Liberty Matters

The Idea of Freedom: Little Is at Stake

Smith’s book is deep and rich. Anyone with an interest in the history of liberal thought will learn something valuable from it.
Related Links: 
In this short response, I’m going to focus on the issue of how two different thinkers—Thomas Hobbes and John Locke—defined “liberty,” and what is and is not at stake in their definitions. Hobbes and Locke would have thought that their different definitions of liberty have different implications about what governments ought and ought not do, but I think they’re mistaken.
Classical liberals are liberals. What is supposed to make liberal doctrines distinctive is that it gives freedom some special, privileged, or fundamental place. But, as Smith notes (134) this presents a few problems.
First, there is a lot of disagreement about just what “freedom” or “liberty” signify, and also what it takes to secure freedom, so defined. Isaiah Berlin claims to have identified 200 different concepts of freedom, though Berlin doesn't tell us what these 200 different concepts are, and Smith is rightly skeptical that Berlin found quite that many. (134) Even non-liberals or anti-liberals claim to be for rather than against freedom. Marxists and fascists both say their preferred systems deliver a better kind of freedom or do a better job delivering freedom than liberal capitalism does.[13]
Second, “liberty” and “freedom” are often defined in terms of other moral concepts, such as rights, property, and coercion. (These terms are often in turn defined in terms of freedom, leading to problems of circularity.) So, while a typical libertarian will say that he advocates the free market because she opposes coercion, a typical Marxist will responds that she rejects the free market because she opposes coercion. Here, the two disagree about what counts as coercive.
Smith says that debates about the “‘true’ meaning of freedom are usually futile,” because “nominal definitions are determined by linguistic conventions, not by philosophers, and the conventional meanings of ‘freedom’ are significantly diverse to support a wide variety of interpretations.” (135) So, for instance, one cannot just pound the table and insist that “freedom” just means libertarian negative liberty—that won’t reflect the common usage of the word in English and it will just come across as ideological special pleading.[14]
Smith proposes instead (in chapter 7, “The Idea of Freedom”) to dispense with the futile debate about what the “true” meaning of “freedom” or “liberty” is, and instead to just examine how classical liberals thought of the concepts, as the concepts were embedded in the context of classical-liberal ideology.
Smith notes that in conventional English, the words “liberty” and “freedom” appear to be used to refer to variety of related but not identical things. 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. (The same goes for, say, the word “fish,” which is a pre-scientific term, but not the word “mammal,” which is a scientific term.[[15] In contrast, there is a default presumption that laypeople should yield to philosophers’ usage when discussing what “epistemic justification” means. These presumptions can be defeated, of course. So, for instance, if the common usage of “liberty” turned out to be radically confused or incoherent, then philosophers have grounds for revising the language, if they can.
Very little is at stake ideologically in how we define our terms. For any plausible definition of “liberty,” it will be an open question—a question not settled by definition—whether that kind of liberty is valuable, whether we have a right (of some sort) to that kind of liberty so defined, whether and how that liberty ought to be protected or promoted, and so on. In short, the real debate between, say, Marxists and classical liberals is not over the best understanding of the word “liberty,” but is about something else.[16]
Related Links: 
Smith says classical liberals often adopt “negative” conceptions of liberty. A “negative” conception of liberty defined liberty in terms of the absence of something. Smith notes that while Thomas Hobbes and Locke both had negative conceptions of liberty, these conceptions were different in kind. Hobbes’s conception is “mechanistic” while Locke’s is “social” (136). Hobbes says that literally any physical obstacles to achieving your goals count as impediments to your liberty, while Locke reserves the word “liberty” to refer to the absence of rights violations (in one’s property). So, for Hobbes, if a tree falls and pins you down, this is just as much an impediment to your freedom of movement as when a thug pins you down. In contrast, Locke would say that the thug violates your freedom, but he would not say (except in a loose sense) that the tree impedes your liberty.
Smith says that these two ways of understanding liberty “can have profound ideological implications….” (137) For absolutists like Hobbes and Filmer, it would be absurd to say the purpose of laws is to promote liberty, because laws always, in the first instance, create obstacles where there were none. Governments primarily restrain liberty, and for good reason, according to Filmer and Hobbes. In contrast, for Locke, when a government protects rights, it thereby protects our freedom. For Hobbes, to stop a thief from mugging you involves a loss of freedom for the thief, while to allow the thief to mug you involves a loss of freedom for you. For Locke, only the latter counts as a loss of freedom—since the thief has no right to your wallet, it doesn’t count as a loss of freedom to stop him from mugging you. (139)
I think Smith’s exegesis is correct, and I think he’s right that Locke and Hobbes would have seen their disagreement about the right way to define “liberty” as in turn leading to different conclusions about politics. But I disagree with Locke and Hobbes here over whether this difference in definition in fact has any moral implications. Locke and Hobbes have deep disagreements, but this disagreement is does not result logically from their disputes over the best way to define “liberty.” To see why, consider: I’m pretty much an anarchist classical liberal, yet I also I pretty much accept the Hobbesian definition of negative liberty. In my view, as in Hobbes’s, 1) a tree that falls on me is just as much an impediment to my freedom as 2) a big thug pinning me down in order to mug me, which is turn the same impediment to my freedom as when 3) a police officer pins me down after I’ve mugged someone. However, while there is no metaphysical difference among these cases—I'm equally unfree in all three—there are huge moral differences. In the first case—a tree falls on me—I’m unfree, but this is just an unfortunate fact of no moral significance. In the second case, I’m unfree, and wrongly so. In the third case, I’m unfree, and rightly so. The situations are the same in terms of freedom but not in terms of their moral portent.
I take issue with Locke’s definition of liberty, because it implies, as far as I can tell, that people who are rightfully imprisoned haven’t lost any freedom. After all, they ought to be in prison, and so their rights aren’t be violated. Since their rights aren’t being violated, they aren’t unfree. Yet, there they are, behind bars. That seems a bit weird. Isn’t it conceptually cleaner just to say that justly convicted and imprisoned prisoners are not free to leave, and rightly so?
Continuing with this point, I’d say that a classical-liberal government restrains the freedom of government officials to do as they please—and rightly so!—while an authoritarian government gives officials great freedom to do as they please—and wrongly so! My right of free speech, when protected, comes at the expense of others’ freedom to restrict my speech—and rightly so. Etc.
If we decide to use the Hobbesian definition of “liberty,” then the ideological question isn’t so much what counts as a restriction of freedom, but what counts as a good or bad, rightful or wrong restriction of freedom. Very little is at stake in how we define our terms.
Smith says,
The mechanistic view [of liberty] was favored by absolutists … because it supported their contention that all laws necessarily restrict liberty. All governments enforce laws that restrain people from doing what they might otherwise have a will to do – so it is absurd to claim, as did the political individualists, that the primary purpose of government is to preserve liberty. It is therefore nonsensical to reject absolutism for its supposed incompatibility with freedom.
Again, I think Smith is right that the absolutists, Hobbes and Filmer, saw things this way. But the absolutists are making an important mistake. I agree with Hobbes and Filmer that, say, a law forbidding rape, if enforced properly, stops would-be rapists from having the freedom to rape. But since people shouldn’t have the freedom to rape, this is a good and just restraint of liberty. In contrast, a government that stops people from, say, smoking pot restrains liberty, but in this case, unjustly. I can just agree with Hobbes that even a liberal polity restricts freedom, but then respond that it restricts wrongful freedoms while allowing rightful freedoms. When Locke says that a good government promotes freedom, we can easily translate this into Hobbesian language by saying instead that a good government protects rightful freedoms while restricting wrongful freedoms. So, again, nothing is at stake in how we define our terms. The debate over what governments ought and ought not to do is not settled by finding the right definition of liberty.
Note that even on Hobbes’s own terms, the move to government from the Hobbesian state of nature should be seen as an improvement in how much liberty we enjoy. The state of nature is a war of all against all, Hobbes argues, in others continuously interfere with us. The Leviathan imposes barriers and obstacles upon us, and so in the first instance reduces our liberty, as Hobbes understands the concept. But the result is that we are interfered with much less than we were in the state of nature. So, overall, we gain rather than lose liberty. What’s more—and here Hobbes agrees—the value of the liberty we enjoy under the Leviathan is much higher than the value of our liberty in the state of nature. Now, Smith and I both dispute whether anarchy really would be like the Hobbesian state of nature, and of course neither Smith nor I accept Hobbes’s favored form of government. My point here is just that even Hobbes’s argument for government can be re-stated as the view that government exists to promote liberty, even if Hobbes himself didn’t describe it that way.
In closing, I think there are three main questions about liberty:
  1. What is it?
  2. How much and what kind of value, if any, does liberty have? (Do people have a right to certain kinds of liberty?)
  3. What institutions and social conditions best produce and protect the kinds of liberties worth having?  (In particular, what role should government have?)
The first question is the most basic.  One cannot answer the other questions without having good answer to the first.  The third question (and the second, to some degree) requires more than just the tools of philosophical theorizing.  To know what institutions best produce and protect liberty requires social scientific investigation.  It cannot be answered from the armchair.
The right way to think about these questions is to answer them in order. But I tend to find—and Smith notices something like this as well (133)—that most people tend to theorize about these questions in the something like the reverse order. People first begin with their ideology, whatever that is, and then reverse-engineer a definition of “liberty” such that it comes out, fortuitously, that their favored political regime is the only regime that promotes real liberty. It’s bogus, regardless of whether a Rousseauian or a Randian is doing it.
[13] E.g., Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile, “The Doctrine of Fascism,”>: “In our state the individual is not deprived of freedom. In fact, he has greater liberty than an isolated man, because the state protects him and he is part of the State. Isolated man is without defence.” 
[14] With all due respect, this is how I see Tom Palmer’s essay here: <>.  Nonlibertarian understandings of the word “liberty” have been mainstream pretty much forever.
[15] John Dupré, “Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa,” The Philosophical Review 90 (1981), 66-90, here esp. pp. 75-76.
[16] For more on this, see David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan, A Brief History of Liberty (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 1-29.