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.



Words Have Meanings: Are You Hearing What I’m Saying? Communicating the Message of Liberty.

One problem with communicating the message of freedom is that Americans don’t even know what freedom is. Ask an American and you will hear any number of rambling answers that approach the general area but are so different from each other that conversation on any level approaching civility seems to require a definition of terms. And then almost always an argument about whose definition is correct.

This was recently made more clear to me as I discussed speech rights with a young man from Austria a few nights ago. We were discussing how Europeans see Americans and how that vision differs from how we see ourselves. In the conversation he said that Europeans are “as free as Americans”.

“No, says I” I interjected. I asked him if people could be arrested for a Nazi salute in Austria (I have no idea personally except that the young man I’m talking about told me that it is true). He said yes and I said that in America the vast majority would find it in poor taste but that it is not illegal. He seemed incredulous. We discussed gun laws and some other things that constituted activities or possessions that are illegal in Europe but legal here. We discussed social programs that provide “free” services in Europe but that are contentious political issues here. The ACA for example. I pointed out that most people in America are not against the services being provided in some way, just not by forcing people to pay for them though taxation. America was founded by a tax revolt, after all.

I could see the gears spinning in his head. He got it, superficially at the very least. But he still contended that Europeans were just as free as Americans.

Fighting back the urge to launch into a dissertation, I allowed the conversation to move on to other things, but it has been on my mind since then. Nagging me. How can he think Europeans are as free as Americans if they can’t do the same things, have the same things or keep as much of their income as we can? Clearly they aren’t as free as we are.

Here’s the thing: his definition of freedom is different than mine. And his definition for freedom is very similar to what just about all American non-libertarians apply to freedom.

I’ll get into those definitions in another post. But for now I submit that a big part of the lack of civility in political discourse is caused by people who can’t resolve how stupid, or how evil someone on “the other side” must be if they can’t clearly see that our argument is the only moral one. There is no reason to be rational with a sociopath, after all. Those people just need to be beat down. It’s the only language they understand.

So I’m going to devote some time and mental energy toward ways we liberty advocates can communicate ideas about liberty to people who bring different definitions to the words we are using. Words like violence, coercion, the State, and liberty. Most people in the liberty movement share common definitions for these words. People outside the movement don’t, and we need to do something about it if we are going to spread the message. The world needs it.

Thanks for reading. Thanks in advance for participating by leaving comments and inviting other people to read it as well. Conversations require two way communication. Let’s have a conversation.