The Differing Definitions of Liberty

By Josh Sager

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In politics and in debates over social issues, we often encounter the word “liberty”, or “individual rights” in reference to arguments over what society should regulate and what it has no right to decide on. With such a commonly used argument, one would think that there would be a reasonably high level of consistency in the definitions of the concepts used in the arguments. Unfortunately, there are two fundamental flaws to the invocation of “liberty” in an argument that often cause different points of view to be difficult to reconcile. “Liberty” often has a different definition based upon the political system or even personal political party affiliation within a single political system.

What is “Liberty”?

The first flaw in invoking liberty in an argument is that there is no set definition as to what liberty actually consists of when put into practice. Some people believe that liberty is the ability to have absolute control over your own actions, as well as their corresponding consequences, and no responsibility for the actions of others. Other people hold that liberty is the freedom to live in a society with the guarantee of vital services and rights. In addition to these two definitions of “liberty” we encounter dozens of different definitional permutations that people of various viewpoints hold to be true; as nobody can accurately quantify the meaning of the term “liberty” many arguments that are based upon personal liberties are not easy to reconcile when they are made from different viewpoints

“We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty means for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the products of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things called by the same name liberty.”

–Ron Paul–

Examples of where the different definitions of liberty can create difficult situation are common in our society; one example of different definition of liberty clashing is the debate over “home-schooling” or “un-schooling”. Parent who do not wish to enroll their children in public or private schools demand the “liberty” to make choices for their children and their family. Those who are against non-traditional education seek to “liberate” children from the untenable situation where they are not receiving a proper education, often with severe future consequences. One side defines liberty as the ability to control one’s own actions regardless of others in society’s views while the other side defines liberty as the ability of children to receive a good education regardless of their family background; either position is arguable under the definition of “liberty” that is presented to the other, but at the same time, the concept of “liberty” means two completely different things.

The second, and most significant, flaw inherent to invoking liberty in an argument is that people of differing opinions often disagree upon where one person’s personal liberty ends and the rights of others begin.  Giving a type of liberty to one party has been shown to, at times, infringe upon the “liberties” of other parties. Due to the tradeoff inherent in granting liberty to one side, society must decide which group’s liberty should be protected at the expense of the other.

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

–Abraham Lincoln—

Virtually every argument that invokes “liberty” has some degree of exchange involved in it. The classic example of a societal choice in America that restricts “liberty” to some but give it to others is segregation. In the segregation fight, the federal government interceded on the behalf of African Americans in order to remove not only state sponsored segregation but also private segregation practices (lunch counters, busses, etc.). While only a small, bigoted, fringe of the population would disagree with the removal of the Jim Crow laws, there are those who argue that businesses should have remained free to segregate. Those who hold this view believe that in order to increase liberty for African Americans, the federal government infringed upon the “liberty” of the individual to control their own property. While I, like a majority of Americans, disagrees with this argument, it is still a valid argument because technically the business owners were restricted from controlling their own operations.

In the divide demonstrated by the segregation example, we see the fundamental questions that are involved in the concept of “Liberty”. If liberty has no one meaning, then how can it be used to justify a position during an argument? If either action or inaction can change the balance of “liberty” between two parties, then what is the proper action for society/government? Does the government step in to redress imbalances and if it does, which version of “liberty” is the government to protect? The different answers of these questions are part of the fundamental differences between the various political ideologies.

 

Political Ideology and “Liberty”

At the core of each dominant political ideology is a different version of the concept of “liberty” that leads to wildly different results when it comes to governing. In the following section, I describe the views definitions of “liberty” as well as the policy outcomes caused by this definition inherent to each of many purist political ideologies. The purist views are not universally held by member of each ideology, as many citizens are moderate or conflicted in their views, but they act as a generalized picture of what the party as a whole believes.

 

Left Wing: Progressive (“Liberal”) Ideology

The progressive economic ideology is characterized by a strong social contract that allows for high levels of equality of opportunity and a strong social safety net. The promotion of equality and high levels of public services are performed by a large federal government and funded through high levels of taxation. Countries with strong progressive movements, the best examples of which are the Scandinavian countries, often have nationalized health care, a high quality of public education, and higher levels of social spending than other countries of similar demographics and GDP. Progressivism may sometimes be denigrated as “tax and spend” by its detractors (and this characterization is somewhat true) but in many cases, the government produces results more efficiently and less expensively than decentralized private providers.

Progressive societies focus upon the advancement of the lower tiers of society, paid for primarily by those who can afford to pay a little more. In a progressive society, tax codes tax the rich at a higher percentage than the poor under the belief that they can afford to give back to society more.

“Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt–

The progressive social ideology is one where individual social rights are respected but there is a great focus upon the social good. Progressives are likely to support individual freedoms that do not have negative social externalities (such as abortion, gay marriage, the right to free speech, etc.) but often support restrictions on actions that do have negative externalities (gun ownership, pollution, abuses of workers, etc.). Progressive ideals are intended to maximize the social good, while paying less attention to the individual good, thus any action that produces negative social outcomes is more likely to be regulated or prohibited than in other ideologies.

“In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt–

As conceptualized by F.D.R. in the above quote, progressive ideals are based around the concept that everybody has the right to control their private lives but any action that affects society as a whole is the business of society. Personal “liberty” in progressivism is the ability to live in society with some degree of certainty as to the provision of basic service (food, housing, work, education) at the expense of paying into the system if you succeed; personal rights are protected for the individual, but any action that affects society is potentially regulated by society. Liberty to a progressive is not a disconnection from social obligations and taxes but rather an ideal that lives in-between the balance of personal rights and social responsibilities. Taxes are higher in progressive countries because the government does more to benefit the population in terms of services it provides. As certain services are guaranteed to everybody and certain taxes are expected of everybody, there is no opt out for goods and services in a progressive society; essentially, if you don’t wish to use the public education system or government-run health care option, you are free to purchase a private good, but you will still pay into the system as though you were benefitting from the public services.

At its extreme, the left wing progressive ideology becomes one of several varieties of socialism or communism. In an ideal socialist system, society takes precedent over the individual but everybody is considered to be equal in society and entitled to a certain set of goods as a member of society; all private property is considered public, and people are expected to work together to achieve the maximum social good. The “elites” in society (capitalists, investors, executives, landlords, etc.) are seen as the oppressive influence that keeps control over the working class through money. By removing all private goods, the socialist attempts to remove the control of the rich over the worker and thus increase the freedom of the individual. As there is no private property in a socialist system, there is no corresponding “liberty” defined in relation to economic choices.

“The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.”

–Karl Marx–

As a far more extreme version of progressivism, individual rights are heavily constrained if they act in detriment to the general social welfare. Individual “liberty” is seen as the right to live and work in equality with all others in society, without the oppressive influence of the elite. All in society have the same rights and responsibilities, thus the socialist sees society as “liberated” from the socioeconomic stratification and the imbalances of power inherent to other political systems.

 

Right Wing: Regressive (”Conservative”) Ideology

The regressive economic ideology is characterized by a weak social contract and a high level of individual rights with a correspondingly low level of social rights. The guiding principle of the regressive ideology is that in the absence of government, worthy individuals prosper and can buy the goods that they need without having to pick up after the free riders. Many right wing regressives refer to their ideology as “ruggedly individualistic” in that the individual is not seen as an extension of society; everybody is an individual and has very little support from society while on the other hand has few social responsibilities. Regressive economic policies focus upon deregulating markets and allowing the free market to rule the economic landscape. Virtually every social service and public good is privatized under the ideal that private citizens can purchase the goods that they choose to and not those that they feel that they don’t need; those who fail to purchase a necessary good (Food, shelter, medical care, etc.) from a private source have little to no recourse if they need a good and cannot afford it. The only public services that the regressive government provides to the population are national defense and law enforcement, as those are the only ones that they believe

“Government “help” to business is just as disastrous as government persecution… the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.”

–Ayn Rand–

Regressive social policy is as individualistic as it economic ideology in theory, but in practice, religion and social prejudice often overshadows the concepts of individual freedom. An issue such as gun control illustrates the regressive right wing ideology on social issues in its purest form: The individual right to bear arms reigns supreme and society has no right to regulate what individuals purchase with their own resources. Each person is an individual and thus, while they are not prohibited from owning a gun, they are responsible for their actions with said gun if they use it to infringe upon another’ personal rights. While the gun control example gives the regressive ideal for social issues, some specific issues such as gay marriage, abortion and racial/gender equality have caused the American right wing to sway significantly from the purist view of individual rights.

“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

–Ayn Rand–

As articulated by Ayn Rand, a right wing regressive thinker, the regressive ideals of “liberty” are based almost entirely around personal rights and responsibilities, disconnected from social responsibility and support. “Liberty” to a regressive is to have virtually no tax burden or regulation by a government authority either in social or economic arenas, while at the same time having little to no support from society in return. To a right wing regressive, a liberated society is one where individuals operate without outside intervention by the government and are not held responsible for the actions and safety of others in society.

At its most extreme, the regressive right wing becomes classified as Anarcho-libertarianism or Anarcho-capitalism. For Anarcho-libertarians, the state is seen as universally oppressive and is shrunk to the point of non-existence. “Liberty” is seen as the freedom from all external interference from aggregations of power and the promotion of absolute personal control over one’s life; taxes are seen as theft to a believer of this ideology. Anarcho-libertarians believe that individual interactions are able to sustain society and that centralized control is unnecessary, thus they consider all taxes, regulations and laws to by tyrannical. While there has yet to be a modern country that has functioned under an Anarcho-libertarian ideology, the end results of Anarcho-libertarianism can be seen in countries without law or government, such as Somalia. While Somalia was rendered lawless through war and a social collapse rather than a concerted ideology, it illustrates a society that exists as an Anarcho-libertarian model; there are no social programs or services other than community organizations and volunteer charities while at the same time there are no taxes levied onto the population.

“It is curious that people tend to regard government as a quasi-divine, selfless, Santa Claus organization. Government was constructed neither for ability nor for the exercise of loving care; government was built for the use of force and for necessarily demagogic appeals for votes. If individuals do not know their own interests in many cases, they are free to turn to private experts for guidance. It is absurd to say that they will be served better by a coercive, demagogic apparatus.”

–Murray N. Rothbard–

As individual rights are seen as absolute in an Anarcho-libertarian system, believers in this ideology define “liberty” entirely under its negative definition. Negative liberty is the freedom from restriction by the state (as opposed to positive liberty, which is freedom relating to having access to certain resources), thus the Anarcho-libertarian “state” does little to redress inequality in its population. The protections of personal liberty between individuals are left entirely up to the market and voluntary relationships formed between individuals; for example, if a business wants to segregate its customers by race or gender, they have that rights and the customers have the right not to attend that particular business.

 

Authoritarianism: Theocratic, Corporatist and Fascist Ideology

“Liberty” in an authoritarian system of government, whether it is fascist, corporatist or theocratic in its centralized power structure, is entirely defined by the faction in power. In an autocracy, those in power define word so as to control the population. The most famous example of the use of language to limit a population is that of the George Orwell book “1984”, where an autocracy uses “doublespeak” and redefinition of words to control the population (This book is the genesis of terms such as “doublespeak” and “Big Brother”). If the autocracy defines “liberty” as doing everything that the leaders dictate, then that is the party ideology; in this, “liberty” is both more defined than in other political models, as it has a defined meaning, yet meaningless because it’s definition is not natural, rather dictated by edict.

If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.

–Howard Zinn–

The method of defining the term “liberty” in an autocracy is dependent upon the type of autocracy that is defining the term. In fascism or corporatism, the autocratic leadership determines the party line on what “liberty” is defined as and hands down this definition to the people. Often, “liberty” is defined in a way that supports the dominant power structure and thus precludes any rebellion on the part of the people in order to obtain true “liberty” (whatever that actually is). In a theocracy, rather than the ruling party, the religious texts, dogma, or leaders determine the meaning of “liberty”. “Liberty” is defined within the laws of the religion rather than any secular authority. There are numerous examples of how religion attempts to define “liberty” in society but the two best modern examples are Islamic Sharia law and Christian religious fundamentalism. In Islamic Sharia, “liberty” is defined under interpretation of the Koran, and used to justify the restriction of women and homosexuals; “liberty” is not considered universal but rather dependent upon the characteristics of the individual. Regardless of the religion that is dominant in the theocracy, the pattern remains that “liberty” is defined in-between the constraints of the religious edicts present in the religion.

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

–Thomas Jefferson–

Jefferson’s quote directly addresses the threat to “liberty” (or his definition thereof) that religion poses. According to him, religion infiltrates government and then restricts the liberties of the non-believers to conform to the ideals of the believers; it is this phenomenon that has been seen in all current religious law based societies as well as some secular societies. In the USA, homosexuals wish for the “liberty” to marry as heterosexuals do, but religious Christians seek to restrict the “liberty” of the homosexuals because they define liberty within the conformity of their religious beliefs.

Conclusion

Due to the inability of people to agree upon the fundamental definition of the concept of “liberty” many political arguments are born. Different political ideologies see the “liberty” of one side as infringing upon that of another and thus a debate begins over which “liberty” is more vital. The “sheep/wolf” analogy that President Lincoln used in his quote is perfect in the context of this argument in that the “liberties” of each side are dependent upon the lack of “liberties” of the other side: Does the wolf have the “liberty” to prey on the weaker sheep or the sheep the “liberty” to live unmolested by the wolf? Do corporations have the right to make massive profits while polluting the world or do the citizens of the world have the “liberty” of a clean environment? Do the rich citizens of the USA have the “liberty” to keep all of the money that they earn or do they have the responsibility to give back to society in order to increase the “liberty” and opportunity of the poor? It is these fundamental questions of liberty that define our political parties and drive the political debates of our country.

16 thoughts on “The Differing Definitions of Liberty

      • After having lived 84 full and truly remarkable years during which he served in the United States Army Air Force during World War II as a radio operator and gunner on oboard a B-25 Mitchell bomber, appeared in 100 major motion pictures including The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur for which he won an Academy Award for best actor in 1959 and was an advocate of civil rights which included marching in Washington D.C. in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King. May he rest in peace.

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  1. Mr. Heston’s service to his country during WWII is not in question, at least by me. But, his railings of later days are:

    “But by the time Heston was elevated to the presidency of the NRA in 1998, his gun politics—and his broader cultural politics—had evolved. Convinced that American values were being threatened from all directions, he would transform the largely ceremonial NRA office into a soapbox for attacking feminists and gay-rights activists, identity politics, and political correctness; his crusade on behalf of an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment became part and parcel of a defense of what he saw as the legacy and values of the “dead white guys” who had created the nation.”

    http://www.shmoop.com/right-to-bear-arms/charlton-heston-nra.html

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    • I actually did read the article you suggested and found it amusing. I got the feeling that it might have been written by a college student. Are you saying that you DO NOT agree that America’s values are being attacked from all directions? Nearly 4,000,000 NRA members think they are. It is important that you realize that not all gun owners are NRA members. There are several other organizations including the Second Amendment Society, Jews For The Preservation of Firearms Ownership and Gun Owners of America. Furthermore, not all gun owners belong to any of these organizations like myself. The fact is that politicians have now learned that angering gun owners is unwise. Hopefully, the minority of gun control fanatics will also acknowledge this eventually.

      What was the first thing that Charlton Heston did after he arrived in Heaven and met God?

      He signed an autograph for Moses.

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  2. Please read my post from yesterday a little closer. I did not say that ALL NRA members agreed (NRA members come from all walks of life), nor did I say that the NRA definitely has 4,000,000 members. I said that there are NEARLY 4,000,000. Unlike a “poll” which can be skewed either from the beginning by asking selective and open ended questions or intentionally misinterpreted afterwards to fit the agenda of whomever conducted it, the NRA actually keeps records and knows how many active members it has. I suspect that you will probably say that the NRA is lying. Why would they need to based on recent Second Amendment victories in Washington, Illinois, Colorado and California? Mr. Sager will confirm that currently in the United States, there is an average of 80 to 88 guns per every 100 people. Minors cannot purchase or own guns or vote and like you said, 75% of the population is adults. YOU do the rest of the math. Yes, I realize that there is a certain portion of the adult population that have criminal records and cannot legally own guns. You feel that Heston’s “halo” is tarnished? I know of another actor who is now “tarnished” and will likely never have a halo.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j1V7UgCbKY

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    • First, Deb is entirely correct when she points out that the NRA inflates its membership in order to appear stronger and more populist than it is. In reality, the NRA is a lobbying group that uses funds from gun manufacturers and a core of extremely motivated extremists during primaries to exert pressure on politicians.

      Second, there are 88 guns per 100 people, but the total number of gun owners has been shrinking over the past decade–in effect, fewer people are buying more guns.

      Third, Heston was an almost-stereotypical culture warrior and the product of a generation filled with hyper-religiosity, racism, and ignorance. While NRA president, Heston did tarnish his “halo,” inasmuch as it ever existed, when he used racial divisionism to mobilize racist southern whites in favor of his cause.

      P.S. Heston, like Reagan, was just another foolish and ignorant right wing figure-head, who was competent in selling an ignorant population on policies which result in their impoverishment and death.

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    • Joe, I’m no longer going to play. It seems you must believe that the NRA is an all powerful, all American ideal. You also seem to be veering toward tit-for-tat which is not what I joined this conversation. The NRA, once a hunting and sportsman’s club, has turned into a mean spirited lobby for gun manufacturers. Their spokesmen have all admitted as much by their rhetoric and loyalties to the legislators that they can purchase. The NRA concern is to keep people like yourself pumped up and ready to fight their battles for them, and of course, to continue buying more guns. You haven’t begun to convince (that is not said to encourage more conversation) me that Heston (did), or Nugent, or the Jolly Roger for that matter cares one whit about the US or Americans quality of life. They just want you and those like you to buy more guns.

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      • It is truly unfortunate that you feel that way right now. You take all the time you need. When you change your mind, the patriotic gun owners of America will welcome you. Even though we are the majority, there is always room for one more. I am assuming that you are a US citizen. I would encourage you to look around your local area and try to find an indoor shooting range that allows customers to rent firearms by the hour and try it just once. I am also going to assume that you are an adult. The golden age of the Second Amendment has begun, it is a wonderful time to be a gun owner.

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  3. Apparently, whatever the NRA is doing is working VERY well. There has been so much talk about the NRA that many people have forgotten that the NRA does not stand alone.

    Just where do you think that the money that gun manufacturers fund the NRA with comes from? You probably don’t spend a great deal of time in gun stores or buying firearms or related accessories online. For most of this year, there have been A LOT of empty shelves and lengthy backorders. If you plan on obtaining a concealed carry permit, you can expect a wait of several weeks before any certified instructors can find a spot for you. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see anything to convince me that the number of gun owners is doing anything but increasing.

    Heston’s generation defeated Adolf Hitler and liberated the concentration camps. Heston’s generation created the Civil Rights ACt of 1964 and put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

    Your opinion of our beloved 40th president (who appointed the first female Supreme Court justice and ended the Cold War) is probably due to the fact that he was elected to his first term over eight years and completed his second term less than 4 months before you were born. You should also know that Reagan was the first president to push for background checks for firearms purchases which I actually support. Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law in 1993.

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  4. Hi! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you knlw how to make
    your site mobile friendly? My blog looks weird when viewing from my apple iphone.
    I’m trying to find a tedmplate or plugin that might be able to resolve this
    problem. If you have any recommendations, pleasze share.

    Appreciate it!

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    • I have very limited control over the formatting options for the wordpress theme that I using (the mobile adaption is automatic and I don’t think that there is a plugin that will patch such a problem)–that said, I will try.

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