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…