The Online Library of Liberty is hosting a symposium on George H Smith’s most interesting book, “The System of Liberty.” Jason Brennan, David Gordon and Ralph Raico commented on Smith’s lead essay–and the whole thing is well worth reading.

Jason Brennan raises a very interesting point, building on chapter 7 of Smith’s book:

My view is that “freedom” and “liberty” are not in the first instance philosophical concepts, unlike, say, “epistemic justification” or “social contract.” Instead, these are conventional concepts in natural language, though they are concepts that philosophers appropriately take great interest in. Thus, there is a default presumption that philosophers should yield to common usage when discussing what “liberty” really means.

That’s a point very well taken. Brennan sets forth from here to say that libertarians that argue for freedom as absence of coercion risk being out of touch with common parlance (I do summarize Brennan’s views in an extreme form, thus losing all the nuances of his reasoning, for which I do apologize).

Well, is that true? Brennan is certainly right that “Nonlibertarian understandings of the word “liberty” have been mainstream pretty much forever”–but what about lay people? “Liberty” is of course as malleable as any other popular word in politics. And yet it seems to me that, among common people, there is a general understanding of liberty as a juridical and political concept–more than among philosophers that like to twist “liberty” in different ways. Nonlibertarian understandings of the word ‘liberty’ are indeed rather mainstream within the community of scholars, but lay people tend to understand – and perhaps dislike – freedom as absence of coercion. Am I wrong?