Freedom Defined

Yesterday, I lamented that conversation is difficult when people don’t share common definitions for words. This should go without saying. The problem is exasperated when people become emotionally attached to their definition.

I’m guilty of this. I have a definition for freedom that I’m emotionally attached to. I spend much of my time convincing…okay, attempting to convince people that my definition is the correct one. Here is my definition:

Freedom is that state of existence where the individual does not experience coercion from another person or group of people unless he attempts to use coercion against another person.

Here’s another definition that floats around out there: “Freedom means being able to do what you want to do unless you hurt someone”. Or, “Freedom means having maximum choices”. I disagree with these definitions, and here’s why.

First, I don’t like limiting freedom to what a person can or cannot do. Freedom means refusing to do things you don’t want to do as well. I think that European models for freedom fall into this trap. People feel free as long as they aren’t kept from doing things that are on a sort of list of acceptable things. Since what they are not allowed to do is reasonably listed, they avoid those things and generally get to stay out of a cage. But what happens when something we like to do gets put on the list because someone else just doesn’t like it?

Further, without a firm definition for “hurt”, you can see we have another problem. Is hurt feelings enough reason to limit someone’s freedom to do something? Is it enough for one person in an entire population to be “hurt” in order to enact a new law?

What about the “maximum choice” argument? Does more freedom necessarily mean more choices? It seems like it would. Surely where there is less freedom, people have less choices. People in North Korea have less choice for dinner than people in South Korea, generally speaking. But should we define freedom that way?

How does one make these choices? One way, and I would argue one very important way is through economic exchange. If we limit our definition for freedom to our relative ability to make choices we find that one way to increase freedom is to provide a way to economically enable people to make choices. Now, I agree that limiting a person’s ability to trade what he has for what he wants can be a violation of his freedom, but can we say that advocating for freedom means necessarily enabling that person to get what he wants?

Does making people more free mean providing healthcare? A living wage? A college education? Any good idea we all agree helps people be “better off”?

No. Because in order to provide these things, another person’s choices must be limited. To provide free healthcare to one person, other people must pay for it either with their money, their property, or their time. Same with all scarce (finite) goods. So while freedom tends to result in greater choice, we can’t say that we can increase freedom for the whole by giving more choice to the individual. Choices don’t create freedom, freedom results in choices if that makes sense.

I’ve given you my definition for freedom. I’ve explained why I disagree with definitions submitted by people I end up arguing with. What I have not done is to propose a way to get past this disagreement so we can find common ground. I’ll get into that stuff in the next post.

Thanks for reading. Share with a friend if you think it is worth it.



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