The difference between freedom and liberty

Law School Prof. Butler Shaffer makes an interesting distinction between freedom and liberty. Liberty, he says, is what the state (meaning overweaning government) decides to grant you in terms of personal freedom. Freedom, he says, is your individual ability to do what you want with your time, believe what you want, think what you want. Freedom is in your core being and cannot be taken away, even by most totalitarian governments, although they may try.

In other words, freedom is your free agency, given to you by the very act of being born. Liberty is a governmental structure that hopefully allows you freedom of life, liberty and property (but almost never does).

You may remember the climactic scene in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien is torturing Winston Smith. O’Brien’s goal is not just destroying Winston’s personal liberty of movement and property, it is to destroy his freedom of thought. This is the nightmarish reality of thought police and a true totalitarian government, that we would lose our freedom to believe and think our own thoughts. This is Satan’s plan: we are all saved because we cannot choose anything on our own. If you are a Star Trek fan, this is the horror that Picard is exposed to when assimilated into the Borg: that he would no longer have the right to his own thoughts, ideas and emotions. The collective is the ultimate terror because it destroys what our very souls strive for, individual, personal freedom.

Most human beings have lived without governmental liberty. The sad history of the world is one government after another reigning with “blood and horror on the Earth.”

A serf toiling away in a field in 1000 AD Europe had very little liberty. He was a vassal of his overlord, couldn’t vote and didn’t have any true freedom of speech or assembly. But he did have freedom to think his own thoughts, and he was given by his Creator the right to moral agency. Within his confined world, he had the freedom to make choices, choose good and bad.

The unique thing about the American experiment is it codified a new structure that provided personal freedom AND liberty from government. Many involved in writing the Constitution thought the Bill of Rights was not even necessary because the only things that government could do were enumerated right there in the document. The expectation was that every other right was left to the states and the people. But as government grew and new overlords assumed power over the governed, they of course began to limit liberty and to bind us with flaxen cords of the state.

Now, on a local level we are burdened with police who set up speed traps and give us tickets when we drive 5 mph over the speed limit. We have traffic cameras that have gotten rid of due process. We are assumed guilty until we prove ourselves innocent. We are burdened with property taxes to support teachers and administrators who never are paid enough, who always want to raise taxes so they can have longer vacations and higher pensions. And if we opt out of the corrupt and failing school system, we still must pay the taxes.

On a state and federal level, we are burdened with regulations that prevent us from performing in consensual trade with others. We are supporting massive bureaucracies of men and women who do nothing but scheme up new ways to decrease our liberty. We pay taxes so men and women wearing blue gloves and representing the state can sexually assault us at the airport. Do any of them realize who pays their salaries?

We have gone from a foreign policy centered on defending our country to one where we engage in foreign wars around the world in an aggressive attempt to maintain an empire. Because of the supposed threats to our country, we have authorized the government to spy on its own citizens.

Meanwhile, the chattering classes say the only solution to the massive debt is for government to take even more of our money. Nothing can be cut — the state must expand boundlessly.

Are we in the process of ending that great experiment of both freedom and liberty? Well, yes and no. The state grows endlessly, and no real solution to its abuses is considered by those in power. We must continue to allow people to be molested at airports. We must continue to allow the police to harass you when you are doing no harm. We must continue to allow government to grow and liberty to recede. But on the other hand, there are pockets of society where we have more liberty than ever. Technological growth is causing unfettered liberty of information and movement, which is helping bring down the tyrants. There is arguably more freedom of expression now worldwide than at any other time in the history of the world.

But the greatest reason for optimism is exactly what Prof. Shaffer points out: they cannot take away our freedom to think and believe what we want. As Mormons, we know this is the greatest gift God ever gave us. And no matter how bad it gets the O’Briens of the world cannot take it away.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

11 thoughts on “The difference between freedom and liberty

  1. Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law

    Liberty in law? What kind of concept is that? Well, to start with, unvarnished freedom includes the freedom to rape, pillage, and plunder. Liberty does not.

    Without the essentials of government, there is no liberty. And as history has demonstrated, it often comes only at great personal cost. Liberty under the Confederacy, the Nazis, or the Soviets? I don’t think so.

  2. True liberty (and freedom) mean the freedom to do what you want as long as you don’t harm anybody else (pursuit of happiness). Some of the worst infringements on liberty have come from those wanting to protect you from yourself. To jump-start Godwin’s Law, I would say that the Nazis in the early 1930s were all about protecting Germans from themselves in the name of security and order.

    I am not an anarchist, and I don’t think anybody reading this is. (Except for LDS Anarchist, we’ll see if he/she shows up). The Constitution lays out very clearly what government should and should not do. One of the Founders’ primary concerns were do-gooders who wanted to decrease liberty in the name of their various causes. With our $14.5 trillion debt, we are seeing the results of the do-gooders dominating our government.

  3. I fear that while there are many do-gooders there are a significant number of evil people who see debt and taxation as a key to the enslavement of the population. I would put Obama in that category except he isn’t smart enough.

  4. I don’t know that it is necessarily true that agency cannot be taken away. Obviously, there are certain acts that, while perhaps not entirely capable of robbing agency, certainly decrease it. Murder, for one. Assault or substances which cause brain injury. Anything that involves brainwashing. Even ignorance can keep a person from knowing how to use agency. (Which is why we proselytize, is it not?)

  5. “Meanwhile, the chattering classes say the only solution to the massive debt is for government to take even more of our money. Nothing can be cut — the state must expand boundlessly.”

    I haven’t heard a single person say we should not have any spending cuts, but I’m willing to accept new information.

    “A serf toiling away in a field in 1000 AD Europe had very little liberty. He was a vassal of his overlord”

    Interesting that the solution to the massive oppression inherent in this extreme level of economic inequality was actually for government to step in and make sure average joe had a voice.

    “thy liberty in law”

    America the Beautiful is my favorite patriotic song by far and I’m always happy to see it quoted. I like how, contra the “why do you hate America?!” bit that too often gets thrown at anyone with any difference of opinion with how things are being done, this song admits that our country, past and present, has flaws that need addressing: “God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” But of course the existence of flaws doesn’t detract from the overall celebration and veneration of our country. I like that it casts individual prosperity in terms of greater responsibility and consecration: “May God thy gold refine; Till all success be nobleness, And ev’ry gain divine.” I like how it says that true patriots look to the future, “O beautiful for patriot dream; That sees beyond the years;” in today’s terms, that says to me sustainability of our environment and investing in our infrastructure and our people so that we can be as great or greater in the future as we are now. Also, it acknowledges that the “patriot dream” can never be realized if there is human suffering among our people, “Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears.” That line, and “crown thy good with brotherhood,” to me, are meant to stir within us a sacred calling to rise above the every-man-for-himself natural man mentality and realize that, as literal brothers and sisters, we must never lose sight of the condition of least of us, and ever strive for an ideal where our cities are undimmed by human tears.

    I realize my vision is often at odds with those of other folks here, but I hope you don’t mind my sharing my love of that song and what it sings to me.

  6. Cynthia, great comment — it sounds like you’re describing Zion there. How great that it comes from this wonderful patriotic hymn.

  7. Cynthia, could you please point me to the exact proposal made by the president or Democratic leader including actual spending cuts (not cuts in the rate of growth, actual cuts)? A cut would say that in 2011 we spent $3.7 trillion but in 2012 we will spend $3.6 trillion. A cut is not saying we want to spend $4 trillion but will settle for $3.9 trillion. That is an increase, not a cut. The President’s budget (rejected 97-0 by the Senate) included $12 trillion in new spending over 10 years — not exactly a cut. The Dem Senate has not passed any budget in more than two years (a budget is actually putting these things on paper, not talking in airy terms about cuts that will never happen). So, until you can show me a budget proposal including actual cuts, I cannot assume the talk of cuts is anything but empty rhetoric.

    If you want me to admit that the Republicans were just as bad until recently, and still include a lot of empty rhetoric, no problem, certainly true. But at least they have a proposal that has been approved with actual cuts ($111 billion in 2012). In my opinion, those cuts should have been north of $500 billion and should have included massive cuts in our military adventures. But at least their proposal included actual cuts.

    As for serfs in 1000 AD, you say the following:

    “Interesting that the solution to the massive oppression inherent in this extreme level of economic inequality was actually for government to step in and make sure average joe had a voice.”

    This is incredibly ahistorical. The government in 1000 AD was the monarch or local knight. If government did anything, it was to squelch individual rights because individual rights threatened the power of the liege lord. Most serfs had no right to property or liberty or life. The Magna Carta slowly changed things, but this was based on individuals standing up for themselves *against* oppressive central government (the king). Serfs won very, very small gains until the 19th century, when things changed rapidly because of four things: 1)recognition of personal property rights 2)the slow spread of democracy from the US to Europe 3)industrialization and 4)immigration. None of these things had anything to do with government “stepping in” — they were all movements of individuals against their oppressive governments, either by changing oppressive laws, forming alternative sources of power or by voting with their feet to leave.

    You almost succeeded in ruining that hymn for me, but not quite. It is worth pointing out that personal responsibility means voluntary, individual giving, not government stealing money from some people and giving it to others. In the latter case, we are nothing better than 11th century serfs again.

  8. I think what Cynthia means is that the 1000 AD serf had to suffer until approximately the Englightenment when thinkers and enlightened monarchs began to concede that the people needed to have a voice in government and real parliamentary democracy began to develop, albeit under the domination of the monarch still. Once the American Constitution was put in place, a framework finally existed where a small percentage of the population could have a voice in government. By the twentieth century, sufferage expanded significantly so that once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally kicked in, America was finally a just society in terms of the “serf” having a voice.

    The hymn makes a significant point about confirming our American soul in self-control and our liberty in law. To me that sounds like a collective, voluntary act of submitting to law and limiting our excesses. As you know, the way this is done in a constitutional republic is through the democratic process as legislative majorities vote on the policies that they think best achieves these ends. As a by-product, there is a democratic minority that does not wish to submit to these laws and penalties attach. A complaint against this outcome is a disaffection from democracy itself as a means of government.

    But it’s just a song, right?

  9. John F, still not right. The key aspect of the serf is his lack of liberty (but not personal freedom) because he has no property rights or any other natural political rights and is subject to the whims of the government (represented in the 11th century by the liege lord). The forces that brought him freedom were primarily his own efforts or outside of the government. The industrial revolution and emigration brought him the greatest amount of freedom because he no longer had to work on the land to make a living. He was able to work at a factory or even invent his own items or open a shop selling stuff — for your typical serf this was revolutionary. As the undertrodden found more economic freedom, they inevitably asked for political freedom, thus the development of 19th century and early 20th century democracy in Europe. But note that the economic freedom came first in most cases, and if it didn’t the serf emigrated and found economic and political freedom elsewhere.

    In all cases, the government continued to be the oppressor until forced not to, either out of fear of revolution or through alternate sources of power (the mercantile classes).

    I would recommend reading “The Road to Serfdom” by Hayek on this subject.

    The purpose of a representative democracy like the U.S. is to enforce the natural laws of rights to property, life and liberty. To the extent that minorities and majorities violate these natural laws, our intent should be to use peaceable means to regain our natural rights. If you support stealing property from some people to give to others, you are part of the problem, and the solution is to continue to remind you that you support looting and stealing until finally you stop supporting looting and stealing. This is what “liberty in law” means. As for confirming your soul in self-control, I tend to believe that means personal self-control in keeping the commandments as well as the responsibility in a free society of voluntarily — not through government force — helping your neighbor so the society functions more smoothly. Government force confirms nothing.

  10. Leave it to a lawyer to lie to you and legally tell the truth at the same time. This is because these guys along with the government work to deprive americans of freedom through and by due processs. Webster himself had to give these creeps their own definition of the word seperate of the rest of these natural ones he set forth for the rest of the difinitions we see. Under the legal definition: you see liberty as a definition of freedom. This because all of us know we are also truly a socialist state that clings to imperialism in a misguided efffort to glean from the scraps of the elitists a hint to the road to sucess and out of poverty. The fact is that a majority of our citizens live like disposable slave labor and there has never been a single justice done under the current rejime. Some wise person had once said “if a single injustice goes on then all are denied justice” as it is impossible for the two to comingle as it would for both clean water and dirty to spring forth from the same well. I put a video on youtube that describes the true definition is somewhat unclear you must really want to understand it. Freedom has to exist with respect as without it no one has freedom. Libert is when uncle sam emancipated the slaves. A free people need no liberation or a definition thereof, and furthemore another definition that governments as well as lawyers should become familiar with is inalienable as you all have trouble understanding it. When as a lawyer these people aid and deny us a true and free democracy in which it is understood that when it comes to denying all people freedom as an act of abrbitrail actof a government is not up to a vote. This is high treason and an act of enslavement of the people. No peoples are free. No people are just people just are. As a people e are despot trash all by acts of opression. There are no Free americans therefore there are no Americans Just posers. WE have been denied the right to be Real Free Americans by sudo americana/quasi-socialist/imperialist sub-americans that like parisites rob us of the right of freedom given us by our existence. There is no compensation so great as to even approach the value of ones freedom. Sudo-americans love to be slaves that are granted liberty and will sell any person out to maintain or improve their position in the ranks. I have Never known an honest lawyer or politician no more than i have ever seen a Free American.

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