All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1962

Defining Freedom

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion.

Freedom cannot be successfully defended in practice by a people who are uncertain about the theory of freedom. Freedom’s first line of defense is correct under­standing, and an important part of understanding—  whatever the subject matter—  is proper defini­tion. Attacks on freedom by its enemies are promptly recognized, and tend to rally freedom’s friends to its defense. Defective defini­tions of freedom by its friends, on the other hand, may do the cause infinite damage; their faulty explanations of freedom may succeed only in explaining it away.

Rigorous definition is never simple or easy, and there is a sort of Gresham‘s Law at work in the intellectual sphere: Over-simpli­fied explanations tend to drive out the complex and gain popular ac­ceptance for themselves. Nature always seeks out the hidden flaw, and a bad definition is a crack through which good ideas may leak away.

Freedom is a complicated sub­ject. How, otherwise, can we ac­count for the fact that human be­ings have enjoyed so little of it in the course of their checkered history upon this planet? In try­ing to explain the limited amount of freedom they have enjoyed, men have concocted scores of mu­tually inconsistent definitions of it. The most popular definition of freedom, the one that comes first to mind, is, as we would expect, also the simplest: “Freedom is the absence of restraint.” Noth­ing, at first glance, sounds more straightforward, but analysis re­veals that the freedom so defined is equally compatible with un­freedom. “Unrestraint” is the ab­sence of restraint, unquestionably, but is mere “unrestraint” to be equated with human freedom?

Inner Psychological vs. Outer Sociological Restraints

Restraints fall into two major categories; outer or sociological, and inner or psychological. It fol­lows, then, that ideal “freedom” (of the sort envisioned by the above definition) is the course of conduct which results when a sud­den whim or caprice, meeting no psychological checks within, is immediately obeyed and carried through to a conclusion without external hindrances. A man is “free”—  according to the above definition—  when his impulses are given uninhibited expression. For instance, a man is seized by an urge to heave a bottle of cham­pagne into the chandelier and does so forthwith. When asked to ex­plain his actions, he replies: “Well, it just seemed like a good thing to do at the time.” This is certainly unrestrained action, and in terms of the above definition, the bottle thrower is the free man par excellence.

Some of us would want to raise a few questions about the so-called freedom of the man whose spontaneous impulse results in this kind of conduct—  even though it was his own bottle heaved into his own chandelier in an otherwise empty room. A man who is incapable of resisting his own impulses, who is under the sway of “the dark gods of the blood,” whose higher faculties of reason and will are no longer in control of the decision-making process does not conform to our picture of a free man. Quite the contrary!  He is a man suffering from an emotional derangement, a man who can only react, having lost the power to act. Initiative is out of his hands and he is a thing moved rather than a free agent. Political liberty he may have, if he inhabits a free society, but it stretches a point to the breaking to regard him as a fully free man. Inner restraints are those which a man imposes on himself. Ran­dom impulses, urges, compulsions, twitches, and tics are sorted, graded, and policed—  so to speak—  by the will, the intelligence, and the higher sensibilities. When the intelligence fails, or the will caves in, or judgment is lacking, the in­dividual has lost control of him­self; something else has taken charge, and he is not free in any intelligible meaning of that word.

Let’s leave the inner world to the psychologists and move into the outer world, back into the room with our bottle thrower. The definition we are analyzing stipulates no conditions except “absence of restraint.” Suppose now that the bottle thrower is not alone in his own home; he throws someone else’s bottle of cham­pagne, in another man’s house, and in a roomful of people. He is unrestrained, in other words, by respect for the property and per­sons of other people. And if free­dom is simply “absence of re­straint”—  as this definition holds—  then a man who is restrained by a due respect for the rights of other men to their persons and their property is not free!

Rather than freedom being the mere absence of restraints we be­gin to see that freedom is indeed the acknowledgment of certain kinds of restraints—  or con­straints. Inwardly, a man is free when he is self-determined and self-controlling. Outwardly, a man is free in society—  enjoys politi­cal liberty—  when the limitations he accepts for his own actions are no greater than needed to meet the requirement that every other individual have like liberty.

The Classic Liberals sought a Law of Equal Liberty: Each man is free to do whatever does not impair the equal freedom of any other man. This rule is based on the assumption that each person has prerogatives which no other may impair, such personal im­munities being usually spoken of as “rights.” Ethical behavior is conduct which respects these “rights”; and the law properly comes into play whenever these “rights” are violated. There can be no genuine freedom unless men generally recognize the limita­tions placed on each man’s actions by consideration for the persons and property of other men.1

Such consideration is virtually an acknowledgment of a moral order. Men are swayed by instinct and impulse, as are animals, but in addition, they are equipped with the means of checking these drives in order to permit a moral imperative to come into play. “Ought” plays a role in human life which has no counterpart in the animal world. “I want to do this but I ought to do that,” voices a common phase of the decision-making process. The “ought” does not always win out, because human motivation is ex­ceedingly complex. But duty and obligation do exert a restraining influence on impulse and interest, and individual liberty fares ill when men refuse to acknowledge the restraints imposed by the ex­istence of a moral order.

Contract vs. Status

Then there are contracts. In the older societies of status, where each man had an assigned place in the hierarchy—  the level on which his ancestors had lived—the idea of individual liberty had rough going. It was only when status gave way to contract that men had the freedom to move up or down the social ladder accord­ing to ability, to seek that place in society which accorded with their peers’ judgment of individ­ual merit. A contract society and the system of liberty are, for all practical purposes, equivalent terms. A contract is a give-and-take arrangement, and so, while one side of the contract equation may open up opportunities, the other imposes restraints. John Doe borrows money today and lives it up for the next six months. His note comes due a year from today and he has a legal, as well as a moral, obligation to meet its terms, however much they might seem to cramp his style. Modern society is sustained by an intri­cate network of contracts in which each of us is enmeshed. Their terms restrain us at a score of points; but unless we willingly embrace these restraints, we lend our weight to society’s slide back into a condition of status. Con­tractual restraints are a condition of individual liberty.

The view which defines liberty as the mere “absence of restraint” may be well-meaning, but that is the best one can say about it. It is a definition which permits, and even encourages, the substance of liberty to leak away. It under­mines the sanctity of person and property, it ignores the moral order, and it undercuts the system of contracts. The truly free man is not a captive of his impulses; he controls his own actions so as not to impair the equal rights of others to their persons and their property; he is constrained by moral considerations; and he is meticulous about his contractual obligations. Such a pattern of conduct is not accurately de­scribed by the simple label, “un­restrained.” 

Foot Notes

1 Liberty does not and cannot include any action, regardless of sponsorship, which lessens the liberty of a single hu­man being.” Leonard E. Read, Govern­ment—An Ideal Concept (Irvington-on­Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1954).

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.