What is Freedom?


(Answer: there is no single answer)

Lewis Carroll’s character Humpty Dumpty claimed that ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’. Such an approach to language seems worryingly commonplace in political discussions of freedom. The wide variations in its meaning, deployed in the service of various (often diametrically opposed) agendas and ideologies, need careful unpacking. Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, is the best-known attempt to do so, though as this article suggests are there more than two different ideas of freedom in circulation.

The simplest definition is what Berlin terms ‘negative liberty’ (as far as I and most others are concerned, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are practically synonymous). To be negatively free means to be unconstrained by external impediments. A person who is unrestricted – whether by chains, imprisonment, violence or the threat of it, border guards, legal or bureaucratic restrictions and so on – has the freedom to determine their own courses of action: to move around, buy and sell, seek employment, associate with who they want and pursue personal goals and projects. This freedom is negative because it is defined by an absence of something, namely constraint. This account often appeals to liberal free-marketeers, as it speaks in favour of a smaller and less active state which leaves people alone to do as they please.

But this account of freedom had been widely disputed by thinkers on the centre-left: primarily so-called modern liberals such as T H Green and William Beveridge. Their point is that the absence of constraint does not guarantee an ability to make meaningful choices and put them into action. Someone in extreme poverty might be free (negatively) to start a business or build a collection of antique silverware, provided no one actively prevents their doing so. But if they lack the financial means to afford these things then the ‘freedom’ is illusory: they cannot actually accomplish the goals in question. Similarly, someone who lacks education is limited in the jobs they can aspire to, or the ability to engage with fields such as literature, arts and science which require a degree of learning. The idea that genuine freedom necessitates a level of resources (financial or personal) underpins arguments for the welfare state as an enabling force which expands life choices for many people. There is, however, arguably a conflict with negative liberty: if state welfare is funded by taxation and enforced by law, this limits the taxpayers’ freedom to use (e.g. save, spend or transfer) their property as they wish, as the state is doing so instead. The dispute over freedom’s meaning thus lies at the heart of the debate between those who favour policies of ‘tax and spend’, and their ‘laissez-faire’ opponents. 

Nor are these the only possible definitions. In Berlin’s essay, ‘positive liberty’ depends not only on resources but on the way one’s goals and actions are determined. It means ‘to be the instrument of my own […] acts of will’, ‘a subject, not an object’, ‘conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being’. This view of freedom has its roots firmly in moral philosophy: for German ethicist Immanuel Kant, having ‘autonomy’ means acting in accordance with reason rather than to satisfy lower passions or appetites. To coin an example, a drug addict might be seen as enslaved to the substance and to lack freedom because their overwhelming desire for it prevents them pursuing, or perhaps even conceiving of, life goals which their more ‘rational’ selves would prefer. The constraint on their choice is internal rather than external, as their decision-making apparatus itself – according to Kant’s view – has been compromised. If applied to politics, this view of freedom could be used to justify laws which prohibit drug-abuse or other activities thought detrimental to rationality or good character. Paradoxically, such a stance is more often seen as conservative than liberal – and many avowed liberals claim it positively undermines freedom. 

Perhaps the most challenging accounts of freedom are where it is defined as a property of a collective (e.g. a society or nation) rather than the individuals within it. For some, freedom is a question of political and legal sovereignty: a state is free if it makes its internal policies and laws independently, rather than being subject to an external power, such as a colonial occupier or hegemon. But other questions then arise about: (a) the mechanism by which the laws/policies are made and (b) their impact on individuals’ freedom within the state. An isolated totalitarian dictatorship might be free from external interference in its affairs – North Korea springs to mind – but to call it therefore a ‘free country’ seems to stretch the definition beyond credibility. And even sovereign democratic processes can lead to freedom-denying outcomes, exercising what is called ‘tyranny of the majority’. In 2005, Switzerland voted in a referendum to ban the building of new minarets on mosques: a move widely criticised (including by the Vatican) for denying religious freedom to a minority group. And the 2016 UK referendum vote to leave the European Union, while arguably increasing the country’s sovereignty in making its own laws, has also led to a diminution of its citizens’ freedom to live, work and do business in the European Single Market. The freedom offered by such an international body transcends the borders of an individual nation, and therefore perhaps cannot be realised by one which operates fully independently.

My advice, then, to anyone who hears the word ‘freedom’ used to justify or bolster a political argument, is to interrogate who is doing it, for what ends, and above all what exactly do they mean by the term. Like Humpty-Dumpty, I suspect many of us are guilty of adapting the definition to suit our own purposes.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: