‘Freedom from’ and ‘Freedom to’

The United Nations human rights declaration Opens in new window begins with the statement that all human beings are born free, reflecting an insight of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment Opens in new window and other thinkers.

  • Freedom is the opportunity to pursue one’s own, self-set purposes autonomously within one’s domain and to do so without interference.
  • Freedom is of course circumscribed by the equal freedom of others. It implies the absence of coercion or fear of coercion.

Freedom depends on a community consensus that certain actions (by fellow citizens or by governments) must be tolerated and others are prohibited by general, enforced rules.

Freedom (or liberty) is here always defined as the (negative) freedom from coercion and interference. It is the liberty from something, such as coercion or fear (negative liberties), not the freedom to do something or lay some claim to something (positive liberties).

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The prohibitions that ensure freedom are directed against all actions that might impede others in their legitimate pursuit of their own happiness.

On a related tangent, one may define freedom in the words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) who wrote that:

Freedom relates to the “conditions under which the arbitrary decisions of the individual are made compatible with the arbitrary decisions of others by a universal law of liberty”.

Thus, the protection of the autonomous domain of citizens to the maximum possible extent is the guarantee of freedom.

Institutions (laws) Opens in new window that prescribe actions, which have in past experience proven to be incompatible with the freedom of all, serve to promote overall freedom.

Such institutions have to be universal in that they apply equally to unknown numbers of people and cases (Hayek, 1988, pp. 62 – 63).

The classical definition of freedom is freedom from interference:

To what extent can individuals enjoy protected domains of autonomous decision and self-responsibility? But in the course of the twentieth century, another definition of freedom has been made popular in certain circles:

the freedom to claim resources, to have a job, to health services, and so on.

In contradistinction to the classical notion of negative freedom (denying others control and ensuring self-responsibility), this second notion relates to positive freedoms, claims to the resources that belong to others.

The argument in favor of positive freedom is that negative freedom cannot be exercised without resources; poor or unemployed people are not free.

This notion has given rise to the contemporary American meaning of liberal, which differs from the classical European meaning of the term.

The proliferation of open-ended, liberal claims on the community’s resources requires coercion, destroys incentives that come with self-reliance and leads to cynicism, that is, it diminishes freedom in the classical meaning of the word.

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In this post, the terms freedom and liberal are confined to the classical definitions, American readers are invited to substitute libertarian when they read liberal.

When people are free, they are able to pursue their self-set goals as they see fit. But a person may also exercise his or her free will by trying to influence others so that they support his or her goals.

Such an influence may be voluntarily accepted—for example out of personal empathy or under a contract—or because of a threat of force (coercion). In the first case, the freedom of the other party is not impeded, whereas it certainly is when coercion comes into play.

The distinction between voluntary compliance and coercion is, however, less clear-cut than it may appear at first glance.

Coercion represents merely the extreme case in which the coerced party does not have a chance to resist or escape the threatened use of force.

Below a certain threshold, more or less subtle means to exercise coercive power over others exist, even in situations in which people eventually submit in more or less voluntary ways.

Power over others—whether exercised by individuals or organized groups, such as industry cartels, unions or government authorities—is a consequence of limited or inferior choices at the disposal of those subjected to persuasion.

The alternatives to submitting (more or less freely) may be unattractive, for example when there is a psychological dependency on the holder of power. In economic life, power is the result of a lack of competition, that is, a lack of close substitutes between which one is able to choose.

Suppliers may, for example, have market power in the form of a monopoly thanks to a successful innovation Opens in new window, which prevents potential buyers from choosing realistic alternatives. Such limitations of the freedom of choice for buyers tend to be temporary.

More durable limits to economic freedom exist when a supplier’s market power is the result of public restraints of competition, for example when government protects an industry cartel or interferes with free trade. Such public restraints are based on the power of government to coerce.

These few examples should suffice to demonstrate what difficulties arise when one deals with the phenomena of power and freedom.

Two important consequences of individual freedom are that free people are more creative, which is conducive to economic growth Opens in new window, and that they are more resilient to external shocks, when circumstances change (Quigley, 1979/1961).

Western civilization, which aspires to a high degree of individual freedom, has overcome periodic challenges better than more collectivist civilizations that have arisen and declined again. It seems that long-term prosperity and freedom are complementary and that coercive collectivism leads to cultural rigidity that eventually brings about overall cultural decline.

The discussion of freedom and power also touches on justice Opens in new window. Private coercion is not only incompatible with individual freedom but is also considered as unjust (de Jasay, 2002).

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