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It’s not easy to define liberty, or freedom. Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, said, “Freedom is the absence of man-concocted restraints against the release of creative energy.” The Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek referred to “a state in which each can use his knowledge for his purpose” and also to “the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways.” Perhaps it’s best to understand liberty as the absence of physical force or the threat of physical force. John Locke offered this definition of liberty under the rule of law:
The end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of Laws, where there is no Law, there is no Freedom. For Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others which cannot be, where there is no Law: But Freedom is not, as we are told, A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.
That is, a free person is not “subject to the arbitrary will of another” and is free to do as she chooses with her own person and property. But you can only have those freedoms when the law protects everyone’s freedom. Thus the Students for Liberty reworked the American revolutionary slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” as “Don’t Tread on Anyone,” and other libertarians have employed “Don’t Tread on Others.”
However we define liberty, we can certainly recognize aspects of it. Liberty means respecting the moral autonomy of each person, seeing each person as the owner of her own life, and each free to make the important decisions about her life.
Liberty allows each of us to define the meaning of life, to define what’s important to us. And thus each of us should be free to think, to speak, to write, to create, to marry, to eat and drink and smoke, to start and run a business, to associate with others as we choose. When we are free, we can construct our lives as we see fit.
The social consequences of liberty are equally desirable. Liberty leads to social harmony. We have less conflict when we have fewer specific commands and prohibitions about how we should live—in terms of class or caste, religion, dress, lifestyle, or schools.
Economic freedom means that people are free to produce and to exchange with others. Freely negotiated and agreed-upon prices carry information throughout the economy about what people want and what can be done more efficiently. For an economic order to function, prices must be free to tell the truth. A free economy gives people incentives to invent, innovate, and produce more goods and services for the whole society. That means more satisfaction of more wants, more economic growth, and a higher standard of living for everyone.
That process has taken us in barely 250 years of economic freedom from the back-breaking labor and short life expectancy that were the natural lot of mankind since time immemorial to the abundance we see around us today in more and more parts of the world (though not yet enough of the world).
Not everyone realizes just how poor the world was for so long. The living standard we enjoy today did not build steadily over the centuries. In fact, average GDP per capita—the standard of living of the average person in the world—was essentially stagnant from the year 0, or maybe even from 10,000 years before that, until around 1700 in northern Europe. And then a wealth explosion happened: Real income per person grew by a factor of 10, 20, maybe even 100 in the space of three centuries, first in northwestern Europe and the United States and then in more parts of the world.
What’s changed, to make us so much wealthier? Freedom. A political system of liberty gives us the opportunity to use our talents and to cooperate with others to create and produce, with the help of a few simple institutions that protect our rights. And those simple institutions—property rights, the rule of law, a prohibition on the initiation of force—make possible invention, innovation, and progress in commerce, technology, medicine, and styles of living. When we defend limited government, we are defending freedom and the progress it brings.
When we talk about being wealthier than our ancestors, we don’t mean having more cars or bigger televisions. We mean living in a world where most of our children don’t die, where very few women die in childbirth, where we worry about obesity rather than starvation, where medical problems that once killed kings and millionaires can now be dealt with routinely in every hospital.
Liberty – and the liberal ideas that help to bring it about – also encourage moral progress. A huge step for moral progress was the dawning recognition that it is better to trade with others than to assault them and take their property. I often point out that we learn in kindergarten the rules that make for a peaceful and prosperous society: Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.
More than libertarians often acknowledge, we live in a world of freedom and progress. We have extended the promises of the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to people to whom they had long been denied, from serfs and peasants and oppressed masses around the world to African-Americans, women, and LGBT people in the United States. More people in more countries than ever before in history enjoy religious freedom, personal freedom, democratic governance, the freedom to own and trade property, the chance to start a business, equal rights, civility, respect, and a longer life expectancy. War, disease, violence, slavery, and inhumanity have been dramatically reduced. That’s progress, and it’s due to liberty and the advocacy of liberal or libertarian ideas.
Two hundred and fifty years ago Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, on an urgent mission for American independence, stopped at an inn and were forced to share a bed, as most travelers did in those days. A century ago one of the richest men in the world, a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, died at 51 of complications from an appendectomy. Just 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy’s baby Patrick was born prematurely with a breathing problem that today would be trivial — would be cared for routinely in any hospital in the United States and in most hospitals around the world. But the president’s baby died. The progress possible in liberty has changed our world.
More recently the spread of property rights and market institutions to China, India, Latin America, and lately Africa has helped to bring more than 1.25 billion people out of extreme poverty in the past 25 years. That’s progress. But there are another billion people still in extreme poverty who need the liberty to create and trade.
I was asked once by some skeptics what has been the most important libertarian accomplishment ever. I thought for a moment and said, “the abolition of slavery.” They said, “OK, name another.” I thought the abolition of slavery was pretty good! I thought if you had the abolition of slavery on your resume, you were prepared to meet your maker. But they said, “name another.” So I thought about it a little more carefully, and I said, “bringing power under the rule of law.”
We liberals have been fighting ignorance, superstition, privilege, and power for many centuries. The philosophy of liberty has in different forms inspired people throughout history who fought for freedom, dignity, and individual rights—the early advocates of religious tolerance, the opponents of feudalism and absolute monarchy, the American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, antiwar and anti-imperialist advocates, opponents of fascism, apartheid, National Socialism, and communism.
But the battle is not over. Ideas we thought were dead are back: socialism, protectionism, ethnic nationalism, anti-Semitism, the longing for a strongman. Even, for God’s sake, industrial policy. With illiberalism rising on both left and right, with threats to liberty, democracy, trade, growth, and even peace, libertarians and classical liberals must defend the broad center of peaceful and productive people in a society of liberty under law.
David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. His books include The Libertarian Mind, The Libertarian Reader, Toward Liberty, and The Cato Handbook for Policymakers.