Freedom vs. Liberty: A Guide to Defining Independence and Why it Matters
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Imagine toiling the fields every day from sunup to sundown. Then after a few weeks of repeating this back-breaking process, a well-dressed man walks up to your farm door and demands half of your harvest.
During the good times, you politely obliged the tax collector. However, there were times your yields ended up being lower than usual. When the tax collector dropped by, a look of anger dotted his face. Maybe he let your delinquency in payment slide for now. But the next time, if you failed to pay up, he might physically punish you. Heck, he might even confiscate part of your property to prove a point.
What could you do? You could fight back, but then you would risk losing your life like countless serfs did when they unsuccessfully revolted against their overlords throughout the Feudal Age. Or you could submit to your overlord’s authority like the overwhelming majority of peasants. More often than not, people opted for the latter throughout the course of human history.
Involuntary servitude was humanity’s natural state before Enlightenment arrived in the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, concepts such as freedom and liberty became prominent in intellectual circles and gradually made their way into the political arena. As powerful as these ideas were, they still needed people willing to take action in order to become a reality.
Several brave American colonists, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, stepped up to the plate on July 4, 1776, when they decided to declare independence from Great Britain. After five brutal years of fighting, American colonists were able to score a decisive victory against British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, thus ending British military operations in America. A peace treaty was signed in Paris on September 3, 1783, ending the American Revolutionary War and officially establishing the United States’ recognition as a free and sovereign nation.
Why Terminology Matters
From that point forward, The U.S. became a beacon of hope for people fighting for freedom across the globe. The questions of what constitutes a free society have been raised by philosophers and political pundits since the U.S. became independent. It’s true that “freedom” and “liberty” have become cliché words in modern political parlance. Because these words are invoked so much in political discourse, their meanings are almost synonymous and used interchangeably.
In politics, clarity and control of the language is crucial. When we forget what words truly mean, we invite the enemies of freedom to manipulate them for their own ends. As George Orwell brilliantly observed in his renowned essay, Politics and the English Language: “Thoughts can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought.” The manipulative use of this same language can be used “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This enables for Newspeak to come about, where our everyday speech features politically approved vocabulary with ambiguous and vapid meanings. From there, the political class can do as it pleases to manipulate and control us.
Etymology of Freedom and Liberty
So what do freedom and liberty truly mean? Let’s take a look at the respective etymologies of these words.
Freedom comes from the Old English “freedom,” which means “power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance.” There were similar variants in Old Frisian such as “fridom,” the Dutch “vrijdom,” and Middle Low German “vridom.”
The word “liberty” comes from the Latin “libertatem” (nominative libertas), which means “civil or political freedom, condition of a free man; absence of restraint, permission.” It’s important to note that Old French variant liberte "freedom, liberty, free will" has also shaped the meaning of the word liberty. In fact, William R. Greg’s essay France in January 1852 notes that the French notion of liberty is political equality, whereas the English notion is rooted in personal independence.
In an interview with Lew Rockwell, Professor Butler Shaffer makes some interesting distinctions between freedom and liberty. Shaffer argues that freedom is the “condition that exists within your mind, within my mind. It’s that inner sense of integrity. It’s an inner sense of living without conflict, without contradiction, without various divisions and so forth.”
This point of view is in line with the philosophy of the Stoics. They believed that a person’s body can be physically imprisoned, but not his mind. Shaffer adds to the distinction:
“Liberty is a condition that arises from free people living together in society. Liberty is a social condition. Freedom is the inner philosophical and psychological condition.”
In short, freedom is inherent to humans. It exists within them by virtue of their humanity. Liberty is a political construct that allows to people enjoy freedoms such as property rights, free speech, freedom of association, etc. Sadly, liberty has not been the natural state of mankind. History has shown that liberty has been a distinguishing feature of Western societies.
Negative Rights vs. Positive Rights
One of the major problems with American politics since the advent of the Progressive Era has been the emphasis on positive rights, instead of negative rights. What are the differences between negative and positive rights?
Philosophy professor Aeon Skoble provides the best summary:
“Fundamentally, positive rights require others to provide you with either a good or service. A negative right, on the other hand, only requires others to abstain from interfering with your actions. If we are free and equal by nature, and if we believe in negative rights, any positive rights would have to be grounded in consensual arrangements.”
For example, private property, free speech, and freedom of association are negative rights. In other words, these are rights that prevent others, above all governments, from transgressing on their person or property.
On the other hand, positive rights are granted by the government and involve the trampling of an individual or a class of individuals’ rights. These kinds of rights – like healthcare or public education – are justified on abstract grounds, such as the “public good” or the “general will.”
Appeals to the general will originate from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emphasized that a strong government makes individuals free and that individuals submit to the state for the sake of the greater good.
Author James Bovard highlights some of the follies behind Rousseau’s thinking:
“Rousseau's concept of the general will led him to a concept of freedom that was a parody of the beliefs accepted by British and American thinkers of his era. Rousseau wrote that the social contract required that ‘whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.’ ”
Bovard also noted how Rousseau’s concept of freedom had nothing to do with the independence of the individual:
“C. E. Vaughan, in a 1915 study of Rousseau's work, correctly observed that, for Rousseau, ‘freedom is no longer conceived as the independence of the individual. It is rather to be sought in his total surrender to the service of the State.’ "
In politics, ideas matter. They can manifest themselves in real-life form and have destructive consequences that reverberate for decades, if not centuries, to come when applied faithfully. Unfortunately, Rousseau’s collective ideas ended up surpassing the American Founding Fathers’ principles in terms of influence. This was most evident during the French Revolution.
French vs. American: A Tale of Two Revolutions
Going back to the differences between French and American conceptions of liberty – political equality vs. personal independence – it is important to understand the bigger picture in these discussions. While they may seem pedantic and nit-picky, the differences in their meanings cannot be overstated. This distinction is a crucial microcosm of what made the outcomes of the American and French Revolutions so different.
The French Revolution devolved into chaos when revolutionary zealots like Maximilien Robespierre became the de facto head of the Committee of Public Safety. Under the Committee’s direction, Robespierre conducted the infamous “Reign of Terror” against all opponents of the French Revolution. During his despotic period of leadership, Robespierre went as far as to create a Cult of the Supreme Being, a state religion based on secularism. This was part of Robespierre’s revolutionary program to completely destroy France’s Roman Catholic tradition. Instead of trying to fight for freedom-based principles, Robespierre was more concerned with destroying all features of French civic society in the name of progress.
In a cruel twist of irony, Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety behaved more like the previous French monarchy. For that reason, the French Revolution turned into a chaotic murder spree that saw tens of thousands of people executed at the guillotine for simply opposing Robespierre’s vision. In the end, Robespierre got a taste of his own medicine, when the French National Convention arrested him and put him to death on July 28, 1794.
It took a young upstart general in Napoleon Bonaparte to put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution. France reverted back to monarchical rule when Napoleon became emperor in 1804, which restored some semblance of political stability to the crisis beleaguered nation.
France reached great heights under Napoleon’s rule, in which the country dominated a substantial portion of Europe. However, Napoleon would be defeated and forced into exile in 1815. France went back to its monarchical system, albeit with certain republican features, when Louis XVIII assumed the throne from 1815 to 1824. France did not morph into a genuine republic until 1848, when the Second Republic was established. However, France swung from imperial to republican governments until 1871, when the Third Republic of France came into power.
The road to political stability in France was rather rocky, and was a demonstration that flawed ideas in governance will create muddled political results. Unfortunately, most countries across the globe have taken after France’s example of governance as opposed to the American model.
Latin America is arguably the best example of this.
Condemned to Mediocrity: Latin America’s Misunderstanding of Liberty
Etched on the building of the Colombian Palace of Justice is a quote by General Francisco de Paula Santander:
"Colombianos las armas os han dado la independencia, las leyes os darán la libertad" (Colombians arms have given us independence, laws will give us liberty.)
Santander’s quote was indicative of the contrasting political visions of the Latin American Wars of Independence from Spain and the American War of Independence from Great Britain. He and his counterpart, Simón Bolívar, were not inspired by classically liberal ideas – hence Santander’s belief that liberty comes from government instead of natural law.
Santander differed from Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who believed that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Juan Baustista Alberdi, one of Latin America’s premier classical liberal thinkers in the 19th century, understood the different motivations behind the Latin American and American Wars of Independence in his essay Omnipotence of the State:
“Washington and his contemporaries were more interested in fighting for individual rights and liberties than just fighting for independence of their country. Once they attained the former, they were able to achieve the latter, as opposed to South American countries, who won their political independence but did not obtain individual freedoms.”
The Founding Fathers fought, above all, for the restoration of their freedoms they enjoyed as Englishmen. On the other hand, Latin American colonists were fighting for independence and the establishment of a government that would supposedly grant them freedoms.
Santander, like many other believers in centralization, thought man-made legislation would give individuals liberty. However, history has shown otherwise. As the great Roman leader Tacitus once said, “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” Laws have also been frequently distorted to infringe on people’s freedoms.
The aforementioned Santander quote highlights the flawed conception many Latin American independence fighters had about liberty and sound governance. Most notable was Santander’s comrade in arms, Simón Bolívar. Known as El Libertador (The Liberator), Bolívar was responsible for freeing countries like Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela from Spanish rule.
Despite his military prowess, his view on governing principles was very flawed. For a start, Bolívar was not receptive to classical liberalism. In particular, Bolívar was not a fan of federalism, which he derided in his famous Cartagena Manifesto:
“But what most weakened the government of Venezuela was the federalist structure it adopted, embodying the exaggerated notion of the rights of man. By stipulating that each man should rule himself, this idea undermines social pacts and constitutes nations in a state of anarchy. Such was the true state of the confederation. Each province governed itself independently, and following this example, each city claimed equal privilege, citing the practice of the provinces and the theory that all men and all peoples have the right to institute whatever form of government they choose. The federal system, although it is the most perfect and the most suitable for guaranteeing human happiness in society, is, notwithstanding, the form most inimical to the interests of our emerging states.”
In Bolívar’s view, the collapse of the First Republic of Venezuela was due to its decentralized federal system, which demonstrated the necessity for Venezuela to have a strong central government.
After independence was achieved throughout most of Latin America in 1821, Bolívar established Gran Colombia, which was made up of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela.
Bolívar had lofty aspirations for Gran Colombia. He saw it as a potential powerhouse that would rival the U.S. and European powers. However, Bolivar’s dreams did not go as planned. By 1828, Gran Colombia was on the ropes due to internal turmoil and political infighting. As a response to these political upheavals, Bolívar dissolved the constitutional convention of Ocaña. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Bolívar’s failure to reform the Constitution of Gran Colombia. Bolívar would then declare himself dictator of the Republic of Colombia, making it abundantly clear that Colombia was no longer a republic. The Gran Colombia experiment would come to a grinding halt in 1830, when Ecuador, New Granada (present-day Colombia), and Venezuela decided to break away and carve out their own national paths.
Gran Colombia’s dissolution made Bolívar pause and reflect. In his letter to General Juan José Flores, Ploughing the Sea, Bolívar was blunt about his concerns for Latin America’s future:
“You know that I have ruled for twenty years, and I have derived from these only a few sure conclusions: (1) America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve revolution plough the sea; (3) The only thing one can do in America is emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unrestrained multitudes and then into the hands of tyrants so insignificant they will be almost imperceptible, of all colors and races; (5) Once we’ve been eaten alive by every crime and extinguished by ferocity, the Europeans won’t even bother to conquer us; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in her last hour.”
Since then, Latin America would experience decades of political and economic instability. Despotism, the non-existence of the rule of law, and economic interventionism have been hallmarks of Latin American politics for the past century and half.
Latin America is still facing the very nasty effects of adopting flawed principles of governance. One needn’t look further than present-day Venezuela to see what happens when collectivism becomes part and parcel of the political culture. Ideas like freedom and liberty cannot be scoffed at. Their adoption can be the difference between generational poverty or prosperity for nations.
Latin America is clearly a region that opted for the flimsy premise of government-granted rights. As we’ll see below, these ideas are no longer confined to the Third World.
A Warning to the United States
The flawed conceptions of what freedom and rights constitute has already made its way to the U.S., where the lack of understanding of what freedom truly means has been apparent since the advent of the Progressive Era. During this period, political pundits and economic theorists became obsessed with scientism, which is “the over-reliance on or over-application of the scientific method” as a means of trying to move society forward. Instead of focusing on foundational principles like freedom or liberty, 20th-century intellectuals focused more on “scientific” ways to plan society. The state would obviously be the main driver, and its central planning would make people “free.”
However, such a view encountered pushback during the 20th century. Economist Ludwig von Mises courageously stood up to this top-down vision and exposed the limits of science in his work Planned Chaos:
“Science is competent to establish what is. It can never dictate what ought to be.”
Mises’ warning unfortunately fell on deaf ears. Progressivism’s apex came about during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. In that period, the income tax and the Federal Reserve were established, while the U.S. embarked on its most expansive foreign adventure to date when it decided to enter World War I. This war would pave the way for increasing levels of government intervention, as witnessed during the New Deal and Great Society eras where the warfare/welfare state became even more consolidated. To this day, the federal government continues to grow without much pushback.
Discussions about freedom and liberty have become quite quaint, as people use these words in Orwellian fashion to justify a litany of government intrusions in our lives. When we let their meanings vanish into the ether, we invite the enemies of freedom to manipulate the public for their own tyrannical ends. We not only need to comprehend the differences between freedom and liberty, but also recover their original meaning so that there is foundational clarity in political discussions.