things he personally would never consider saying. And so on ...

Colin Fraizer writes:

I have a deep hatred of the term "Four Freedoms" as used by FDR.(I don't like the Norman Rockwell paintings either.)

Handle writes:

Another concept of liberty is a revocable license, granted by some authority who can regulate behavior, to act in a manner that is otherwise generally prohibited.

What Libertarians tend to mean is something different - which is that no governmental system should arrogate to itself the authority to regulate certain behaviors without the agreement of the effected individual.

Going father, they try to use a few ideological principles to delineate justifiably-regulatable behaviors from those for which we ought to presume one has some kind of inherent human right. A presumption against unjustified coercion is just such a principle, if a notoriously slippery one to define.

Wallace Forman writes:

I expect that average humans have a number of different definitions, and that they equivocate between them as their rationalizations require.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I'd be comfortable with liberty being defined in common lauguage as "absence of constraint" and I'd call coercion a forcefull constraint. So, libertarians aren't really that far off in their definition. How about - Liberty: a state of human existance where there are minimal constraints, especially governmentally imposed and/or coercive constraints.

To: Colin Fraizer - How do you fell about the four boxes which protect our freedom?

Thomas Boyle writes:

At the FDR memorials, it's often all I can do not to ask which of the Four Freedoms he was advancing with Executive Order 9066.

Daublin writes:

What Eric said: I can do what I want. Emphasis on "I", and not on what other people can do.

That definition *implies* that other people don't coerce you, though, doesn't it?

MingoV writes:

I agree with Eric's comment.

Most average Janes and Joes I talk to don't know the meanings of freedom and liberty. They agree that those concepts are desirable for noncriminals. Many of them believe that freedom is doing what you want and liberty is the state of being free. When asked how free they are, they say 'very free.' They have been thoroughly conditioned by decades of big government. They don't recognize that seeking permission from a government (Example: paying for a permit to build a deck), paying fines for breaking idiotic laws (Example: leaving garage doors open), and paying taxes on everything (including carbon dioxide) reduce freedom.

Arthur_500 writes:

Freedom is me being able to do as I desire but I have the liberty to infringe upon your freedom:)

There are many version of the joke but it goes something like this:

Dad, you are a dirtbag Republican who doesn't care about others.

Young lady, how are your grades? Excellent!
Do you work hard for them? Absolutely.
How is your roommate? She is Miss Popular, always going to every function at school.
How are her grades? Terrible, she never studies or gets her work done on time.
Why don't you split your grades with her so you both have adequate grades? No way! I work hard for those grades.

Young lady, welcome to the Republican Party.


OK Ignore the Republican part of this as I am not promoting any sort of political party. The point is that people see a need to help others until it affects their efforts.

Freedom and Liberty are taught in history classes. The Revolutionary War in the US or the Arab Spring. But try to speak to individuals in the US today about their Liberty and Freedom and they will have a hard time realizing how little they actually have until you point it out to them.

We all "understand" the "need" for Obamacare until the bill comes due. then people ask what the need was in the first place and how well we have met that need. Of course by now it is too late, the freedom and liberty has been given away and gubment will never give it back.

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