Liberty Matters

Daniel B. Klein, “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin” (April 2021)

Raymond Aron, Benjamin Constant, and Isaiah Berlin are three thinkers whose work illuminates different aspects of the meaning of the idea of "liberty." This collection of essays and responses engages with the differing characterizations of liberty proffered by these individuals, but also looks for unifying threads running between and among them. Daniel B. Klein kicks things off in his lead essay exploring the ideational dimensions of "liberty" as talked about by Aron, Constant, and Berlin. Responses from Professors Helena Rosenblatt and Daniel J. Mahoney add texture to Klein's analysis, particularly as the three authors engage one another in "the conversation" section below.

The Debate

Lead Essay:

          Daniel B. Klein, "Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin"

Responses and Rejoinders:

          Daniel J. Mahoney, "Ennobling Liberal Liberties: True Freedom for Political Animals" [Posted April 9, 2021]

          Helena Rosenblatt, "Response to Daniel B. Klein" [Posted April 14, 2021]

The Conversation

          Daniel B. Klein, Response to Daniel J. Mahoney, "Classical Liberalism, Neither Anti-political nor Morally Neutral" [Posted April 19, 2021]

          Daniel B. Klein, Response to Helena Rosenblatt, "Liberalism is the Child of Jurisprudence" [Posted April 21, 2021]

          Daniel J. Mahoney, Final Response, "The Moral Prerequisites of the Liberal Order: A Restatement" [Posted April 28, 2021]

          Daniel B. Klein, Second Response to Daniel J. Mahoney, "Chimneys on Short and Crooked Houses" [Posted April 28, 2021]

          Helena Rosenblatt, Final Response [Posted May 21, 2021]

Lead Essay: "Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin"

Tower of Babel

Liberty polysemy according to Aron, Constant, and Berlin

Raymond Aron

   Benjamin Constant   

   Isaiah Berlin

1. Classical liberal meaning


   “negative” if given added specifications

2. Political participation


3. National sovereignty

4. Capabilities


Benjamin Constant distinguished “ancient liberty” and “modern liberty.” Isaiah Berlin distinguished “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” It is appropriate to see affinity among Constant’s modern liberty, Berlin’s negative liberty, and a classical liberal meaning of liberty.

Meanings of liberty are multiple. When a word has multiple meanings it is said to be polysemous – “poly” as opposed to “mono,” “sem” (sign, signification) as in semantics. Polysemy may be contrasted with monosemy, the property of having only one meaning.

As much as we would like a word, such as liberty, to be monosemous, and to build a tower straight to heaven, like the Tower of Babel, the most important words are polysemous. We must learn to cope with polysemy. The way to do so is to track the different meanings.

It is challenging to sort out the different meanings. How many are there? Are the meanings really different? Are they different yet interrelated?

When I use the word liberty, I usually mean a classical liberal notion of it, which has to do with others not messing with one’s stuff. But there are other meanings to track.

I participated in an event on Raymond Aron (1905-1983), a great French conservative liberal. For the event we read Aron’s 1961 review essay of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, in which Hayek attempts to advance a concept of liberty, describing it in a number of ways, including the absence of coercion. Aron broadly embraces an absence-of-coercion definition. But he raises doubts about how Hayek defines “coercion” and so on.  Others too have found Hayek’s elaboration unsatisfactory.

Later I give a few words to a classical liberal meaning of liberty. The thinker who best serves as fount for such a meaning is Adam Smith. But Constant’s “modern liberty” also gives nice expression to a classical liberal meaning of liberty:

It 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. (Constant 1819)

Aron enumerates four meanings of liberty. Besides [1] the absence-of-coercion definition, there are:

three other ideas frequently linked in our time to the concept of liberty: [2] participation in the political order or, more precisely, the choice of rulers by electoral process; [3] the independence of a population governed by men of its own race or nationality, which rejects foreign masters, [4] and finally, the power of the individual or the collectivity to satisfy its desires or to attain its own ends. (Aron 1961/1994, 74)

Aron’s enumeration invites some remarks:

  1. Participation in the political order is aptly associated with republicanism or democratism, the latter especially when we emphasize direct and extensive participation, notably through voting. This meaning corresponds pretty well to Constant’s ancient liberty. Ancient liberty, Constant said, “consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.”
  2. In the third meaning, the independence that Aron speaks of is national sovereignty, and hence not suzerainty or domination by a foreign state or power. This meaning of freedom or liberty looms large in issues of imperial powers and emergent secessionist movements—like the American War for Independence and the American Civil War. The meaning is also somewhat apt for an issue like Brexit.
  3. In the fourth meaning we have notions of enlarged capabilities: Winning the lottery augments your liberty. George Stigler (1978) and other economists have associated expanded capability with liberty. Stigler did so in an unbecoming manner dismissive of any classical liberal notion of liberty. But the more important connection is to Berlin’s positive liberty. Such positive liberty is far looser and vaguer than the two preceding definitions. Notions of capabilities and their expansion vary with each speaker’s viewpoint and even with his every utterance, not only about his own inner desires, potential, and fulfillment but about the innerness of others as well. Berlin told us to beware of positive liberty. He said: “historically more damage has been done by pseudo-positive than pseudo-negative liberty” (1991, 41), and “positive liberty has been distorted more disastrously than negative liberty” (147).

So we have a classical liberal meaning plus those three. Here again is the table of designated meanings of liberty:

Liberty polysemy according to Aron, Constant, and Berlin

Raymond Aron

   Benjamin Constant   

   Isaiah Berlin

1. Classical liberal meaning


   “negative” if given added specifications

2. Political participation


3. National sovereignty

4. Capabilities


Berlin says that his concept of “negative liberty” involves an “always recognizable frontier” not to be interfered with (1969, 127). He describes negative liberty as “liberty from; absence of interference” (1969, 127), but he did not spell out any sort of grammar embedded within the concept. Berlin seems to associate negative liberty with Constant’s modern liberty (163-166). Berlin left some equivocation and confusion around “negative liberty.” For example, in Berlin and Jahanbegloo (1991), Berlin speaks of negative liberty as “the removal or absence of...obstacles” (151, 40), which makes it sound like positive liberty (see 1969, 146). But the overall drift of negative liberty is pretty clear, and, were we to give further specification to negative liberty, it would come more clearly into alignment with a classical liberal notion of liberty. I do believe that something of that sort is what Berlin was thinking.

A Classical Liberal Meaning of Liberty

I think that any classical liberal meaning of liberty or freedom ought to start with the virtue of commutative justice, which Adam Smith (TMS, 269) expressed as the duty to “abstaining from what is another’s.”[1] What is another’s, or one’s own, was expressed in Latin as suum. For a classical liberal meaning of liberty, one’s own or suum is understood in a narrow or grammar-like way. This suum may be summarized as person, property, and promises due. (I like to see persons as property of a special sort, as I think of us as souls, each of which owns its person.)

Suum or one’s own (or one’s “stuff”) is delineated according to the rules of ownership of property and voluntary agreement (consent, contract) that operate among jural equals in the time and place of the society in question. Such rules may be said to be that society’s most basic social grammar. Those rules constitute the individual’s dominion that others are presumptively not to mess with.

Suppose your neighbor forcibly asserts that he is to get 25 percent of your income, or tells you that you are not to employ people for less than a certain wage. We’d consider such a neighbor to be initiating coercions. Classical liberals say it’s coercion when done by government, too. Yes, government is a special sort of player in society. Its initiations of coercion are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But classical liberals maintain that they are initiations of coercion. Recognizing that helps to sustain a presumption against government coercions.

Whereas commutative justice is the duty of not messing with other people’s stuff, liberty is others not messing with your stuff, particularly the government not messing with your stuff. In affirming this elemental concept of liberty, however, classical liberals do not equate liberty and the good.

The liberty maxim says: By and large, in a choice between two reform options (one of which may be not to reform the status quo at all), the greater-liberty option is more desirable.

Notice the “By and large.” It is a maxim. When sustained within the culture, it expresses a presumption of liberty. But a presumption is defeasible. We maintain a presumption of innocence, but sometimes the defendant’s innocence is not sustained.

The liberty maxim is formulated in terms of reforms. A reform implies a status quo. A status quo implies a society in time and place. From that status quo, the liberty maxim is directional, as opposed to destinational (Munger 2018). A classical liberal meaning of liberty need not be concerned with delineating “the free society” or “the proper role” of government. The contours of liberty may be grammar-like, but classical liberal claims for liberty are not grammar-like. They are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and they are circumstanced.

Classical liberals recognize that sometimes liberty must be sacrificed for the sake of liberty. A policy that reduces liberty directly might augment liberty overall. Areas of contention include immigration, foreign policy, weapons policy, pollution, and financial doings for which the taxpayer is on the hook.[2]

The liberty principle has its holes, gray areas, and exceptions; it does not speak to all important issues of government; and it is not self-justifying. Nonetheless, it remains cogent and gives a conceptual spine to classical liberalism. The liberty maxim – that the more-liberty option is presumptively the more desirable option – gives structure to the formulation of issues and positions on issues. We can argue over how strong the presumption is, and how it must compromise sometimes with another important presumption, namely, that of the status quo. But the liberty maxim remains the spine of classical liberalism.

Standing Up for a Meaning of a Word

To stiffen the spine of classical liberalism, Raymond Aron distinguished four meanings of the word liberty. That spine is stiffened and fortified by recognizing the polysemy of liberty and by seeing how a classical liberal meaning stands in relation to other meanings.

To some extent, meanings of liberty vie against one another. One camp may emphasize its favored meaning, hoping to edge out or shut down a meaning cherished by adversaries. Exponents of a classical liberal notion of liberty should take note: eradicating the spine causes collapse.

Recognizing the various meanings helps us to distinguish them. Then we can focus on one at a time. It is my hope that classical liberals will give more attention to articulating a classical liberal meaning of liberty and will stand up for it.


Aron, Raymond. 1994. In Defense of Political Reason: Essays by Raymond Aron. Edited by Daniel J. Mahoney. Rowman & Littlefield.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1969. Two Concepts of Liberty. In: Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: 118-172.

Berlin, Isaiah and Ramin Jahanbegloo. 1991. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Constant, Benjamin. 1819. The Liberty of the Moderns Compared with That of the Ancients.

Diesel, Jonathon. 2021. Two Superiors, Two Jural Relationships in Adam Smith. Adam Smith Review.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Daniel B. 2021. Commutative, Distributive, and Estimative Justice in Adam Smith. Adam Smith Review.

Klein, Daniel B. and Michael J. Clark. 2010. Direct and Overall Liberty: Areas and Extent of Disagreement. Reason Papers 32: 41-66.

Klein, Daniel B. and Erik Matson. 2020. Mere-liberty in David Hume. In: A Companion to David Hume. Ed. M. Polanco. Guatemala: Universidad Francisco Marroquin: 125-160.

Munger, Michael C. 2018. Can Libertarianism Be a Governing Philosophy? Law & Liberty (Liberty Fund), March 1. Link.

Smith, Adam. 1976. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stigler, George J. 1978. Wealth, and Possibly Liberty. Journal of Legal Studies 7(2): 213-217.