The concepts of freedom and liberty deserve better discrimination, especially in view of the recent popularization of libertarianism by Ron Paul. Americans, especially, have tended to treat the two concepts as synonymous, but freedom and liberty actually express important differences.
Liberty can be defined as individual independence of authority. Freedom has a more positive content. But rather than engage in an abstract discussion, I’ll illustrate the difference by analogy with the playing of football.
Football is a typical team sport, played by strict rules and regulations. Individuals participate, cooperate and compete within a well-defined structure of behavior that allows them to express and realize their talents and goals. And the experience is exhilarating. It’s not just “fun”, it’s self-actualizing, it’s thrilling, it’s glorious, it’s a genuine experience of freedom in action.
So how is it that the experience of freedom can be realized even within a structure of strict regulation? It’s vital that the rules of a game or a society express the aspirations of the players or the citizens. The rules have to be recognized as in everyone’s best interest, as maximizing both individual opportunity and community benefit, and rules and regulations have to be fairly enforced. There has to be a just system, a fair game, a righteous society, and then the experience of freedom isn’t the absence of rules, it’s the participation in rules, the support of rules, the realization of the intelligence and inherent goodness and necessity of fair and rational rules. Conversely, the introduction of unreasonable rules, or any lapse of enforcement of the accepted rules, or any unfair exceptions to the rules, results in a deflation of enthusiasm, a discouragement of willing involvement, a hollowing of free participation.
Freedom is a social experience of together individuals. Goals may be personal or shared, but unlike with liberty, there’s an essential idea of <i>contribution</i> involved with the participation in freedom. It’s revealing that children, up to a certain age, are incapable of realizing the sense of connectedness, mutuality and responsibility necessary for the manifestation of freedom. Just watch a herd of four year-olds playing soccer. Or think of the kind of society libertarian ideologues envision and advocate.
Liberty, to follow the football analogy, would be someone running onto the field, grabbing the ball, and playing keep-away from the players. Liberty is acting outside of regulation, the individual acting independent of others - others who are regarded as just so many competitors to be overcome. Liberty is an important and justifiable principle in specific opposition to tyranny, as a rejection of a system of unjust rules, but as an opposition to freedom it’s a tyranny all its own, a tyranny of the most obsessive, competitive selves against everyone else.
No one accepts the imposition of unjust regulations. But to reject regulation because regulation can be, or has been unjust is like rejecting music because it’s sometimes performed badly. Yet libertarians reject regulation in principle, as if it’s an impediment to freedom. Never mind our own history, when regulations were originally needed and imposed to correct the excesses of libertarian economy. Just look at China today, where, ironically, an economy liberated from regulation is thriving within a totalitarian political system, and driving their country into unbearable filth and hazard – while creating fabulous wealth for a few amid desperate poverty for the masses.
There’s a saying that no one is free unless everyone is free. The subtle truth in the saying derives from the importance of an over-arching, balanced, reciprocal relationship between individuals and society. No healthy person enjoys playing a rigged game. Even those who seem to benefit from breaking the rules or from using unjust rules to their advantage are compelled to occupy themselves with conspiracy, threats, or violence, and with delusions of self-justification. There may be liberty and privilege for the few in a rigged game or a tyrannical system, but it’s actually un-freedom even for those who are privileged – forced by their privilege to be constantly guarding against being deprived – no less than it’s un-freedom for those who suffer the privileged. Freedom is loving and being loved, being valued by others and valuing others, giving strength to others, receiving strength from others. When liberty rides unrestrained past the homeless, the excluded, the cheated, then the core feeling for society, for the <i>We</i>, for freedom, is dumbed down and numbed up.
Freedom is based on the willing participation in a just and expansive system, a system that participants recognize as their own objective expression. To the extent that a society is unjust, even if the injustice is done to some other race, or gender, or class, it muddies the cultural pool, and detracts from everyone’s free, willing and gratifying participation. In a society built on theft and lies, push-and-shove, on taking liberty, then and there honesty and dedication are reduced to a wistful creed.
Freedom is concerted self-actualization, a goal and achievement difficult to envision until it’s actually pursued and first dimly glimpsed. Compared to freedom, liberty as a guiding principle is a simple game of keep-away where the libertarian has to keep running, ultimately to discover, if only too late, that it offers nowhere worth going.