Skip Navigation

Reflections on Liberty

Skip Side Navigation

Reflections on Liberty

No idea is more central to the way we live and think in the Western world than the concept of liberty. And none is more highly esteemed. We value liberty for the many collateral benefits that it produces, such as economic growth, opportunity, innovation, creativity, and intellectual freedom. But more than that, we value it simply for its own sake. We view the exercise of liberty as an essential feature of what we are as human beings, a key aspect of our dignity and infinite worth, and our status as morally responsible persons with a capacity for rational self-governance.

Therefore, liberty’s value for us exists prior to and independent of any particular uses to which it is put. Liberty cannot be submitted to a cost-benefit analysis; it is more fundamental to us than that. It is the oxygen mixed into the very air that we breathe, and it gives vigor to our passions for exploration, discovery, and invention. The very existence of liberty is living proof that, in the words of Walter Lippmann, “man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine.” On the contrary, “in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.”

Fire is never without its risks, and the freedom to make choices must even include the freedom to make mistaken ones—the right to be wrong. For how could it be otherwise? A virtuous life cannot be truly virtuous if it is sustained solely through coercion and manipulation; it must be able to stand on its own feet and breath the rich air of freedom if it is to be fully itself. This is precisely why the preservation of liberty is for us an end in itself, and not merely a means to some other end; and why it so often involves us in the protection even of the right to be wrong. For just as such preservation cannot rely upon a force that compels us in the right direction, so such protection should not insulate us from the consequences of our wrong choices. We cannot know that we are free unless we are permitted to err; and by the same token, we can never be confident in the truth unless we listen to its challengers.

For Americans an emphasis upon liberty has been a consistent presence, going back to the nation’s roots. The American Revolution was fought in the name of liberty, and in composing the Declaration of Independence, the document that sought to explain that revolution to the world, Thomas Jefferson identified liberty as one of the unalienable rights bestowed upon human beings by the Creator Himself. Let us pause to feel the full force of that. An unalienable right is so intrinsic to our being that it not only cannot ever be legitimately taken away, it cannot even be given away. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution laid down an explicit bar against any legislation that would infringe upon Americans’ fundamental liberties of religion, speech, publication, peaceable assembly, and dissent. So deeply rooted is this view that a great many Americans tend blithely to assume that it is a universally recognized norm of human history that political regimes ought to respect liberty; and they take it for granted that the rest of humanity feels the same way about the central importance of liberty, has always felt the same way, and understands the term in the same way we do today.


But these assumptions are entirely mistaken. To begin with, liberty has been the exception rather than the rule in human history; and it is far from clear even today that the rest of the world shares such a generous and affirmative view of liberty. On the contrary, a fair proportion of the conflicts that afflict today’s world revolves around precisely this disagreement. Nor is it clear that even within the United States we all understand the word “liberty” in the same way, even if nearly all of us embrace the word, and readily pledge ourselves to its defense and its increase. This is a semantic problem of long standing and of immense consequence. “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,” observed President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, “and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.”

He was never more right. Of course, speaking in 1864 Lincoln was thinking of something very particular: the clashing understandings of liberty occasioned by the existence of slavery, the underlying cause of the then-raging Civil War. “With some,” Lincoln continued, “the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor,” while in the slaveholding states, “the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name – liberty.”

Though this particular disagreement about the meaning of liberty would be resolved in 1865 by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and thankfully is a disagreement that seems very remote to us today, confusion and disputation about the meaning of the word “liberty” has remained an enduring fact. As important as the concept is to us, “liberty” nevertheless turns out to be an exceptionally tricky word, as slippery as it is powerful, and its ambiguity undergirds the widely differing understandings of what it means to live in a “liberal” democracy, i.e., a political and social order that assigns the highest possible value to the civil liberties and other freedoms of individuals.

In its earliest “classical” forms, “liberalism” was a political philosophy that sought to promote individual freedom by zealously protecting it, using legal and constitutional means to limit and contain the trespasses and encroachments of governmental and religious institutions on the freely chosen acts of rights-bearing individuals. These “defensive” liberties are akin to, and often identical to, the liberties that the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution sought to protect.

But in time, this view gave way to a more expansive understanding of “liberalism,” one that sought to address the perceived deficiencies in its 18th- and 19th-century predecessors. What was the use, critics argued, of a philosophy of universal and unalienable rights, if such rights existed in a social context in which a great many individuals and groups were prevented from exercising them effectively, whether because of legal discriminations or economic disadvantages or unfavorable conditions of birth? How could a genuine and just reign of liberty be possible, unless a powerful and activist government took these inequities in hand and sought to alleviate them by banishing structural inequalities and imposing a level playing field upon life’s contestants? To some, such a development was the essential next step in the expansion of liberty. As the American political theorist Herbert Croly put it, under modern conditions it would be imperative for liberalism to adopt the “Hamiltonian means” of an activist state in order to achieve the “Jeffersonian ends” of individual liberty.

But this paradoxical solution may well create as many problems as it solves. Is it really possible to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends? Or is that formulation, as classical liberals would argue, an incoherent and disingenuous word-combination designed to conceal what is in fact a usurpation of liberty? Is it not rather all too possible, even inevitable, that the steady expansion of state power may result, not in greater and more widely enjoyed individual liberty, but in the creation of a vast web of powerless clients dependent upon that state power, and the sacrifice of a vibrant civil society of self-reliant individuals to a homogenizing regime of unaccountable courts and unelected bureaucracies? Shouldn’t one face up honestly to the inequities and trade-offs involved in the steady extension and intrusion of government? Does it make sense to say that big government is merely the continuation of limited government by other means?


This conflict is not easily resolved; and it is not the only disagreement we have today regarding the meaning of the word “liberty.” The word has steadily expanded its reach into regions undreamed of in Lincoln’s time, or even in the relatively recent past. In 1992, the Supreme Court of the United States, after first asserting that “Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt,” went on to declare that "[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Is this definition, or quasi-definition, one to which Jefferson or Lincoln would have given assent? Does it represent a bold new flowering of their ideas of liberty? Is it a generous and logical extension of our high regard for the rights of conscience, a fundamental building block drawn from the post-Reformation Christianity that underwrote our nation’s founding conceptions of religious liberty?

Or is it, on the contrary, a fatal hyperextension of the concept of liberty, which will use that venerable concept to justify a radical, atomistic individualism that would make it impermissible for a society ever to regulate the actions of individuals in accordance with the common purposes of that society, or even in accordance with generally agreed-upon understandings of reality itself? Does this declaration not have the effect of elevating the consciousness and will and conscience of each individual person into a sovereign and independent entity, whose empowerment must come at the expense of any effort to promote the common good? Indeed, can any robust notion of the common good survive a commitment to such radical individualism?

Or one might put it this way: Does such an understanding of liberty have the effect, paradoxically, of undermining liberty itself, by depriving it of the necessary preconditions without which it cannot flourish? Doesn’t a “liberal” society require some underlying consensus about the metaphysical and moral order within which liberty is to be exercised? Here is an example. Consider the degree to which the history of liberty in the West has hitherto been dependent upon the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are made in the image of God, and that in bearing the divine image in their persons, they are endowed from birth by their Creator with dignity and rights which are unalienable, and thus beyond the reach of tyrants. What happens to those rights—what happens to liberty itself—when the metaphysical grounding of human dignity has been swept away, and no source of political and moral authority remains, except for the opinions of passing political leaders and the current passions of the multitude?


This is perhaps a distinctively postmodern perplexity, one of the burdens unique to our time. But it should remind us of a profound theme that has run persistently through the history of liberty, one not at all unique to us, but one that has never been more relevant than it is today: that true liberty is something quite distinct from the ability to do whatever one wishes to do. Even if we think of liberty narrowly, as a practical and concrete feature of civil society rather than as a more abstruse question of morality or metaphysics, the principle of noncoercion does not capture everything toward which liberty aims. Yes, liberty presumes noncoercion; but that cannot be all that it means. Liberty is also an enabling freedom, a disciplining freedom, one that emerges from within: the freedom to seek after virtue and spiritual self-governance, the freedom that comes of lifting one’s life out of the dim and dreary round of necessity, and seeking a higher level of consciousness and enlarged moral aspiration.

As far back as the Socratic dialogues of Plato, to the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, to the strictures of the Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian teachings of St. Paul, and the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and dozens of others, not to mention all the world’s great religions, there emerges again and again a strikingly similar theme: that the freedom to indulge one’s appetites and chase after one’s immediate desires is not liberty, but a form of slavery; and that true freedom comes to us only after we are able to conquer those appetites and desires, and place them in subjection to some greater truth and more comprehensive order. Paul captured this insight in a characteristically arresting way, in the words of 1 Corinthians 7:22: “For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord's freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ's slave.”

Paul’s striking imagery and word-play are not meant to be hyperbolic, and something very like them is amply reflected in many other religious and intellectual traditions. Epictetus was himself a slave for a time, but the coercive force by which his body was held would prove no barrier to the incoercible force of his will and spirit. Indeed, the ascetic traditions of the world’s great religions echo this paradox, in one way or another, of the freedom that is really slavery, and the “slavery” that is really freedom. They point to the fact that, as in spiritual disciplines such as fasting, the self-denial of the body may go hand in hand with the increased liberty of the spirit, and with a freedom more profound than the mere ability to eat whatever one wants, whenever one wants to do so.

How then is one to make sense of these different understandings of liberty, and clarify the connections between them? In 1958 the political theorist Isaiah Berlin produced a fine essay that helpfully distinguished between two different conceptions of liberty: first, the “negative” liberty of classical liberalism, which concentrates on the principle of freedom “from” external compulsion; and second, a more complex “positive” liberty, which seeks the elevation of the person and the discovery (or recovery) of the “higher” self. Berlin saw clearly that both forms of liberty have their strong points, and both have their liabilities. He saw, for example, that negative liberty is unsatisfying, because it is either mute or equivocal as to the question of the proper ends of human life.

But, writing in the years immediately after the Second World War, a time in which the horrors of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism were especially vivid in his mind, Berlin was far more intensely conscious of the dangers of the relentless pursuit of ideals of positive liberty. Such ideals sought to elevate human souls and perfect human societies by disciplining them to a single inflexible standard, extinguishing all vestiges of citizen’s “bourgeois” liberties and thereby, to invoke Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ominous words, “forcing them to be free.” Positive liberty was more spiritually ambitious, Berlin concluded, but for that very reason it was also infinitely more dangerous, particularly when it was turned loose in the political arena. Better, he thought, to err on the side of negative liberty, which offered no transcendental truths, but committed no transcendental crimes.

Agree or disagree with him, Berlin still provides us with a very good starting place for thinking about these matters. But even more today than in his time, let alone Lincoln’s, there are many different ways of understanding liberty—political, economic, social, intellectual, religious, spiritual, expressive, sexual—and it is not easy to know exactly what we mean by any one of them. And to complicate matters further, there is the fact that the idea of liberty was not present at the dawn of human history, but has emerged slowly and haltingly out of a long and complex series of events and debates in that history. The concept of liberty is hard to nail down precisely because it is not entirely separable from that history, even if the grand principles arrived at through that history have seemed, as they did to Jefferson and Lincoln, to break free of their context and offer themselves as freestanding abstract truths, as universal as the laws of science. It may help us find our way out of the postmodern definitional tangle in which we now find ourselves to set such abstractions aside for a time, and recover more of the specifics of that concrete history.

 But for now, it is important to remember that some things do not change, and certain themes seem to recur again and again in that history. And none recurs more frequently than the tangled and often problematic relationship between what might be called outer liberty and inner liberty—between the freedoms of the body and the promptings of the soul. Both make valid claims on the concept of liberty; both sets of claims inevitably come into conflict with one another. To reflect on that fact, and on how to give both forms of liberty their proper due—on how to have a free society which is also a virtuous society, or a virtuous society which is also free—is to involve ourselves in one of the most fundamental of all inquiries, and one of the longest running and most important conversations in human history. A conversation that is nowhere near reaching its end.