Elementary approaches on Freedom

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by Michael Messal

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”i

This quote from the song “Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson is just one of many approaches to define the hard to understand concept of “Freedom”. But is freedom just this? Is freedom another word for nothing left to lose? Is this point of view not just narrow-minded and false? Freedom is more than this, or not? Of course, it is not the objective of the above mentioned song, which got famous in the cover-version of Janis Joplin, to define or to explain “freedom”. A lot more it is intended to remember to enjoy the happiness of the moment, while you hitchhike, not through the galaxy, but the United States, the land of freedom.

There are a lot of different approaches to reproduce a modern understanding of freedom. Sciences, mainly philosophy, are dealing with this topic for a long time and have not concluded yet. Thereby the complexity of this topic is shown, wherefore it seems to be overconfident to evaluate this subject here on only a few pages. Nevertheless this is what is going to happen and in doing so will be shown, why it is possible, at least without the claim for completeness.

Isaiah Berlin defines a positive and a negative form of freedom. The meaning of positive freedom is very similar to the meaning of liberty. Positive freedom makes free to choose todo something. In contrast, negative freedom, means a condition ofnon-influence.iiNegative freedom is a requirement for positive freedom (liberty), because a condition of non-influence facilitates the free contribution to something. The Austrian economist and social philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek sees Freedom as “[…] absence of coercion of people as a whole […]”.iiiIn contrast to Hayek’s thesis, Niklas Luhmann describes freedom “as unrecogniseability of the reason of limitations of freedom”iv, thus the sheer unconsciousness of the individual on the things which make it dependent.

Furthermore in modern times the ideas of economic freedom, as well as concepts of Freedom of Speech, Opinion, Press, Will, Action and Religion, just to name some of them, exist. These freedoms belong to positive freedom, as well as negative freedom. If these freedoms are seen as to be free from external restrictions, e.g. censure in case of Freedom of the press, it is referred to negative freedom. If one of these freedoms is going to be used, e.g. by a free expression of opinion, this is positive freedom.

According to common understanding, economic freedom makes humans free from their not personal faulted immaturity, because this is socially constructed. In compliance with the premise, that the freedom of a human is its natural condition, all limitations of freedom are a product of social construction. But how can this be compared, how be deduced? First of all, a view on human development should be done. Otherwise than other animals, humans developed from their primitive condition to a creature capable of reason. On the basis, that there are no natural limitations of freedom, beside the ones belonging to biological/physical reasons, which are depending on metabolism, humans are free by their nature. Humans are free to live their lives after the premises they select, to decide on their place to live at, as well as which consume is needed for metabolism, by its own. Therefore, human beings obtain, even according to the unavoidable biological restrictions, the freedom, they are striving for. Humans want to be free.v

During their development humanity indeed decided to give up a little part of their immanent freedom to cooperate better. Therefore, Humans first established families, which moved through the African savannah. Later on these families merged to tribes, which founded nations and at last empires. At every of this developmental steps humans’ submitted more and more personal rights of freedom to the community. The amount of the limitation of freedom, this means the degree of bondage, does not need to be identical within one level of development. Therefore, it is the reality of the respective social order, which needs to be taken into account by the question, how many freedom rights are handed over to the collective by the individual. Even between the individuals of one society the degree of freedom can diverge, depending on one the question, how much an individual is using its positive rights of freedom.

In general, personal freedom is limited, where the freedom of another person begins.viHence, there may be Freedom of Action, but an action which limits the freedom of another, by reducing his ability to use his freedom, is forbidden. One example would be the illegal captivation. The caped person has now no more possibility to use his freedom rights. Beside this, every person has unlimited rights of freedom. John Stuart Mill wrote: “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”viiFreedom thereby is no privilege of society to its members, but the right of every person.viii

Nevertheless, Freedom is an important topic during human history. Jews are celebrating Passover for millennia, which reminds on the liberation from Egyptian slavery.ixAs well as the Stoa, an ancient Greece school for philosophy of the fifth/fourth century before Christ, deals with the topic of freedom, which is understand there as “how you like”.xFurther proofs for ancient freedom can be found in the Christian doctrine. As can be seen by Paulus “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty […]”xi, as well as in one of the most important reformatories writings of Martin Luther, “On the freedom of a Christian”, freedom plays an important role. Here it is written down as the first one out of thirty theses. “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none.”xiiThis development even continues in the Christian doctrine. God’s love towards mankind, the central aspect of this doctrine, is manifested thereby, that god gives complete freedom towards mankind.

Freiheit, Libertè, Freedom. Every language has a word for this concept, every culture produces arts and some of them even build monuments. The statue of Liberty in New York, which represents the roman goodness Libertas, is just one out of many examples.

Laws also refer to the topic of Freedom. Beside actual works, like the German Grundgesetz or the UN-Declaration of Human Rights “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”xiii, this is familiar to earlier writings, like the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789 “All man are born free and equal towards rights and stay this”xiv, or the Magna Carta Libertatum of 1215.

All in all freedom seems to be an important topic during human history, but especially in modern times. Freedom seems to be more than having nothing left to lose. There is no matter, which understanding of liberty is according to the reader right, if it is just the freedom of suppression, the possibility towards free self-expression, or a complete other philosophy. Nearly all modern points of view say, that freedom is a birth right of every human, which needs to be protected. At a lot of places on earth this will not be reconsidered. Humans are being enslaved, illegal captured or, because of their use of freedom rights, prosecuted, tortured or even killed. It is time to live, what we know for ages, that every human has the right to be free. The poet Marius Müller-Westernhagen should no longer be right, when he says, that freedom is the only one who is missed.xv


iKristofferson et al. (1969).
iiCf. Berlin (1969): P. 160 ff.
iiiHayek (1991): P. 14, own translation.
ivLuhmann (1988): P. 113, own translation.
vCf. Pieper (2013).
viCf. Kant (1787): AA III, 492.
viiMill (1859): P. 13.
viiiCf. Levin (2018).
ixCf. Fischer (2004): P. 38.
xCf. Vollenweider (1989): P. 30, own translation.
xiThe holy Bible (2013): Galatians 5,13.
xiiLuther (1520).
xiiiUN (2015): P. 4.
xivDéclaration des Droits de l’Homme (1789): Articel 1, own translation.
xvCf. Müller-Westernhagen (1990).


Berlin, Isaiah (1969): Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press.

Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme (1789): Articel 1.

The Holy Bible; King James Version (2013): The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, requested at 12.09.2018,https://www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/gal/5?lang=eng

Fischer, Anke (2004): Die Sieben Weltreligionen. Geschichte, Grundsätze des Glaubens und Rituale, Neuer Kaiser Verlag, Fränkisch- Crumbach.

Hayek, Friedrich August von (1991): Die Verfassung der Freiheit, 3. Aufl., Tübingen.

Kant, Immanuel (1787): Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Akademie Ausgabe.

Kristofferson, Kris; Foster, Fred (1969): Me and Bobby McGee.

Levin, Yuval (2018): Edmund Burke’s Economics of Flourishing, requested at 07.09.2018, http://www.aei.org/spotlight/human-flourishing-burke/

Luhmann, Niklas (1988): Die Wirtschaft der Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp.

Luther, Martin (1520): Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, requested at 07.09.2018,https://www.luther2017.de/en/martin-luther/texts-sources/on-the-freedom-of-a-christian/

Mill, John Stuart (1859): On Liberty, Batoche Books, Kitchener, Ontario 2001.

Müller-Westernhagen, Marius (1990): Freiheit.

Pieper, Annemarie (2013): Schwerpunktbeitrag: Grenzen der Freiheit, requested at 07.09.2018,https://philosophie-indebate.de/361/grenzen-der-freiheit/

UN (2015): The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Vollenweider, Samuel (1989): Freiheit als neue Schöpfung: eine Untersuchung zur Eleutheria bei Paulus und in seiner Umwelt, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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