Liberty 101: What Does Liberty Really Mean?


Liberty: few people say they dislike it, so what makes libertarians’ emphasis on it different?
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Rush Limbaugh says he loves it. Bernie Sanders says he’s a gigantic fan. Throughout history thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and even Confucius claimed to love it. What is it? Liberty. Politicians, pundits, philosophers, professors, we all love to talk about liberty, but what does it even mean?
For libertarians, liberty is the primary political value. So we can’t just talk about what a cool idea it is. We really, really care about what it means and about why it’s so important. When we talk about liberty we mean the following. Liberty is the freedom to pursue your own good in your own way, without other people limiting your options.
Or forcing you to fulfill their needs first. Other political thinkers, they define liberty differently. They define it as the freedom to get something specific, like healthcare, for example, or housing or jobs. Or freedom from want or fear as President Franklin Roosevelt, had it. And that’s fine as far as it goes, and there’s no reason to be a stickler about the word liberty in a broad sense.
But when Libertarians talk about liberty they are talking about a specific technical kind of liberty. They’re talking about political liberty. Political liberty is about what you and I cannot do to one another. You can’t force me to do what I don’t want to do. And I can’t unilaterally impose a harm on you.
You and I have to respect each other’s boundaries and the boundaries of our property. But why do libertarians focus on political liberty rather than all the other kinds of liberties. Look if you were to tell me, give me liberty or give me death, I’d say no, I’d rather live.
To me, life is more important than liberty. I’d rather be alive and I mean honestly I’d rather also be happy, then be free. But when it comes to politics and government, it’s this conception of liberty that permits us to best pursue all of those other values. Without liberty, we often can’t get the things that matter the most to us.
And many people place different values, more highly than liberty. But Libertarians argue either that political liberty ought to be everyone’s primary political value. Or that starting with political liberty is the very best way of achieving all of those other values. Political liberty permits each of us as different as we are.
To pursue our own good in our own way. Okay, that’s fine, but why should you think that? In general, libertarians emphasize political liberty. Because each of us probably knows more about what is and isn’t good for ourselves than others do. We have first person access to our beliefs, our preferences, our desires, our goals, and our values.
Each of us feels the results of our choices directly. Suppose I ate a whole bucket of KFC extra crispy chicken. It’s me who experiences the heartburn and the shame. The knowledge that I’m going to experience the consequences of my actions provides an incentive to make better choices. Now the same cannot be said of complete and total strangers.
Now sure, they can sympathize with my experience. But they still won’t be me. They can’t literally feel my pain, suffer from my miseries, or experience my joys. Now since they can’t experience my life like I do, there’s good reason to doubt that they will be as motivated as I’d be in figuring out what is best for me.
Or in figuring out how best to achieve what I think is best for me. And by allowing individuals to follow their own paths, we create many examples for people to either emulate or avoid. So if you see me keeling over after that bucket of wings, you probably won’t eat a bucket of wings.
But if you see me smiling, which is probably what I would do, you just might. By new ideas and better ways of approaching life’s problems can be explored when individual liberty is the primary political value. Now nobody knows everything. So, it would be short sighted to block the gigantic social experiment that is political liberty.
Even though it comes with the risk that lots of us may choose badly and may end up with harmful outcomes. While few people would actually say they dislike liberty, only libertarians prioritize it in their political Philosophy. Now we may agree that other values are more important than liberty.
And you might persuade me that I should care about family, for example, or tradition more than I do about liberty. But, even if so, we shouldn’t impose those values on one another or on other people. Political liberty permits a diverse set of individuals to chase after what truly matters to them.
We think this is good because it’s how new ideas and better ways of doing things are discovered. Now let’s sum it up. First, liberty means you are free to choose your own good in your own way. Provided you don’t infringe on anyone else. Second, while there are many other very important values, they are often best achieved with political liberty.
Third, an individual is probably a better judge of how to achieve the good life for themselves, then anyone else. And then finally, liberty allows many people to try out many different ways of doing things. This is how newer, better ideas are discovered.