Meanings of Liberty: A Contested Concept
By Shanon FitzGerald
It was my singular good fortune to serve as the editor for the April 2021 Liberty Matters forum, “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin.” What is liberty, and what does it mean (to each of these thinkers)? This, in essence, is the question that April lead essayist Daniel B. Klein and two respondents, Daniel J. Mahoney and Helena Rosenblatt, set out to explore in this particular edition of Liberty Matters. (If you are not yet familiar with the Liberty Matters series, no worries: each month at the Online Library of Liberty we feature a fresh collection of essays and responses on a different topic pertaining to the idea of liberty.) Now that last month’s conversation has come to an end, I hope in this response to draw some additional attention to a few elements of the exchange that I took to be significant.
Klein’s lead essay offers a valuable reminder that liberty has no single meaning: the term is polysemous, subject to multiple interpretations. This is a descriptive fact and one that we know to be true from everyday life; I know I certainly do, working for an organization called “Liberty Fund.” Often my colleagues and I are queried by acquaintances, what does your organization mean by “liberty”? What is the content of that particular value or principle or idea? Well, as this month’s exchange demonstrates, the answer is, “It depends.” Fortunately, even as it opens the mind to the plurality of meanings attributable to the word “liberty,” Klein’s essay grounds us again in the definitions and thoughts about liberty given by the forum’s titular thinkers, Raymond Aron, Benjamin Constant, and Isaiah Berlin. This move is one of the forum’s most important: per Klein, we can talk about differing meanings of liberty and recognize that there are indeed several, without throwing up our hands and saying that any attempt to define liberty is futile, necessarily contested, and therefore pointless. Klein insists that we don’t have to capitulate much at all to the multiplicity of meanings for this important word: he is adamant in his defense throughout the forum of the “classical liberal spine” of the idea of liberty, that one should be free from attempts to mess with one’s stuff (considering “stuff” in the one of the broadest possible ways, drawing from the Latin idea of suum).
If you are tempted to scoff and say, “Pshh! Stuff is just stuff! Surely liberty must have a meaning beyond the material!” Then I very much hope you will read Dan’s essay, and particularly his reply to Professor Rosenblatt, as I think it is there that he zeroes in most clearly on why “stuff” is inescapably central to the effort of defining what liberty means in concrete terms.
One of the beautiful things for me about facilitating this exchange—which I could not have done without my wonderful colleagues here at Liberty Fund, especially Thea Burress—was seeing another classical liberal “promise” come true before my eyes once again: open discussion catalyzed productive debate and the genuine spontaneous exchange of very different, even opposed ideas. Klein’s thesis, which I admire and appreciate, was contested and qualified in several ways across multiple essays by Dan Mahoney and Helena Rosenblatt, and I was able to appreciate the central contentions of those rejoinders and responses as well. Again, this is not to say that everyone is equally correct, in some final sense. That is for readers to decide for themselves, after having considered all the major points of the dialogue set forth in the forum. Rather, I am simply appreciating that in this exchange, we can find thought-provoking examples of cordial, productive engagement across philosophical and intellectual demarcations of difference. To me this is genuinely hopeful, as it reminds that we have lots to learn from one another, even when we ourselves are very smart and capable and serious about what we’re saying, as both Dans and Helena all most certainly are.
So why should you or anyone else care about this lively debate over the meaning of “liberty”? As Dan Mahoney addresses across his remarks, there is much confusion in the modern liberal west about the meaning of “individual liberty” and the general sentiment of “to each her own.” Does faithful adherence to these concepts (most seriously the former, as it’s one of the Declaration-keystone values for the American nation) mean that we can’t criticize others for how they live their lives, no matter what they do? Put another way, one question we face in our societies today is whether liberty and freedom are essentially unlimited and all-encompassing, allowing us to do pretty much whatever it is we want to do, or whether liberty implies or necessitates certain limits on our actions and appetites, self-or-other-imposed. If “unchecked” liberty has led to a wasteland of social and cultural license, as the strongest socially conservative critiques of our society today would suggest, does “saving” liberty require the imposition of “enlightened” limits or the mandate of “ennobling” practices?
This illuminates a fascinating web of questions to which there are no easy answers or neat solutions: Mahoney might wish to see more people pursue elevated ideals of liberty, but he knows as well as anyone (particularly as a scholar of Solzhenitsyn) that attempts to coerce or even encourage adherence to “higher” practices or “ennobling” liberties can quite plausibly lead to a form of tyranny, ironically serving as great justifications for a simpler definition of the term, closer to “negative liberty” in the Berlinian sense—freedom from compulsory participation in or support of any project one wishes not to take part in. This minimal formulation may seem insufficient, under present conditions, but I suggest it may seem more attractive if agents of the state were to arrive to interfere with your suum on account of your failing to follow whatever practices some official program of “positive” liberty might require.
To be clear, the regime aimed at positive liberty I have just described does not feature in Dan Mahoney’s position: “To recognize these essential distinctions between higher and lower ways of life does not mean that political authorities should criminalize most expressions of moral vice and thus aim at an implausible and undesirable moral and political perfectionism.” His point instead is that “a choice for limited government need not entail the societal inculcation of moral relativism or radical subjectivism.” Presumably this means the state could take a more active role in endorsing, pointing out, or encouraging some “higher” ways of living, while clearly labeling, if still refusing to go out of its way to interrupt, some of the “lower” ways.
This may be true, but any such project must be undertaken with care. Even in the absence of official requirements, states tend to struggle with “suggestions,” particularly in the realm of the higher things. Perhaps this is one reason why Americans of the early republic thought it wise, by and large, to dispense with state-sponsored religious establishments before the midpoint of the nineteenth century. As our predecessors discovered, even if an establishment is not coercive or bad, it crowds out attention and recognition for other sects (in our case, other ideas of “higher liberty”) and denies them a fair and level marketplace in which to compete for followers and adherents on the merits. There are other possibilities, too: what if the “highest” liberties are most realized when denied state support and left simply to attest to themselves in the zone of civil society, under the protections of negative liberty?
All of this being said, there is no quibbling with Mahoney that, when every man is left “free” to define good and evil for himself, and then to act on those definitions, no good will come of that. So while we can’t do much to enshrine in law even basic programs of higher liberty, we most certainly can speak up for and defend the commonsense core of our “traditional” moral inheritance, which I think helpfully demarcates the boundaries of the negative liberty space where we should be free to operate. In other words: we need to keep teaching our children that it’s not okay to lie, steal, cheat, molest, harm, or abuse others, and that others have a significant moral worth that merits our respect—both personally and when we act together politically through government. Within these guardrails, we preserve a space for responsible liberty, a freedom that understands it is not free to simply write at will over the world and its other inhabitants.
Pluralism, when it flourishes in a culture that can understand and sustain it, allows all sorts of different practices to develop. People of all kinds are then free to observe and consider these practices and the communities they come from. From there people can make informed choices about what kinds of people and groups they wish to associate with—about how to use their liberty. Critically, people make choices for themselves concerning what is high and admirable and worthy of emulation or adoption, versus what is low and ignoble and deserving of rejection, if not concerted opposition. Free civil society is the space in which this all happens.
We live in a time, however, when the professed values of various prominent political and social groups conflict in significant ways, especially if we ask their respective adherents. Some agitate for social justice while others unabashedly rally behind flag and nation. Upon reflection, I am actually less inclined to grant members of any such adversarial group their common claim, that they and their political foes’ values are so distinct. I do not think certain values are in conflict so much as certain people are in conflict under the banner of their values and within the psychological context of their imagined tribes. Black Lives Matter and Make America Great Again activists both believe in, and publicly practice, certain ideas of community, solidarity, and political involvement that are not so dissimilar as their mutually-scathing rhetorical exchanges would suggest. The problem is that both of these groups have taken steps to limit the extent of their solidarity, and the bounds of their community; neither group can believe that a member of the other might have their best interest truly at heart, or even goodwill in their hearts. They are each other’s others. Under such conditions, of course politics will become an exercise in mutual abuse and vexation. Of course genuine liberty—the freedom to be as one is and desires to be—will be imperiled. Pressures to take sides and to conform to group expectations abound.
And yet, figures as self-consciously different as Ibram X. Kendi and Donald J. Trump continue to appeal to ideas of freedom and of liberty before their respective audiences. BLM marchers and MAGA rally attendees are perhaps equally dismayed by what they perceive to be threats to their liberty (closely connected to their lives and their sense of justice). Suum is at stake, the freedom to be oneself absent police aggression and racism (BLM) or big-government intervention (MAGA). Everyone thinks that liberty is vitally important, and that the nation—or a cherished subset of it—is on the brink of losing it. Yet stepping back and considering this forum, I think it is clearer to me than ever before how common are these fears and their underlying motivations. Liberty is a value of shared concern, but too many groups identify another group (of their fellow citizens!) as the main threat to the realization of liberty, and so the conditions that liberty requires (some deference toward the different attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others; an unwillingness to use the state to coerce desired acts) continue to be undermined.
In times ahead I know I will be thinking more about how we might refashion a banner of liberty that could unite, rather than serve to further inflame and divide, the aforementioned groups, as well as others that are similarly prone to deep and at times destabilizing disagreement. I am grateful to have the April Liberty Matters essays from Dan Klein, Helena Rosenblatt, and Dan Mahoney in my mind as I consider ways to do this.
I am reminded at this junction of an observation from Wittgenstein that, “Language is a framework to structure disagreement.” How well this pairs with Klein’s summation, “Liberalism is, in spirit, about learning to expect, live with, even enjoy the disagreement. Death, taxes, inflation, the nation-state, and higher-things disagreement are five things we must get used to and work to make less bad than they otherwise would be.” Yes indeed. Liberty will remain a contested concept. But there is also a hope that, in our social and political life, we will discover more productive ways to channel and to harmonize our clearly shared concerns about core components of liberty, so that we might spend more time enjoying our liberty together, instead of eyeing one another suspiciously, fearing that because of them liberty is about to end. It is not, so long as we can contain our mutual distrust and contempt, and articulate together those shareable goods of freedom we all wish to enjoy.