Liberty & Freedom

I have been reading the Englishman John Stuart Mills’s essay On Liberty, first published in 1859. Here is a taste:

Johm Stuart Mill, 1806-1873

The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in…history, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the Government. By Liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived…as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled…The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation is what they meant by liberty.

A current definition of both freedom and liberty shows that freedom accrues to the individual while liberty, as Mill points out, accrues to the community or general population of a polity:

‘Freedom’ (is) an exemption from control by some other person, or from arbitrary restriction of specific defined rights like Worship, or Speech. ‘Liberty’ (is) the sum of the rights possessed in common by the people of a community/state/nation as they apply to its government, and/or the expectation that a nation’s people have of exemption from control by a foreign power. [Source]

Mill goes on to say: Some, whenever they see any good to be done, or evil to be remedied, would willingly instigate the government to undertake the business; while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil, rather than add one to the the departments of human interests amenable to government control.

This is exactly the observation I made to my late father in our sometimes heated political discussions. I drew a rough graph to illustrate my argument, then added a picture of a normal curve below it suggesting he mentally superimpose it on the graph:

As with any ideal “normal” or “bell” curve, 68% of the things measured, in this case attitudes toward my asserted dichotomous “safety/freedom” spectrum, will fall within the first standard deviation. Within this zone around 1/3 of the people will slightly or somewhat prefer safety to freedom and another 1/3 of the people will slightly or somewhat prefer freedom to safety. These are the people who can still talk with each other, in a reasonable tone, about their differences in viewpoint on how much control the government should be allowed over our personal freedom to act and speak, in order to protect us from others.

Following along this line of argument, an additional 28% of the population will fall into the second standard deviation. The people whose attitudes in this realm tend toward one value or the other (safety vs freedom), will have stronger preferences and will make strong, usually emotionally-laden, defense of their respective positions. In this realm 14% of the population will argue heatedly (as dad did) for safety over freedom (although he didn’t see the dichotomy I see), and 14% will argue heatedly for freedom over safety, as I did.

The remaining 4% of the population at the third standard deviation from the middle or mean, 2% at either end of the spectrum, are the outliers within whose ranks one may find the people who will resort to dangerous methods to assert their preference.

My basic point with dad was that these preferences, especially as one one deviates more from the middle of the normal curve, will not be reconciled among people who have opposing viewpoints. These values are too emotionally held to be altered by mere rational argument, on the one hand, or made more convincing by emotional appeal, on the other. It is ironic to me that dad often used to quote to me the following stanzas from William S. Gilbert‘s (of Gilbert & Sullivan) comic opera Iolanthe:

I often think it’s comical/How nature does contrive
That every boy and every gal/That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative

Taking an excursion into another realm to provide some blood for this wordy argument, I offer these:

Eleftheria i thanatos (Greek: “freedom or death”) is the motto of the Hellenic Republic. It arose during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, where it was a war cry for the Greeks who rebelled against Ottoman rule. It was adopted after the Greek War of Independence. It is still in use today, and is symbolically evoked by the use of nine stripes (for the nine syllables of the motto) in the Greek flag. The motto symbolized and still symbolizes the resolve of the people of Greece against Tyranny and oppression. [Source]

Among many other mysteries presented to the reader in The Magus, by John Fowles, is the problem of whether a man has the right even to enter into a contract that entails sacrificing some lives to spare others (even when the murder of three might save 80), which long and terrible scene ends with a Greek cry of “Eleftheria!” [Source]

The last words in today’s blog are from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:

…(T)he sole end for which mankind are (sic) warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any other of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix

Liberty Leading the People – Eugène Delacroix

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Government & Politics, Philosophy & Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Liberty & Freedom

  1. “A current definition of both freedom and liberty shows that freedom accrues to the individual while liberty, as Mill points out, accrues to the community or general population of a polity.”

    Etymologically, it is the other way around.

    Freedom originated from the Germanic. It is related to the word friend. To have freedom meant to belong to a free people, i.e., be among friends who would care for and defend you. Liberty, instead, came from Latin libertas. The context of meaning was that of a slave society, not of a free people. To have liberty was simply to not be a slave while so many others were, and hence the rights you possessed were a privilege rather than a universal birthright. That is why liberty is mixed up with notions of self-ownership, as opposed to being owned by someone else (capital, another Latin-based word, is related to cattle and chattel). On the other hand, freedom is about collective ownership, such as the commons, the loss of which having been a great concern to Thomas Paine.

    One term, freedom, is about community and the other, liberty, is about law. English supposedly is the only language to contain words for both of these concepts. When the United States was founded, there was much talk of ‘liberty’ and freedom was part of the mix, the two sometimes getting conflated. There seems to be many who have reversed their meaning from their etymological origins, and I wonder why that is. I came across another example of this in the past — Oxford-American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2004, p. 534:

    “While independence is usually associated with countries or nations, freedom and liberty more often apply to individuals. But unlike freedom, which implies an absence of restraint or compulsion (the freedom to speak openly), liberty implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained (the liberty to select their own form of government).”

    I wonder how that reversal happened. A possible reason is the context of meaning that each word takes for granted. Freedom is associated with individualism for the very reason that community is the background to or foundation of freedom, the worldview within which the free individual acts. But as liberty is about the individual, it is a set of individuals who through collective action can choose a government of liberty. No one can choose a government of freedom for the simple reason that it is an inheritance that one is born into or not with no choice being possible or maybe even imaginable. The social aspect of freedom goes unseen and so it became forgotten in its usage by many.

    Interestingly, a little bit later, a different word came to dominate in the English-speaking world. It was ‘fairness’. It was during this period that New Zealand was founded. This is one explanation why, unlike the US, New Zealand is based on fairness. That is another word that comes from the linguistic worldview of freedom. It’s impossible to live freely as a member of a free people if you aren’t treated fairly. So, fairness has taken on some of the meaning lost to freedom, at least in the Anglo-American usage. But I still sense the older meaning clinging to the roots of freedom, no matter how it sometimes gets obscured.

    Anyway, these words represent ideological worldviews. That gets to the point you were making. It’s not something that can be resolved through rational debate.

    There is a long discussion in the comments section of one post of mine in relation to the American founding documents:
    Here is a post where I compare the three terms:
    And you might enjoy this post that brings in the Jaynesian perspective:
    But I’ve brought this kind of thing up in other posts as well:


    • Ron Pavellas says:

      It being New Year’s Day, and with nothing screaming at me to read or write or fix around the house, I will take pleasure in exploring these offerings. Thanks, and best wishes for 2019. However, perhaps my wife and I will visit Artipelag (


      • I went to the website you linked. Going by the picture, it looks like a beautiful location. I have nothing quite so impressive to visit here in eastern Iowa. But I did enjoy visiting with friends last night. I finished up my above comment right when they were arriving.

        So, have a good year back at ya. I feel pretty positive about this new year.

        Along with my parents, I made some major dietary changes. My dad and I both are doing a modified paleo diet that leans toward traditional foods, and we have both loss weight. My mom decided to try the FODMAP diet which cleared up her acid reflux and other symptoms.

        The biggest thing for me is that, for the first time in decades, my mood feels better. I can’t say I feel overwhelmed with happiness or anything. But since I started my present diet, I no longer have deep depressive funks that last days or weeks. That is a good start to a new year.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        Well, we ended up going back to bed to sleep, having been deprived of sleep during our return from visiting relatives in the USA. We barely stayed awake to greet the New Year. Re: diet, my friend Fred (may he RIP*) asserted that the right foods for an individual arise from the location of his genetic ancestors. Most of my genes are from Greece, Italy, and Anatolia, with a dollop of northwestern Europe. ‘Mediterranean’ would, therefore, seem a good diet for me; but I grow fat from eating wheat. Read “Wheat Belly,” by Willam Davis, MD.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m somewhat familiar with Davis’ writings on wheat. I’m not sure exactly how ancestry might effect my diet, since my ancestry is mixed. But it appears much of my ancestry came from northwestern Europe. Then again, even as there is higher milk tolerance in that region, I had a milk allergy as a child. I limit myself to some ghee, raw aged cheese, and goat kefir. Most important for my depression seems to be limiting sugar and carbs by replacing them with healthy fats and nutrient-dense foods. I just don’t handle well the standard high-carb-and-sugar diet, and I’m not sure anyone really handles it well if the harm isn’t always as obvious for some.


    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Without having yet fully read and absorbed your response, memory tickles me to report that when I was in the US Navy (1954-58) as an enlisted man, we were allowed to “go on liberty” when we reached a port, if we hadn’t misbehaved while at sea.


      • That usage does seem to echo its etymology. It’s similar as “taking liberties”. My sense is that liberty often refers to something outside of oneself. Unlike how one can be free, one can’t be libertied or whatever.

        Liberty is something you are given or you take or else something you do. There is a more active element to liberty because you can only know you have liberty by using it. OTOH freedom is more about identity and relationship, and so points to the state or condition of something.

        It’s similar to why we can speak of a market being free or a will being free, not libertied. Liberty often refers to government, law, and other similar things. It’s a formal status. And that was quite literal in the usage of the Navy command allowing you to “go on liberty”, within the hierarchical constraints of Naval rules and procedures.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.