Freedom vs. Liberty: How Subtle Differences Between These Two Big Ideas Changed Our World

 

“I see the liberty of the individual not only as a great moral good in itself (or, with Lord Acton, as the highest political good), but also as the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilization, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity. Out of liberty, then, stem the glories of civilized life.” – Murray Rothbard

The terms “freedom” and “liberty” have become clichés in modern political parlance. Because these words are invoked so much by politicians and their ilk, their meanings are almost synonymous and used interchangeably. That’s confusing – and can be dangerous – because their definitions are actually quite different.

“Freedom” is predominantly an internal construct. Viktor Frankl, the legendary Holocaust survivor who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning, said it well: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (in how he approaches his circumstances).”

In other words, to be free is to take ownership of what goes on between your ears, to be autonomous in thoughts first and actions second. Your freedom to act a certain way can be taken away from you – but your attitude about your circumstances cannot – making one’s freedom predominantly an internal construct.

On the other hand, “liberty” is predominantly an external construct. It’s the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views. The ancient Stoics knew this (more on that in a minute). So did the Founding Fathers, who wisely noted the distinction between negative and positive liberties, and codified that difference in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The distinction between negative and positive liberties is particularly important, because an understanding of each helps us understand these seminal American documents (plus it explains why so many other countries have copied them). The Bill of Rights is a charter of negative liberties – it says what the state cannot do to you. However, it does not say what the state must do on your behalf. This would be a positive liberty, an obligation imposed upon you by the state.

Thus in keeping with what the late Murray Rothbard said above, the liberty of the individual is the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other “goods” that mankind cherishes. Living in liberty allows each of us to fully enjoy our freedoms. And how these two terms developed and complement one another is important for anyone desiring to better understand what it means to be truly free.

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In Few Words, What is Freedom?

Here’s what I came up with while driving home just now, after checking in on my Airbnb which was just cleaned and prepped for my next guests, on the question, “What is freedom?”

Freedom is living life on my own terms, and respecting the freedom of everyone else to do likewise.

There are volumes of philosophical thinking on freedom packed within that one simple, elegant sentence. Try to imagine living under such a condition as this. When freedom is respected totally in society, there is no crime, public or private. The only forces standing in the way of doing anything you want in life are completely natural.

As a toddler, if you want to explore something, you are showed how to explore it safely. As a child, if you want to scream and play, you are showed how to do so in a suitable environment. As an adolescent, if you want to bury your head in books or video games, your chosen activities are respected. As an adult, if you want to build a business, nobody except unimpressed potential customers stand in your way.

These are but a microscopic fraction of the types of activities free people may engage in without hindrance. The only obstacles that must be dealt with are those which the universe has put in our way. Never are they the unjustified demands of other people. If someone has something we want, we ask them how we may get it for ourselves.

Freedom is beautiful. It’s a warm cup of coffee in the morning, a sunny walk or drive to our preferred destination, an activity engaged in for the sake of interest, and the loving arms of someone who loves and cares about us.

I think that if we want freedom, we must acknowledge what freedom is, and commit to living in freedom. My life is mine to do with as I please, as is yours. I don’t ask for permission, and neither should you.

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Writer’s Break

Nobody asked but …

I am taking a break in the type of posts I usually make, to call to your attention instances of standing on the shoulders of giants.

Skyler Collins, in his podcast series, Editor’s Break, is referring you to posts which have been published or syndicated at EVC.  Then he is adding his observations and comments and analysis, most excellently.  Let me be quick to extend this to say that I am not implying in any way that Skyler is not a giant in his own right — au contraire.  Let’s remember that the guy who came up with the “standing on the shoulders of giants” image was Isaac Newton, a giant among giants.  Nor do I, since Skyler references my posts as well, claim to be a giant.  I just try to hang in there.

What I like best is how Skyler sheds a second light on, or maybe illuminates for the first time, ideas that can bear repeating.

In any event, if you are missing these gems from Skyler, run, don’t walk, to your nearest podcast player.  You will be glad you did.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Use Your Free Time to Create More Freedom

I constantly hear people say “I don’t want to talk or think about work when I’m not at the job.” These are usually the same people who are so worn out by work that they define “relaxation” primarily in terms of being off the clock.

Free time is great, but the whole purpose of free time is to actually enjoy, experience, and enhance your freedom.  If you’re spending your free time worrying about work, complaining about work, resenting work, or getting anxious about the next time you have to go to work, then your free time isn’t very free. Since your free time isn’t free anyway and since you’re thinking about work anyway, you might as well just use your free time to consciously improve your work life.

If you hate your work life, then the last thing you should do is try to escape from it. Instead, work even harder at creating patterns of efficiency at effectiveness that will allow you to transform your work days into something you truly look forward to.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen wrote “Your best ideas about work are most likely to come when you’re not at work.” When that happens, will you be available to those ideas or will you be too busy trying to tune out every thought related to your job? Hard work is hard, but it only gets harder until you put in the work necessary to make it more feasible and fun.

Instead of using your weekends to escape your weekdays, use your free time to create the kind of freedom that can be experienced at anytime.

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Freedom as Physics

Nobody asked but …

I must share this quote with you:

Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.
— Rollo May

This has a physical truth to it.  Even if only one task can be done at a time, the collision of possible tasks can be overwhelming.  To the extent that one is overwhelmed, the more it may seem that events are conspiring to remove one’s choices.  Dr. May’s observation, however, gives one hope that the crush can be separated into pieces to which one can respond.  Stimuli are opportunities for response.  Every stimulus is different — of each itself and of the combination of stimuli with which it impinges.  Freedom is the optimization of prioritizing the stimuli to which one will respond.  In a perfect world, the stimuli would space themselves so that one could respond rationally and interactively to each in isolation in the best way.  But the world as we get it is clamorous and random.  Our freedom depends on optimum response.  “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” — Leonard H. Courtney

— Kilgore Forelle

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Shut Up and Stand on Command

What makes America different from North Korea or Communist China or Thailand? In all three countries, criticism of the government is forbidden, and worship of the symbols of state is mandatory.

In theory, the USA is a country of free people; people who are free to stand, salute, sing, as the government asks – or not, as each chooses.

The day such obeisance becomes mandatory, the USA might as well quit pretending to be a free country. More than a few veterans have said much the same thing; they fought for freedom, not for mandatory flag worship.

I’m sure the NFL players would rather just play ball, but they’re not being given that option; politics has been interjected into the game already, and they must decide whether to pretend to follow the forms, or to protest. If we truly value free speech, then this is free speech. It should be allowable. If we say “not now, not then, not here, not there,” we might as well just say “shut up and stand on command.”

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