The Essence of Liberty

From the ancient times of Greece to the American Revolution, the concept of liberty has been asserted by man in response to the coercive measures instilled by authoritarian systems of government.  Thomas Jefferson stated in a legal argument in 1770, “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance” (qtd. in Hayes 84).   In order to grasp the concept of liberty one must understand the origins of liberty, its function in philosophy, the components of liberty which determine if the philosophy is sound, and the perceptions of liberty and how they differ.  Once one understands the history and concepts of liberty, he or she can then determine what liberty is and what it is not; this knowledge will provide a backdrop for people to determine whether the moral precepts dictated by society are congruent with an individual’s ability to thrive through reason.

In order to understand liberty, it is important to understand the original usage of the word and how it has evolved over time into what it means today.  The meaning of liberty has been debated by man since the dawn of civilization and has gone through an evolution of interpretations since it was first spoken.  The word liberty predates Christianity and was used by the Greek and Roman philosophers to define ethical standards for people living in society as well as the role of government in response to this interaction.  In an online article, historian Joseph R. Stromberg traced the etymology of the word liberty from the Latin word “libertas” then to the Latin prefix “liber,” meaning free (Stromberg, “Freedom vs. Liberty”).   Stromberg referenced French linguist Benveniste, who said that the plural usage of “liber” was used to describe the purpose of Roman marriage in creating, “liberi,” or “children,” who were seen as free beings in their society compared to that of slaves.  Stromberg also said that over the centuries, the word “liberte” became associated with words and concepts such as freedoms, privileges, or reserved rights.  Governmental systems made of kings and nobles later conceded their authority to recognize these concepts as the people demanded more freedoms. Later, as the enlightenment era emerged, 17th and 18th century liberal thinkers, including Locke and Hobbes, would expand the concept of liberty and theorize a comprehensive notion of life, liberty, and property as the ingredients of free men; this new theory of liberty became the philosophical foundation for the Declaration of Independence, inspiring the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mans are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (US Declaration Ind.)

Ludwig von Mises stated in his book Planned Chaos that “The intellectual leaders of the people have produced and propagated the fallacies which are on the point of destroying liberty and Western civilization” (Mises 90).  “Liberty” is a word commonly used in America and abroad to establish legitimacy of issues that are talked about everyday; yet, ask one person to define “liberty” and everyone has a different answer. In modern times the ideas of liberty are perceived very differently than they once were and have become synonymous with words and concepts that are antithetical to freedom or liberty, like democracy and other forms of collectivism.  These standards of ethics dictate that the will of the majority is superior to the will of the individual, giving the majority, in turn, the perceived authority to negate a person’s inherent right to life if it deems necessary.  Since liberty is defined by the absence of coercion in a person’s ability to pursue happiness while maintaining their natural rights, political systems like democracy are diametrically opposed to liberty; it is an ethical standard of politics that takes away voluntary association and the natural rights of the individual.  As schools of thought have developed over the centuries, the concept of liberty has been slowly redefined from an objective philosophy based on reason and individualism to subjective philosophies applied with no concrete definition to guide its application, leading to the promotion of moral relativism in society. Butler Shaffer, a teacher from the Southwestern University School of Law, said in an online article:

It is collectivism that is the unrealistic expression of utopian belief systems.  In its worst form—the state—collectivism is the institutionalized exertion of violence to compel living beings to behave contrary to their natural self-interest inclinations.  So strong are the motivations for individual preferences that the state must resort to attacks upon the very nature of life to satisfy the ambitions of those who see others as nothing more than resources to be exploited for such ends (Shaffer, “Collectivist Utopias”).

While political pundits from various news media, elected officials from the right and left, and public or private institutions use conflicting definitions of liberty to support their positions, the people listening are left with contradictory ideas about liberty in its function and application to their lives, perpetuating the confusion. The more liberty is used to back up each opposing view point without a clear understanding of said view points, the more the concept of liberty becomes watered down, misused, and broadly applied to everything.

Although varying definitions of liberty have floated in and out of society, there is only one definition of liberty that has no conflict with morality.  A person is in a state of liberty when in the absence of coercive measures that deflect from a person’s natural rights and means to live life in pursuit of happiness; the means to live life would be production through the use of our faculties, or talents, and the pursuit of happiness means obtaining property of some sort in order to live. To understand the importance of property rights in relation to liberty, Ayn Rand says it best.  She states in her book The Virtue of Selfishness that:

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man, who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave. When a person’s natural rights are violated, this hinders a person’s ability to pursue happiness, therefore limiting a person’s liberty (Rand 93).

The concept of liberty comes from the idea of interacting with other members of society, forming a social agreement and is based in politics; however, liberty is only necessary in the confines of a societal structure because a person would not need liberty if interaction with other members of society were not necessary in order to function and pursue one’s dreams (i.e. a man living alone on an island).   Since men are social creatures and are dependent on shared interaction for happiness and survival, the concept of liberty becomes essential to this process, deriving from a branch of philosophy called politics.

Politics, a corollary of ethics, is the study of necessary conditions for individuals within society to function according to their nature. The concept of liberty is created as a reaction to man connecting with society and applying ethical standards of value to which the goals of survival, well being, and happiness can be evaluated.  So if man uses reason based on reality to survive and thrive, and liberty—or the absence of coercion—allows man to thrive, reason and liberty are dependent on each other.  The ingredients of liberty are then as follows: Rights are the moral principles defining freedom of action in a social context.  Rights are also inalienable in that they may not be morally infringed upon.  For example, a thief may rob you, but morally he is in the wrong, and you are in the right.  Rights are also not guarantees to things, but only guarantees to freedom of action, or the right to liberty; and, a guarantee to the results of those actions, or the right to property.  The only obligation a person’s rights impose on others is for them to leave you alone or to be free to act within your sphere of rights.  In a letter to Isaac H. Tiffany in 1819, Thomas Jefferson said, “Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual” (Jefferson 224).  The confiscation of someone’s rights from property through physical force or threat of force, forfeits the rights of the individual initiating the force, establishing a retaliatory initiation of force, or self defense, therefore inhibiting the liberty of the aggressor.  This is the natural check on aggression and where the collective right of implementing justice, or law, can be enforced; but as Frederic Bastiat states in his book The Law, “The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all” (3).  All of these ingredients form the basic ethical concept of liberty and maintain the natural rights of the individual while establishing an obligatory code to preserve the rights of others if one wishes to live in a civil society.

Under the definition of liberty, a person lives in a state of liberty when in the absence of coercive measures that deflect from a person’s natural rights and means to live life in pursuit of happiness. To quote Bastiat’s The Law once more in relation to liberty:

It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion — whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government — at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty (54).

Liberty is as essential to life as air is to breath and the only thing you can’t acquire unless it is given to other people as well.  Once the basic concept of liberty is understood, society and the individual can exist in harmony, each reinforcing the other while allowing for innovation and growth; hence, promoting the advancement of mankind through a free market of ideas.  This is the essence of liberty.

Works Cited

Bastiat, Frederic. The Law. CreateSpace, 2008.

Hayes, Kevin H. The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. USA: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Jefferson, Thomas. “To Isaac H. Tiffany.” Ed. Joyce Appleby. Jefferson: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Cambradge University Press, 1999. 224.

Mises, Ludwig von. Planned Chaos. Foundation for Economic Education, 1981.

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. Signet, 1964.

Shaffer, Butler. “Collectivist Utopias.” 9 October 2004. Web. 9 November 2009. <>.

Stromberg, Joseph R. “Freedom vs. Liberty.” 10 July 2001. Web. 9 November 2009. <>.

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