Word Power: Why I like “liberty” better than “freedom”

by Gary M. Galles As someone committed to self-ownership and voluntary […]

The statue of Liberty in USA. Image by © Dreamstime

The statue of Liberty in USA. Image by © Dreamstime

by Gary M. Galles

As someone committed to self-ownership and voluntary association, among the most frequent words I both read and write are “liberty” and “freedom.” In most instances, they’re virtually interchangeable. In my own writing, the choice between the two has usually come down to reducing repetition. But, as far back as I can remember, I have liked the word “liberty” better than the word “freedom,” though I had never given much thought as to why.

Then I ran across a reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in an article. It triggered a Superman-to-Kryptonite reaction in me. But my strong distaste for a speech full of “freedoms” led me to discover why I prefer the superior clarity of “liberty.” In my experience, demagogues have been able to successfully misrepresent freedom more easily than liberty.

Four “Freedoms”

FDR proposed “four essential human freedoms” in his famous speech. The first two—“freedom of speech and expression” and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way”—gave me no problems. Both of those freedoms can be enjoyed universally, because the freedom of one person to speak or worship as he chooses does not detract from the same freedoms for others. The only role they create for government is the negative one of disallowing others’ intrusions on those rights. They entail general liberty for all by defending citizens’ rights against man-imposed coercion, including that exercised by the agency with the greatest coercive power—government itself.

In contrast, FDR’s third freedom—“freedom from want”—cannot be similarly universal. I think it muddles what John Hospers called “the most important distinction in the discussion of freedom,” that “between freedom-from and freedom-to.” Despite its freedom-from language, it actually represents freedom-to. It promises that government will provide some a greater freedom to acquire goods and services than they would have had through voluntary interactions with others. Unfortunately, in a world of scarcity, expanding that freedom-to must constrict others’ equal freedom to acquire goods and services with their resources. In other words, that freedom-to (disguised by the double negative construction of freedom from the absence of something one might want) violates general liberty.

Similarly, FDR’s fourth freedom—“freedom from fear . . . that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor”—strikes me as insufficiently generalized. It asserts that people must be protected against other governments’ depredations. Unfortunately, it says nothing about constraining a nation’s freedom to aggress against its own citizens, leaving intact what history has confirmed as the very legitimate fear of abuse by one’s own government. Particularly since FDR’s third freedom requires such government aggression to get the required resources for its “benevolence,” that freedom from fear omits the most significant agency most citizens in most countries need fear when it comes to their liberty.

In FDR’s speech, I saw “freedom” dramatically distorted into something very different from general liberty, and its employment to achieve that purpose set my teeth on edge. Since that same distortion has continued to this day, my preference for the less-distortable liberty has been reinforced.

On Liberty

In my reading, “liberty” has more strongly connoted the absence of an outside constraint imposed by government than “freedom.” Liberty seems clearer on what it is liberty from—man-imposed coercion—while “freedom” is agnostic about what it is from. Perhaps Ludwig von Mises stated my view most clearly when he wrote, “Government is essentially the negation of liberty . . . Liberty is always freedom from the government. It is the restriction of the government’s interference.” (Italics added.)

Further, I have found that “liberty” seems to more strongly suggest a general or universal condition than the word “freedom.” I can enjoy additional freedom from want through government’s use of what John Hospers called others’ “expropriated money and property,” but such freedoms cannot be general or universal. That is, they cannot provide liberty (or justice) for all. Such enhancements of my freedoms require taking away others’ equal freedoms. Liberty, in contrast, expands everyone’s joint freedoms, broadening the canvas for peaceful, voluntary actions.

Liberty of Travel Versus Freedom to Travel

Consider the usage of “liberty” with regard to travel or movement. As Justice William Douglas wrote in Kent v. Dulles, “The right to travel is a part of ‘liberty’ of which the citizen cannot be deprived without the due process of law . . . ‘Our nation,’ wrote Chafee, ‘has thrived on the principle that, outside areas of plainly harmful conduct, every American is left to shape his own life as he thinks best, do what he pleases, go where he pleases.” That, in turn, reflected Blackstone’s description of the liberty to move to “whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct.”

This protection against rulers’ power to restrict citizens’ movements is part of liberty as a general freedom from government coercion. However, it is only a negative claim against government interference with their choices. It gives citizens no positive claim on the beneficence of government (i.e., forced charity from others) to get them from point A to point B. If the government fails to coerce one person to give bus fare to another, it only fails to expand the recipient’s freedom to have things, but it in no way limits his freedom from government dictation. And that’s the essence of liberty.

Free Lunches Versus Liberty

It seems to me that the greater linguistic precision and self-consistency of “liberty” can also be derived from the well-worn economists’ TANSTAAFL adage (“there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”). Its lesson is that while something could be made free to a particular individual (easing one’s fear of want), the fact of scarcity means there’s still a cost and somebody must bear it. Therefore, if something is made free to one individual through government, the burden must be imposed on others. Such a freedom not only falls short of being universal, it actually requires the violation of the same freedom for others. And that usage of the word “freedom” makes it more distortable than the word “liberty.” Slaves can be equally described as being freed or liberated, without confusion, but the same is not true of lunches.

The problem I have seen is that those on whom such burdens are imposed are often simply ignored when “freedoms” that are inconsistent with liberty are discussed. They fail William Graham Sumner’s test of asking, “Who holds the obligation corresponding to his right?” which is a logical extension of Frédéric Bastiat’s “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen” to “Who Is Seen and Who Is Unseen.” Those whose liberties are restricted are simply ignored by such language, which makes them disappear from consideration.

Freedom Versus Universal Freedom from Government Coercion

Considering FDR’s Four Freedoms has led me to more clearly distinguish between “freedom” and “liberty” as universal freedom from government coercion. “Freedom” can be used to mean “liberty,” but it can also be used to mean freedom for some that denies the same freedom for others and requires government coercion. And a host of abuses can find a foothold in that confusion. That is why I like the improved clarity of “liberty” over the ambiguity of “freedom.”

Our online world compelled me to check my understanding on Google. The first result of my search of synonyms for “liberty” turned up similar distinctions. It defined liberty as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views,” and added independence, autonomy, sovereignty, self-government, self-rule, and self-determination as synonyms. Further, it added constraint as its antonym. That is generalized liberty, or freedom from government coercion that extends beyond protecting individuals’ self-ownership and the universal rights that logically follow.


I think “freedom” is a wonderful word, full of hope and possibilities. But I have frequently seen it manipulated to mean something that reduces general liberty by increasing government coercion. Further, some of the most ringing words of America’s founders are expressed in terms of liberty (e.g., John Adams’ statement that “liberty is [government’s] end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope,” Samuel Adams’ assertion that “the most glorious legacy we can bequeath to posterity is Liberty,” John Dickinson’s “liberty . . . her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power,” and Patrick Henry’s belief that “Liberty is the greatest of all earthly blessings.”). That is why my preference is for “liberty,” which reduces such misrepresentation and clarifies the freedoms that provide the best hope and the greatest possibilities—universal freedom from government coercion.

Source: FEE


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

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