Liberty Matters

Response to Daniel B. Klein

Thanks for the invitation to participate in this forum!
As I see it, the aim of Dan Klein’s piece is twofold. First, he wants to remind us that “liberty” is a “polysemous” word. It carries multiple meanings. Second, he wants to make a case for his own, very pithy, definition. To Dan, liberty means “others not messing with one’s stuff.” He urges classical liberals to “stiffen the spine of classical liberalism” by “standing up” for this meaning of liberty.
I fully agree that the word “liberty” is used differently by different people in different texts and contexts. It is not an ordinary word; it is a “key word” and a “contested concept” in our political vocabulary. For this reason, it has become popular to identify its various meanings in history and to describe how these have evolved over time. Dan notes that Benjamin Constant, Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron all called attention to, and made use of, the multiple meanings of “liberty”. I would add that more recently, scholars like Quentin Skinner and Annelien de Dijn, have done the same.[1] Such modern studies are part of a thriving field of conceptual history, much of it inspired by the seminal work of Reinhardt Koselleck.[2]
These studies on the meaning of “liberty” have shown us not only that there are many different such meanings, but that one kind of liberty can rarely exist alone. A certain type of “positive liberty” is needed to ensure a certain type of “negative liberty,” for example.  So, yes, I can certainly follow Dan when he writes that it can be challenging “to sort out the different meanings” of “liberty” and when he wonders if they aren’t “interrelated.” For indeed they are.
It is when Dan urges us to adopt his “classical liberal” definition of liberty that I no longer follow him. Dan’s definition of liberty-- “others not messing with one’s stuff”-- is an extremely narrow and materialistic definition, one that I have never encountered before. “Stuff” is a vague term, but generally describes possessions--and usually physical ones, i.e. materials. It also has somewhat of a derogatory meaning. It often refers to things of little value, ie. junk. Dan calls his “a classical liberal” definition, but I don’t recall encountering any liberals who used the term in that way. Moreover, is he telling us that this should be our only definition of liberty? What is it replacing?
The following are a few meanings of liberty with which we have become familiar:
  • liberty as political participation, 
  • liberty as self-realization
  • liberty as the freedom from interference (or coercion)
  • liberty as the freedom from domination (or dependence) 
The first two are versions of “positive liberty”; the last two are versions of “negative liberty.”
Dan’s version is clearly a variety of “liberty as the absence of interference or coercion.” He tells us that it comes from Adam Smith and provides a citation from the Theory of Moral Sentiments for support. In that book, Smith speaks of the duty of “abstaining from what is another’s.” But it seems that this is actually a definition of commutative justice, not liberty, as Dan himself admits. Did Smith ever say that liberty and commutative justice were the same thing? The fact is that there are myriad references to liberty in the Wealth of Nations that have no connection with “not messing with” someone else’s “stuff”. For example, underlying all of Smith’s thinking is the idea that all human beings have the freedom to make choices and that they should be free from servility, free from dependence. Not even freedom of markets, of exchanges, of countries or of contracts, in my reading, can be equated with others “not messing with our stuff.” To turn Smith into a possessive individualist, as Dan seems to be doing, is most certainly wrong.
Dan also suggests that there are affinities between his own view of liberty and Constant’s. But the quotation Dan provides from Constant does not support this contention. Constant’s definition of modern liberty is much broader. Modern liberty, Constant declares:
is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.
Clearly, Constant’s definition of liberty in the quotation provided by Dan cannot be summarized as “others not messing with one’s stuff.” This becomes even clearer when one reads the next sentence of the quotation, cut off by Dan:
“Finally [modern liberty] is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.” 
In other words, Constant even includes political participation (in a representative form of government) as an aspect of “modern liberty.”
By defining liberty as “others not messing with one’s stuff” and not speaking of the need for other kinds of liberty, Klein economizes liberty in a way that truncates and distorts the thought of a “classical liberal thinker” like Constant, whom Dan professes to admire. As many recent scholars have now made clear, Constant’s whole speech is meant to warn those liberals who economize liberty not to forget the importance of political liberty, which he calls “the most effective means of self-development that heaven has given us.” At the end of his speech, he even uses words like “destiny,” “sacred,” “spirit” and “ennobles” to describe political liberty. These are hardly the words of someone who could agree with Dan’s definition of liberty.
Conceptual historians begin with the premise that key concepts are used as tools or weapons in political discussions. This means that there is no value-neutral definition of a word like “liberty.” Quentin Skinner expresses this point clearly:
The belief that we can somehow step outside the stream of history and furnish a neutral definition of such words as libertas, freedom, autonomy and liberty is an illusion well worth giving up. With terms at once so deeply normative, so highly indeterminate, and so extensively implicated in such a long history of ideological debate, the project of understanding them can only be that of trying to grasp the different roles they have played in our history and our own place in the narrative…there is no neutral analysis of any such keywords to be given.[3]
This brings me back to a question I posed earlier. What might be the purpose of reducing our definition of liberty to concerns about the protection of our “stuff”? Dan has every right to have a personal definition, but why? For what purpose?
I’ll finish with another question that is, in a way, the most perplexing to me. In the end, the main purpose of Dan Klein’s piece is to convince “classical liberals” to embrace and defend a “classical liberal meaning of liberty.” A “classical liberal” meaning of liberty “is the spine of classical liberalism,” he writes. I’m confused by these statements. What makes “classical liberals” “classical liberals” if they don’t already subscribe to a “classical liberal” meaning of liberty?  Why do they need convincing?
1. Annelien de Dijn, Freedom: An Unruly History, Harvard University Press, 2020; Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
2.  On “conceptual history,” many helpful resources can be found here:
3. Quentin Skinner, “A Third Concept of Liberty”, Isaiah Berlin Lecture, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 117, pp. 237-268, at 265.