This post is a long time coming, and a desideratum in today’s political dialogue. As usual, we begin with (OED) definitions.

First, Liberty:

  1. exemption or release from captivity, bondage, or slavery
  2. exemption or freedom from arbitrary, despotic or autocratic rule
  3. natural liberty: the state in which everyone is free to act as he thinks fit, subject only to the laws of nature. civil liberty: natural liberty so far restricted by established law as is expedient or necessary for the good of the community
  4. the condition of being able to act in any desired way without hinderance or restraint; faculty or power to do as one likes
  5. (philosophical) the condition of being free from the control of fate or necessity
  6. unrestrained action, conduct, or expression; freedom of behaviour or speech, beyond what is granted or recognized as proper; license
  7. privileges, immunities, or rights enjoyed by prescription or by grant

As is evident, liberty is varied in meaning. I think it safe to say, however, that most understand liberty according to the first definition – the most basic form of liberty: freedom from objectification, the reduction of a rational subject to an thing of ownership.

The second definition, too, is well understood; however, this definition poses problems for a few reasons. First, the key words, arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic – these words indicate that not all rule denies people their liberty, or at least a specific kind of it. Only arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic governments can be considered liberty-denying. Other forms of government, as definition three infers, can restrict some liberty without being guilty of any of these three qualities.

The second problem stems from the first in that – human perception being subjective – some people will contend that government, despite its legitimacy – especially the form(s) with which they do not agree or like – is arbitrary, despotic, and/or autocratic. This is most evident in some forms of anarchism, in which all government, no matter how well-regulated by the rule of law and the people it can be, will always be: despotic (perhaps the phrase, tyranny of the majority encapsulates these extreme anarchist views). However, there are many political factions within the U.S. political system today that seem to stretch this conception of “despotic” and promise greater liberty in order to curry support for their agendas.

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The third definition is based on much enlightenment political theory. In fact, these definitions can almost be taken verbatim out of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.

Let us draw up the whole account in terms easily commensurable. What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title.

We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty. (Book I, chapter viii)

According to this, man, in the state of nature is free to do what he wills, whenever he wills it, however he wills it because there is no legitimate restrictions upon his liberty. However, when man enters society, he forfeits some of his liberty to a legitimate government in exchange for safety, social well-being, and civil liberties; he concedes that he has bears responsibility for his actions and society – this is what is known as the social contract.

However, there is another element to liberty that Rosseau articulates that often goes unmentioned, and that takes precedence over political/civil liberty: moral liberty. For Rosseau, and many pre-enlightenment thinkers, too, it is moral liberty that made one a free, enlightened individual. Indeed, very few today would consider an addict to be free in any meaningful sense (although, and strangely enough, [s]he may have been free to choose to try the drug the first few instances – which calls attention to the process of moving from liberty to servitude); and indeed an addict is not free because the addict is at the mercy of his/her addiction, incapable of choosing not to use – they are in bondage to the drug, a slave to it. And the same can be said of addictions beyond the realm of illegal drugs – think: food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc; compulsions, obsessions, and impulses, too, rob an individual of his/her agency. This is why many holy men, monks, priests, etc practiced lives of self-denial. And it is no wonder that this hard-earned liberty is attained by so few – usually the spiritual leaders of great renown.

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The fourth definition begins from the natural liberty of the third definition and leads into the sixth. Simply put, according to this meaning: liberty is acting in an way one chooses for their self.

The fifth definition shares some of the same meaning as the previous discussion on moral liberty.

The sixth definition is probably the second-most important definition (behind the third) in terms of political implications. For it lays out that – and we must deduce that this is the case only in a civil society where civil liberties are granted in exchange for natural liberties – that there is such a thing as too much libertytoo much freedom. In the state of nature, theft is acceptable (in fact, it doesn’t even exist because “theft” is a moral, civil liberty construction) because there was no legitimate authority to reasonably stop it; however, in society, as a result of the social contract, theft is against the law because it violates the liberty (specifically the property rights) of another. The freedom that is acceptable in a state of nature is no longer acceptable in the civil state, and exercising this former-natural liberty is an excess within the legitimate confines of civil liberty. This excess of freedom is known as license.

A prime example of the seventh definition (as well as the first, second, third, and sixth) is most-easily identified in arguments laid out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution of the United States. Unalienable rights which are self-evidently true are granted to us as rational, civil agents – and these documents confirm these privileges.

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Second, Freedom:

  1. exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty
  2. exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty

The rest of the definitions of freedom are almost as exactly as identical to those as liberty. I think it fair to say that freedom, for the political-theoretical purposes of this post, is synonymous with liberty. And enough has already been said about liberty.

Third, License:

  1. excessive liberty; abuse of freedom; disregard of law and propriety

There are other definitions of the word license; however, they are of little use to this discussion. This one definition here gets to the heart of the matter concerning this discussion: that liberty exists, that it is legitimate, but that it also, in a civil society, needs limitations to protect the individual (in more or less ways, depending) but, especially, the rest of society, of which the individual is a part. Embedded within the social contract, within civil liberties, is the stipulation – an obligation – that an individual be responsible with their freedom.

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The foundations for liberty are well established, and now clarified; what is left to do is debate and engage in order to create the kind of civil society we as a people want to have. What remains are a few thoughts for consideration.

First, whenever someone talks about “liberty” in a political, economic, or social sense, it is imperative to ask, “Which do you mean?” The necessity for this is obvious now: for there are so many conceptions, and they’re not always mutual exclusive or inclusive; and this is to say nothing of the new meanings being created by modern context. Furthermore, it is standard operating procedure for politicians, pundits, and other opinion makers to double speak and otherwise confuse the meaning of their words so as to fool people into agreeing with them. We must be very wary of this practice, especially today.

Second, the conception of civil liberty – those which contemporary societies laud – emphasize the community over the individual by nature and definition. Being part of society and community is so good (and some say: inherent to our natures) that the individual is subservient to it. Indeed, the social contract is nothing but an articulation of this dynamic. Yes, the individual is important (to varying degrees, depending) but not so much more important that one can benefit at the expense of the whole. In fact, the individual has a duty to society: not to harm but protect it. Crime is a violation of this contract; although, it is important to remember that laws don’t always suffice in articulating moral or civil transgressions or enforcing the individual’s obligation to the group.

Today, the conception of “liberty” and “freedom” inverts the social contract; it raises the individual above the whole, glorifies him/her, deifies him/her; it seems to dismiss that the individual is but a part of the whole, is molded by it, and benefits greatly from it (with its public schools, infrastructure, legal and penal systems, etc, etc). Perhaps this is part of why society is “breaking down:” too many people are more concerned with themselves than they are the communities which raised them like their own parents, allowing them to survive and flourish.

Third, what do we do about the excess? the too much freedom/liberty: the license? and what about, as contemporary thinkers are wont to describe it, the negative externalities? What do we do with individuals, as a society, who cannot or will not restrain their destructive, often immoral, yet perfectly legal, behaviors? This important and controversial question will be the subject of a subsequent post, as this one is already too long. Instead, I leave off with the apropos musings of John Milton; a few lines from his sonnet, On the Same:

That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,

And still revolt when truth would set them free.

Licence they mean when they cry liberty;

For who loves that must first be wise and good;

But from that mark how far they rove we see

For all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood.