What Is ‘Liberty?’

NOTE: This post is meant to be read hand-in-hand with “What Is ‘Freedom?” If you have not already done so, it would be wise to stop and take the time to read the first post on ‘Freedom’ before proceeding to read this post on ‘Liberty.’

‘Liberty.’  This is a big word, and it has many possible meanings — some of which may even contradict each other.  So, before we start trying to decide what it means, let’s start by looking up the definition closest to that understanding held by our Founders:

LIBERTY, noun [Latin libertas, from liber, free.]

1. Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind. The body is at liberty when not confined; the will or mind is at liberty when not checked or controlled. A man enjoys liberty when no physical force operates to restrain his actions or volitions.

2. Natural liberty consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state of exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.

3. Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.

The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others.

In this sentence, the latter word liberty denotes natural liberty.*

* [Note: the remainder of the Websters 1828 definition of ‘Liberty’ can be found at the bottom of this post.]

At this point, I would ask you to recall our discussion on ‘Freedom.’  If you will remember, we noted how the notion of ‘Freedom’ can be carried to excess; an excess our Founders referred to as ‘Licentiousness.’  Licentiousness is a natural enemy of both ‘Freedom’ as well as ‘Liberty.’  This is because, when one person is free to do whatever they wish, the natural moral failings of human nature will cause all of us to transgress upon the ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ of others.  This is what the Founders understood as ‘The State of Nature: ‘ a condition of general lawlessness in which there is no social order and where each individual is at war with every other individual.  Thus, in this sense, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ can lead to lawlessness, which is the enemy of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ in that it tramples on individual ‘Freedoms’ and ‘Liberties.’  Confused yet? I hope not, because this is important to understand.

You see, it is a paradox: ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ can only exist in their most perfect and complete form when there are absolutely no restraints on what we can do.  If we want to do something, we are ‘Free’ or at ‘Liberty’ to do it without any consequence.  This is the ‘Liberty’ in meaning #1 above.  However, at the same time, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ cannot exist in their most complete and perfect form because they are self-defeating concepts.  It’s a flawed analogy, but it is sort of like having too much fun.  You can never have too much fun, but, by the time you actually have had too much fun, you are generally dead from it.  And this is the problem with ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty:’ the more you have, the less you have.  In order for either to exist, there has to be some sort of restraint on the way we exercise our ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty.’  This leads us to what often appears to be a contradiction in defining ‘Liberty:’ the need for restraint on a thing that is defined — in part — as the lack of restraint.

Here is where most people end up stumbling when trying to understand ‘Liberty.’  They do not see that this restraint must be self-imposed.  If it comes from any source outside of the individual, it is trampling on that individual’s ‘Liberty.’  However, when that restraint comes from within, willingly, it does not represent an absence of ‘Liberty,’ but an act thereof.  You see, just because I can do something, it does not mean I must.  I am free to refrain from doing that thing.  This is ‘Natural Liberty:’ the ability to do whatever we will, but, at the same time, it includes a self-imposed restraint that keeps us from doing anything that would trample on the ‘Liberty’ of another.  This is the meaning of ‘Liberty’ in meaning #2 above.

Finally, we come to the third definition of ‘Liberty.’  If the first two definitions have not caused you to stumble yet, then hold on because this one usually gets people sideways.  This is the notion of ‘Civil Liberty:’ meaning #3 above.  Now, as stated above, ‘Civil Liberty’ only includes those restrictions required to allow the fullest exercise of ‘Natural Liberty’ and ‘Liberty’ in civil society.  But that is where people tend to go off the rails: in determining what is necessary from what isn’t.  The moment people start to assert that things such as guaranteed housing or income, or free healthcare and education are ‘necessary’ in order for a person to be ‘Free,’ then we have jumped from the definition of ‘Liberty’ to that of ‘Tyranny.’  This is because all such things require that people be forced to work against their will for the sake of others.  In other words, these sort of things — things some people like to call ‘positive rights’ — require that some people in society must have their ‘Liberty’ taken away so that others can have their version of ‘Liberty,’ which is — inevitably — just a different form of slavery, most often called indentured servitude or serfdom.

Therefore, for the purposes of this blog, Natural Law and the Social Contract, unless otherwise stated, ‘Liberty’ will be understood as the freedom from external restraint on our individual will, but accompanied by a voluntary internal restraint against exercising our free will in a way that infringes on the ‘liberty’ of others (i.e. adherence to Natural Law, as understood by Locke — not Hobbs).

 

LIBERTY, noun [Latin libertas, from liber, free.]

1. Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind. The body is at liberty when not confined; the will or mind is at liberty when not checked or controlled. A man enjoys liberty when no physical force operates to restrain his actions or volitions.

2. Natural liberty consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state of exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.

3. Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.

The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others.

In this sentence, the latter word liberty denotes natural liberty.

4. Political liberty is sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty But it more properly designates the liberty of a nation, the freedom of a nation or state from all unjust abridgment of its rights and independence by another nation. Hence we often speak of the political liberties of Europe, or the nations of Europe.

5. Religious liberty is the free right of adopting and enjoying opinions on religious subjects, and of worshiping the Supreme Being according to the dictates of conscience, without external control.

6. Liberty in metaphysics, as opposed to necessity, is the power of an agent to do or forbear any particular action, according to the determination or thought of the mind, by which either is preferred to the other.

Freedom of the will; exemption from compulsion or restraint in willing or volition.

7. Privilege; exemption; immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant; with a plural. Thus we speak of the liberties of the commercial cities of Europe.

8. Leave; permission granted. The witness obtained liberty to leave the court.

9. A space in which one is permitted to pass without restraint, and beyond which he may not lawfully pass; with a plural; as the liberties of a prison.

10. Freedom of action or speech beyond the ordinary bounds of civility or decorum. Females should repel all improper liberties.

To take the liberty to do or say any thing, to use freedom not specially granted.

To set at liberty to deliver from confinement; to release from restraint.

To be at liberty to be free from restraint.

Liberty of the press, is freedom from any restriction on the power to publish books; the free power of publishing what one pleases, subject only to punishment for abusing the privilege, or publishing what is mischievous to the public or injurious to individuals.

First occurrence in the Bible(KJV): Leviticus 25:10

Leviticus 25:10   1599 Geneva Bible (GNV) — The ‘Founders’ Bible

10 And ye shall hallow that year, even the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty in the land to all the [a]inhabitants thereof: it shall be the Jubilee unto you, and ye shall return every man unto his [b]possession, and every man shall return unto his family.

Now — for extra credit — tell us why Leviticus 25: 10 is significant to the American Founding and the notion of ‘Liberty.’

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