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The Perils of Confusing Liberty with Freedom

Liberty is not synonymous with freedom. It is a sub-species of freedom, but a rather limited one. The slogan of the French Revolution, for example, is a slogan that is closer to freedom than the slogan of the American Secession. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is really only a definition of liberty, but "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" is a closer definition of freedom - as long as we add "Sorority" or substitute "Fraternity" with "Camaraderie."

In any case, some rather absurd definitions of "freedom" result from believing it is defined as "liberty." This is mainly why libertarians continue to exist, philosophically speaking: their entire ideology is based on category mistake. (Philosophically speaking: they also continue to exist because as long as there are selfish jerks there will be libertarians.)

1. Taxes that lead to public services violate my "freedom"

This one is the most obvious confusion, leading to the most irrational definitions of freedom. And yet people still make this argument. It is one thing to question some of the fundamental problems with taxation (such as why I'm paying to fund imperialism and bourgeois politicians), but you have to give it to the libertarians - at least they're consistent about their liberty-freedom confusion in this instant.

The public fire service needs to go because it is my freedom to die in a fire if I so choose. Maybe I'm missing something here, but when I think of being free I really don't imagine the liberation of burning to death in a fire. But hey, I guess it's my personal frikking choice to die in a fire and those fire-fighters, funded by my damn taxes, are violating my free choice!

Publicly funded garbage workers are also collectivist goons, totalitarian assholes organized to deny my personal freedom. Paying for garbage services should be a person to person choice. And I shouldn't have to pay for some other guy to get his garbage removed - that's his business. Wasn't it so much more free in the days before state-funded garbage disposal when people threw their excrement on the street and rats spread the plague? But that's the price of freedom, my friend: don't you know that "freedom isn't free?"

(This picture clearly depicts utopia.

2. Safety laws

While it may be true that letting idiots get away with doing unsafe things out of their pursuit of liberty is pretty harmless, waving the flag of private safety over public safety becomes rather ludicrous.

Are you telling me I don't have the right to die in a hideous traffic accident if I do not want to wear my helmet on my motorbike? It is my personal freedom to not wear a stupid helmet, because it is so uncool, and die of sever head trauma. Nor should my personal freedoms ever be violated by the nanny-state arresting or fining me for driving under the influence: my body, my car. So what if someone else dies because of my God-given right to exercise my freedom? That's there fault for not using their freedom wisely and getting out the way of my car. This is the price, I'm afraid, of "true" freedom.

"I refuse to wear you, Mr. Helmet, because you are oppressive, a collectivist shackle on my individual freedom."


3. Environmental laws

The way these have recently been pursued, in the most limited limited sense, in my country has led to a rather absurd outcry from home owners, land-lords, and religious kooks who think that global warming is a leftwing conspiracy. The idea that maybe we should pursue the type of society that would lead to sustainable existence does not seem to matter for those who pursue liberty:their tiny blip on human history's aeons-long radar is clearly more important than human history itself.

Thank god there's not too many of these! Can you imagine some totalitarian state actually deciding that the preserving the earth for future generations is more important than my freedom to drive my awesome SUV and drink all of my coffees in disposable cups. (What, you're going to make me use a reusable bag for my groceries instead of the plastic ones that you used to give out for free? Oh, I can still pay for those bags - well that's okay then.)

Besides, we all know that climate change is a bunch of garbage invented by anti-freedom pinko scientists in an effort to erode our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Next they will be telling us that the sun does not rotate around the earth. (Oh they did that centuries ago? See what I mean!!)

4. Guns

Since liberty is primarily about personal freedom and property rights, I suppose the confusion with liberty and freedom explains the guns-equals-freedom issue. It really can't be that gun nuts think it is liberating to shoot people, can it?

It is my freedom to arm myself and protect my tiny apartment from big government interference. Guns and guitars are freedom, as my hero Ted Nugent demonstrates in this picture. Yeah, woo! FREEDOM! [insert catchy riff here]

But we should also stop revolutionary organizations from amassing arms because that's not freedom!

5. Affirmative Action

The confusion with liberty and freedom clearly leads to the problematic believe that any affirmative action laws, no matter how ineffectual these laws may be, are an assault on personal freedom. Since liberty is a concept connected to the individual, a blindness to social freedom follows.

Are you telling me that merit no longer matters? You oppressive goons with your laws that prevent the hard working individual from following a freely chosen path. So what if there was slavery and stuff centuries ago, racism has nothing to do with me! Now give me that bloody job before I exercise my freedom and shoot you with my gun and, I don't know, drive off on my motor-bike completely blitzed without a helmet.

And while we're at it, how dare you have equity laws that prevent me from saying [racist-and-or-misogynist-word] whenever I want! I want to pursue the happiness of saying whatever I want no matter who it offends, or what it promotes.

6. Free Market

The liberty-freedom confusion becomes utterly absurd when the concept of freedom is applied to something that is not alive, thus demonstrating the hypostatization fallacy that every libertarian takes as a priori.

I am free only insofar as the market is free. You lost your house? Well wouldn't you feel worse if the market wasn't allowed to be free? I mean, if the market wasn't free then you wouldn't be allowed to own land in the first place - too bad that you don't own anything anymore... don't forget that freedom isn't free!

And the fact that the government had to bail out the banks is just crony-capitalism and not real, free capitalism. Or maybe it's a good thing because it's saving the market. Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about except that you should just accept your homelessness as the price for true freedom. I mean, where would you be if you couldn't participate freely in the market? In some communist slave state that's where... oh, you can't participate in the market because the crisis liquidated your bank account and credit agencies are hunting you down as we speak? Don't blame me for not taking your freedom seriously!

(The market and its hands no longer invisible, manifesting briefly in the incarnation of Milton Friedman.)


  1. Thanks, JMP, for another amusing yet apt post.

  2. Yikes, You really didn't define liberty or freedom in any meaningful manner. You claim they are not the same but fail to state why. I agree with you entirely that freedom is often misunderstood, but it is indeed defined as the same thing as liberty in neoclassical economics and political philosophy. Individual freedom is often confused with political freedom, inner freedom, and numerous other terms thats are in fact not liberty in the proper sense. Freedom and Liberty are both properly defined as the absence of coercion. Or in other words, you are not subject to the ARBITRARY will of another man. You can do what you want SO LONG as it does not inflict on another's life. Forcing me to pay taxes to clean up my garbage denies freedom and liberty. However if I chose not to pay, and subsequently leave my garbage on my neighbor's lawn, I have defied his freedom, and will be subject to law that will have be compensate him and stop, or face consequences.

    People like you who seemingly have no formal economic training often misunderstand that those who support liberal, typically also support the rule of law. Meaning that if your freedom negatively impacts someone else, YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO THAT FREEDOM. Thus speed limits are not anti-freedom, because they are subject to everyone equally, and people who would drive to fast without speed limits would be endangering other's lives not just their own.

    Anyways, I've wasted to much of my time reading your post. I highly recommend you read a book of Milton Friedman's. He's not as silly as you think.

    Just keep in mind that people are inherently born with different skills, genes and wealth. In your mission for equality you are thus supporting that people be treated unequally. You cannot have equality without treating people differently based on subjective opinions. Scary thought to think that in your perfect world a man decides what and who I am, and then decides how he can make me "equal" to everyone else.

  3. Well first of all this was half humourous. If I wanted to write a serious exploration on freedom then I would have cut and pasted one of my dissertation chapters here.

    Secondly, I disagree entirely with your position because you define freedom in a rights-based rather than needs-based manner which leads to all the problems I was mocking. And I have read Milton Friedman: he's not silly, just an idiot who reifies market forces and has no understanding of history and social relations. As Samir Amin says: pure economics is a parascience. So what is formal economic training? I study political economy and reject that the economics can be scientific outside of this understanding.

    My "mission for equality" is much more nuanced than you believe: I do believe difference is not the same as "inherent inequality" and once you define it that way you're making certain assumptions where differences are taken as essential, outweighing a core concept of species-equality we share as being human: we are social and produce ourselves through history and time.

    In any case, this blog is meant for comrades and, as I indicated in the comments policy, if you are a rightist you can maintain your own blog. Most of my professional career is spent dealing with your "common sense" way of thinking, and the blindspots this ruling ideology result in philosophically, so I mainly write articles here for people who already have the same beliefs or to address debates within my philosophical strata.

  4. Also, I should add, you wrote "people like you" and assumed that I had no understanding of economic theory. But I could retort that you have no understanding of the history of philosophical concepts of the subject since the notion of "freedom" you immediately espouse, and take to be essential to human nature, is a notion that only emerged at certain historical period.

    This is the concept of freedom that conflates (as I joked about in this non-academic blog entry) liberty and freedom but also assumes notions of isolated individual, rights balancing that are substituted for needs, and a concept of utility. And then pure economists, in a very ad hoc manner, try to prove what they already assume is natural with dubious mathematics and rhetoric. The origin of this concept of freedom is spirited away and taken, as you seem to believe in your comment, as a priori.

    Now why should I have to spend time in this space writing a long and defensible theory of freedom - something that took me a few chapters to do in my doctoral thesis and that i discuss in conference and journal papers over and over again - for people who already accept the ruling ideas of the ruling class? I learned long ago that people who are invested in common sense hegemonic ideology will never accept a reasoned argument - just as they'll never read Capital.


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