The difficulty of defining “freedom”: Bruno Leoni

Abraham Lincoln, in a speech at Baltimore in 1864, recognized both the difficulty of defining “freedom” and the fact that the Civil War between the North and the South was based, in a way, on a misunderstanding related to that word. “The world,” he said, “has never had a good definition of the word “liberty.” . . . In using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.”

In fact, it is not easy to define “freedom” or to be aware completely of what we are doing when we define it. If we want to define “freedom,” we must first decide the purpose of our definition. A “realistic” approach removes the preliminary problem: “freedom” is something that is simply “there,” and the only question is to find the proper words to describe it.

An example of a “realistic” definition of freedom is that given by Lord Acton at the beginning of his History of Freedom: “By liberty I mean assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.” Many critics would say that there is no reason to call “freedom” only the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty, and not, for example, his right or his pleasure; nor is there any reason to say that this protection ought to be assured only against majorities or authority, and not against minorities and individual citizens.

As a matter of fact, when Lord Acton, at Bridgenorth in 1877, delivered his famous lectures on the history of freedom, the respect accorded to religious minorities by the English authorities and the English majority was still one of the big issues of the political life of the Victorian age in the United Kingdom. With the abrogation of such discriminatory laws as the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Act of 1673, and with the admission, in 1870, of the Protestant Dissenters and of the Catholics (the Papists, as they were called) to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the so-called Free Churches had just won a battle that had lasted two centuries. Previously these universities had been open only to students belonging to the Reformed Church of England. Lord Acton, as is known, was himself a Catholic and for this reason had been prevented, much against his will, from attending Cambridge. The “freedom” he had in mind was the freedom that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the most famous of his slogans, called “freedom of religion.” Lord Acton, as a Catholic, belonged to a religious minority at a time when respect for religious minorities in England was beginning to prevail against the hostility of the Anglican majorities and against such acts of the legal authority as, say, the Corporation Act. Thus, what he meant by “freedom” was religious freedom. Most probably this was also what the members of the Free Churches in the United Kingdom and many other people in the Victorian age meant by “freedom”“a term that was then obviously connected, among other things, with legal technicalities like the Corporation Act or the Test Act. But what Lord Acton did in his lectures was to present his idea of “freedom” as freedom tout court.

This happens quite frequently. The history of political ideas evinces a series of definitions such as the one given by Lord Acton.

A more careful approach to the problem of defining “freedom” would involve a preliminary inquiry. “Freedom” is first of all a word. I would not go so far as to say that it is only a word, as several representatives of the contemporary analytical school, in their self-styled philosophical revolution, might maintain. Thinkers who begin by asserting that something is simply a word and conclude that it is nothing but a word remind me of the saying that one must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

But the very fact that “freedom” is first of all a word calls, I think, for some preliminary linguistic remarks.

Linguistic analysis has received increasing attention in certain quarters, especially after the Second World War, but it is not yet very popular. Many people do not like it or do not bother about it. Learned men not devoted to philosophical or philological matters are more or less inclined to think of it as an idle occupation. Neither can we receive much encouragement from the example of the contemporary analytical school of philosophers. After having focused their attention on linguistic problems and made the latter the center of their research, they seem more inclined, instead of analyzing, to destroy altogether the very meaning of the words belonging to the vocabulary of politics. Moreover, linguistic analysis is not easy. But I would suggest that it is particularly necessary in these times of semantic confusion.

When we try to define or simply to name what is generally called a “material” thing, we find it rather easy to be understood by our listeners. Should uncertainty arise about the meaning of our words, it would be sufficient, in order to eliminate the misunderstanding, simply to point to the thing we are naming or defining. Thus, two different words referring to the same thing and used respectively by us and by our listener would prove equivalent. We could substitute one word for the other, whether we speak the same language as our listener (as we do in the case of synonyms) or different languages (as we do in the case of translations).

This simple method of pointing out material things is the basis of all conversation among people who speak different languages or among people who speak a language and those who do not yet speak it” e.g., children. It was this that made it possible for early European explorers to make themselves understood by the inhabitants of other parts of the world and that still makes it possible for thousands of contemporary American tourists to spend their holidays, say, in Italy without knowing a word of Italian. In spite of this ignorance on their part they are understood perfectly for many practical purposes by Italian waiters, taxi drivers, and porters. The common factor in conversation is the possibility of pointing to material things like food, luggage, and so on. Of course, it is not always possible to point out the material things we refer to by our words. But whenever two different words refer to material things, they prove easily interchangeable. Natural scientists agree quite easily about the use of words designating newly discovered phenomena. Usually they choose Greek or Latin words, and their method is successful, since uncertainty can be avoided by pointing out which phenomena are designated by these words.

This calls to mind the wisdom of the reply made by an old Confucian pedagogue to his heavenly disciple, a very young Chinese emperor who had been asked by his teacher the name of some animals they met while taking a walk through the countryside. The young emperor replied, “They are sheep.”

“The Son of Heaven is perfectly right,” the pedagogue said politely. “I must add only that these kinds of sheep are usually called pigs.”

Unfortunately, much greater difficulty arises if we try to define things that are not material and if our listener does not know the meaning of the word we are using. In such a case we cannot point out to him any material object. Our way of understanding each other is completely different and it is necessary to resort to altogether different ways of discovering a common factor, if any, between our language and his. Banal and self-evident as it appears, this fact is probably not noticed, or at least it is not emphasized sufficiently, when we consider the use of our language. We are so accustomed to our vocabularies that we forget the importance we attached to pointing out things at the beginning of our learning process. We are inclined to think of our linguistic achievements mainly in terms of definitions simply read in a book. On the other hand, as many of these definitions refer to material things, we often behave as if nonmaterial things were simply “there” and as if it were only a question of attaching to them a verbal definition.

This explains certain metaphysical trends among those ancient Greek philosophers who treated nonmaterial things—justice, for example—as if they were similar to visible, material things. It also explains more recent attempts to define the “law” or the “state” as if they were entities like the sun or the moon. As Professor Glanville Williams points out in his recent essay (1945) on the controversy concerning the word “law,” the English jurist John Austin, the celebrated founder of jurisprudence, maintained that his definition of “law” corresponded to “law properly defined,” without having the least doubt that there exists such a thing as “the law properly defined.” In our day a view rather similar to that of Austin has been advanced by the well-known Professor Hans Kelsen, who boasted in his General Theory of Law and the State (1947) and still boasts of discovering that what is “properly called” the “State” is nothing but the legal order.

The naive belief that nonmaterial things can easily be defined comes to an abrupt end as soon as we try to translate, for instance into Italian or French, legal terms like “trust,” “equity,” or “common law.” In all these cases not only are we unable to point to any material thing that would permit an Italian or a Frenchman or a German to understand what we mean, but we can find no Italian, French, or German dictionary that will give us the corresponding words in these languages. Thus, we feel that something has been lost in passing from one language to the other. As a matter of fact, nothing has been lost. The problem is that neither the French nor the Italians nor the Germans have exactly such concepts as those denoted by the English words “trust,” “equity,” and “common law.” In a certain sense, “trust,” “equity,” and “common law” are entities, but as neither the Americans nor the English can simply point them out to the French or to the Italians, it is difficult for the former to be understood by the latter in this respect.

It is this fact that still renders it practically impossible to translate an English or American legal book into German or Italian. Many words could not be translated into corresponding words because the latter are simply nonexistent. Instead of a translation, it would be necessary to supply a long, cumbrous, and complicated explanation of the historical origin of many institutions, their present way of working in Anglo-Saxon countries, and the analogous working of similar institutions, if any, in Continental Europe. In turn, the Europeans could not point out to the Americans or to the English anything material to indicate a conseil d’état, a préfecture, a cour de cassation, a corte costituzionale, or the like.

These words are often so firmly rooted in one definite historical environment that we cannot find corresponding words in the language of other environments.

Of course, students of comparative law have attempted on several occasions to bridge the gap between the European and the Anglo-Saxon legal traditions. For instance, there is the very recent essay included in the Bibliographical Guide to the Law of the United Kingdom, published by the London Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and devoted mainly to foreign scholars, that is, to the students of “civil law.” But an essay is not a dictionary, and this is precisely the point I am making.

Thus, reciprocal ignorance is the result of different institutions in different countries, and historical ignorance is the result of changing institutions within the same country. As Sir Carleton Kemp Allen reminds us in his recent book, Aspects of Justice (1958), most English reports of medieval cases are now simply unreadable, not only because they are written—as he so wittily puts it—in “dog Latin” and “bitch French,” but also because the English (and everybody else) lack the corresponding institutions.

Unfortunately, this is not the only difficulty of being unable to point to material things in the definition of legal concepts. Words that have apparently the same sound may have completely different meanings relating to different times and places.

This is often the case with nontechnical words or with words originally having a technical use, but which were introduced into everyday language rather carelessly without paying heed to their technical sense or without even recognizing it. If it is unfortunate that strictly technical words, such as those belonging, for instance, to legal language, cannot be translated at all into corresponding words in other languages, it is even more unfortunate that nontechnical or half-technical words can be translated only too easily into other words in the same language or into cognate words of other languages that have a similar sound. In the first case a confusion is created between words that actually are not synonyms, while in the latter case people speaking a different language think that the meaning they attach to a word in their language corresponds to the different meaning you attach to an apparently similar word in yours.

Many terms belonging both to the language of economics and to the language of politics are typical in this respect. The German philosopher Hegel once said that anyone can determine the suitability of a legal institution without being a lawyer, just as  anyone, without being a shoemaker, can decide whether a pair of shoes is suitable for his feet or not. This does not seem to apply to all legal institutions. Few people actually are suspicious and inquisitive about the framework of such legal institutions as contracts, evidence, etc. But many people think that political and economic institutions are just their business. They suggest, for instance, that governments must adopt or reject this or that policy in order to redress, say, the economic situation of a country or to modify the terms of international trade or both.

All these people use what we call “ordinary language,” which includes many words that belonged originally to such technical vocabularies as the language of law or of economics. These languages use terms in a definite and unambiguous way. But as soon as such technical words are introduced into ordinary language, they quickly become nontechnical or half-technical words (I use the word “half” as in the expression “half-baked”), because no one bothers to recognize their original meaning in the technical languages or to fix upon a new meaning for them in ordinary language.

When, for instance, people speak of “inflation” in America, they usually mean an increase in prices. Yet until quite recently people usually meant by “inflation” (and they still mean this in Italy) an increase in the quantity of money circulating in a country. Thus, the semantic confusion that can arise from the ambiguous use of this originally technical word is bitterly regretted by those economists who, like Professor Ludwig von Mises, hold that the increase in prices is the consequence of the increase in the quantity of money circulating in the country. The use of the same word, “inflation,” to mean different things is considered by these economists as an inducement to confuse a cause with its effects and to adopt an incorrect remedy.

Another striking instance of a similar confusion is offered by the contemporary use of the word “democracy” in several countries and by different people. This word belongs to the language of politics and of the history of political institutions. Now it belongs also to ordinary language, and this is the reason why a great deal of misunderstanding arises at present among people using the same word with completely different meanings—say, the man in the street in America and the political rulers in Russia.
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I would suggest that a special reason why the meanings of half-technical words tend to be confused is that within technical languages (such as that of politics) the meaning of these words was originally connected with other technical words that often have not been introduced into ordinary language for the simple reason that they could not be translated easily or at all. Thus, applications that gave an unequivocal meaning to the original use of a word have been lost.

“Democracy,” for instance, was a term belonging to the language of politics in Greece at the time of Pericles. We cannot understand its meaning without referring to such technical terms as polis, demos, ecclesia, isonomia, and so on, just as we cannot understand the meaning of contemporary Swiss “democracy” without referring to such technical terms as Landsgemeinde, referendum, etc. We notice that words like ecclesia, polis, Landsgemeinde, and referendum are usually quoted in other languages without being translated because there are no satisfactory words for that purpose.

Lacking their original connection with technical words, half-technical or nontechnical terms often go adrift in ordinary language. Their meaning can change according to the people using them, although their sound is always the same. To make matters worse, several meanings of the same word may prove mutually incompatible in some respects, and this is a continual source not only of misunderstandings, but also of verbal disputes or worse.

Political and economic affairs are the main victims of this semantic confusion, when, for instance, several types of behavior implied by different meanings of the same word prove to be mutually incompatible and attempts are made to grant them all a place in the same legal and political system.

I do not say that this confusion, which is one of the most obvious characteristics of the history of the countries of the West at the present time, is semantic only, but it is also semantic. Men such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek have pointed out on several occasions the necessity of removing semantic confusions, not only for economists but for political scientists as well. It is a very important task for learned people to collaborate in the elimination of semantic confusion in the language of politics no less than in that of economics. Of course, this confusion, as Professor [34] Mises frankly recognizes, is not always fortuitous, but corresponds in several instances to certain mischievous plans on the part of those who try to exploit the familiar sound of favorite words like “democracy” in order to convince others to adopt new forms of behavior.2 But this is probably not the only explanation of a complex phenomenon that manifests itself all over the world.

I am reminded of what Leibniz once said about the way our civilization is threatened by the fact that after the invention of the printing press too many books might be written and diffused and too few would be actually read by each individual, with the probable result that the world could be plunged into a new era of barbarism.

As a matter of fact, many writers, chiefly philosophers, have contributed much to semantic confusion. Some of them have used words taken from ordinary language and given them odd meanings. In many cases they never bothered to state what they actually meant by using a word, or they gave rather arbitrary definitions that were at variance with those in the dictionaries, but that were accepted by readers and disciples. This practice has contributed, at least to some extent, to the confusion of the meanings accepted in ordinary language.

In many cases these definitions, purportedly more accurate and profound than the usual ones, were simply presented as the result of an inquiry about the nature of the mysterious “thing” that the writers wanted to define. Because of the connections between ethical and political subjects, on the one hand, and between economic and ethical subjects, on the other, some philosophers contributed, consciously or not, to an increase in the huge stock of semantic confusion and to the contradictions between the meanings of words in the ordinary language of today.

All that I have said on this topic applies as well to the word “freedom” and to its Latin synonym “liberty,” and to certain derivative terms such as “liberal” and “liberalism.”

It is not possible to point to a material “thing” when we refer to “freedom” in ordinary language or in the technical languages of economics and of politics to which this word belongs. Moreover, this word has different meanings according to the historical environments in which it has been used in both ordinary language and the technical languages of politics and of economics. We cannot understand, for example, the meaning of the Latin term libertas without making reference to such technical terms of the Roman language of politics as res publica or jus civitatis or to some other technical terms like manus (which designated the power of the patres familias over their wives, children, slaves, land, chattels, and so on) or manumissio, which designated the legal act—or rather the legal ceremony—by which a slave changed his status and became libertus. On the other hand, we cannot understand the meaning of “freedom” in the language of politics of modern England without referring to such other technical terms as habeas corpus or the rule of law, which have never been translated, so far as I know, into exactly corresponding words in other languages.

Regardless of its technical implications, the word “freedom” entered very early into the ordinary languages of Western countries. This implied sooner or later a disconnection of the word itself from several technical terms belonging to the legal or to the political language of these countries. Finally, in the past hundred years the word “freedom” seems to have begun to float unanchored (as a contemporary author might say). Semantic changes have been introduced at will by a number of different people in different places. Many new meanings have been proposed by philosophers that are at variance with the meanings already accepted in the ordinary languages of the West. Shrewd people have tried to exploit the favorable connotations of this word in order to persuade others to change their corresponding ways of behaving into new and even contrary ones. Confusions arose whose number and gravity have increased as the various uses of the word “freedom” in philosophy, economics, politics, morality, and so on, have become more numerous and serious.

The very word free, to take a trivial example, in its use in ordinary English, may or may not correspond to the French word libre or to the Italian libero. Of course, the Italians and the French attach to this word several meanings that correspond to the English and the American ones, such as when it is said that the American Negro became “free”—that is, was no longer in bondage—after the Civil War. However, neither the French nor the Italians ever use libre or libero in the same way as the English and the Americans use “free” to mean, for instance, that something is gratuitous.

It has become usual, especially in modern times, to speak of freedom as one of the basic principles of good political systems. The meaning of “freedom” as it is used to define or simply to name that principle is not at all the same in the ordinary language of each country. When, for instance, Colonel Nasser or the Algerian fellagha speak today of their “freedoms” or of the “freedom” of their countries, they are referring only, or also, to something that is completely different from what the Founding Fathers meant in the Declaration of Independence and in the first ten amendments to the American Constitution. Not all Americans are inclined to recognize this fact. I cannot agree with writers like Chester Bowles, who apparently maintains in his recent book, New Dimensions of Peace (London, 1956), that there is little or no difference in this respect between the political attitude of the English settlers in the American colonies of the British Crown and that of such people as the Africans, the Indians, or the Chinese, who are now praising “freedom” in their respective countries.

The English and American political systems have been imitated to a certain extent, and are imitated still in many respects, by all the peoples of the world. European nations have contrived some very good-looking imitations of these systems, and this is also due to the fact that their history and their civilization were somewhat similar to those of the English-speaking peoples. Many European countries, imitated now in their turn by their former colonies all over the world, have introduced into their political systems something similar to the English Parliament or to the American Constitution and thus flatter themselves that they have political “freedom” of the kind presently enjoyed by the English or the Americans or which these countries once enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, even in countries which have, as Italy does, for example, the oldest European civilization, “freedom” as a political principle means something different from what it would mean if it were actually connected, as it is in both England and [37] the United States, with the institution of habeas corpus or with the first ten amendments to the American Constitution. The rules may seem to be almost the same, but they do not work in the same way. Neither the citizens nor the officials interpret them as the English or the Americans do, the resulting practice being rather different in many respects.

I can find no better example of what I mean here than the fact that in England and the United States criminal cases must be settled—and are actually settled—by “a speedy and public trial” (as called for in the Sixth Amendment to the American Constitution). In other countries, including Italy, notwithstanding laws such as certain special articles (e.g., 272) of the Italian Codice di Procedura Penale that contain several provisions relating to persons suspected of a crime and kept in prison awaiting trial, a man who has been held to answer for a crime may stay in prison for as much as one or two years. When at last he is found guilty and condemned, he perhaps must be set free immediately since he has already spent in prison all the time of his sentence. Of course, if he is proved not guilty, no one can restore to him the years lost in jail. One is sometimes told that in Italy the judges are not sufficiently numerous and that the organization of the trials probably is not so efficient as it could be, but public opinion is obviously not alert or active enough to denounce these defects of the judiciary system, which do not appear so clearly incompatible with the principle of political freedom as they would to public opinion in England or the United States.

“Freedom,” then, as a term designating a general political principle, may have only apparently similar meanings for different political systems. It must be pointed out also that this word may have different meanings and different implications at different times in the history of the same legal system, and, what is even more striking, it may have different meanings at the same time in the same system under different circumstances and for different people.

An example of the first case is provided by the history of military conscription in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Until comparatively recent times, military conscription, at least in time of peace, was considered both by the English and by the American people as incompatible with political freedom. On the other  hand, Continental Europeans such as the French or the Germans (or the Italians since the second half of the nineteenth century) considered it almost self-evident that they had to accept military conscription as a necessary feature of their political systems without even wondering whether the latter could still therefore be called “free.” My father—who was Italian—used to tell me that when he went to England for the first time in 1912, he asked his English friends why they had no military conscription, confronted as they were with the fact that Germany had become a redoubtable military power. He always received the same proud reply: “Because we are a free people.” If my father could visit the English or the Americans again, the man in the street would not say to him that because there is military conscription these countries are no longer “free.” The meaning of political freedom in these nations has simply changed in the meantime. Because of these changes, connections which were taken for granted before are now lost, and contradictions appear which are strange enough to the technicians, but which other people accept unconsciously or even willingly as natural ingredients of their political or economic system.

Unprecedented legal powers conferred upon trade unions both in the United States and in the United Kingdom today are a good example of what I mean by “contradictions” in this respect. In the language employed by the Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Lord MacDermott, in his recent Hamlin Lectures (1957), the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 “put trade unionism in the same privileged position which the British Crown enjoyed until ten years ago in respect to wrongful acts committed in its behalf.” This law accorded protection to a series of acts committed in pursuance of an agreement or combination by two or more people in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute which had been always actionable before—for example, acts inducing the breach of a contract of service or interfering with the trade, business, or employment of some other person or with the right of some other person to dispose of his capital or of his labor as he wishes. As Lord MacDermott points out, this is a broad provision and can be used to cover acts which are done outside the trade or employment involved and which must inevitably cause loss or hardship to interests having no part in the  dispute. Another statute, the Trade Union Act of 1913, repealed by another Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act in 1927, but fully restored by the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1946 when the Labour Party had returned to office, gave British trade unions an enormous political power over their members and also over the whole political life of that country by authorizing the unions to spend the money of their members for purposes not directly related to trade and without even consulting the members themselves about what they actually wanted done with their money.

Before the passage of these Trade Union Acts there was no doubt that the meaning of political “freedom” in England was connected with the equal protection of the law, accorded, against the constraint of anyone, to everyone to dispose of his capital or of his labor as he pleased. Since the enactment of these statutes in Great Britain there is no longer protection against everyone in this respect, and there is no doubt that this fact has introduced a striking contradiction in the system so far as freedom and its meaning are concerned. If you are now a citizen of the British Isles, you are “free” to dispose of your capital and of your labor in dealing with individuals, but you are no longer free to do so in dealing with people who belong to trade unions or who act in behalf of trade unions.

In the United States, by virtue of the Adamson Act of 1916, as Orval Watts writes in his brilliant study of Union Monopoly, the Federal government for the first time used its police power to do what the unions probably “could not have accomplished without a long and costly struggle.” The subsequent Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, in a certain sense the American counterpart of the English Trade Union Act of 1906, restricted federal judges in their use of injunctions in labor disputes. Injunctions in American and English law are court orders that certain people shall not do certain things which would cause a loss that could not be remedied later by a damage suit. As Watts pointed out, “injunctions do not make the law. They merely apply principles of laws already on the statute books, and labor unions often use them for this purpose against employers and against rival unions.” Originally, injunctions were usually issued by federal judges in favor of employers whenever a large number of people with  small means could cause damage with an unlawful purpose and by unlawful acts, such as the destruction of property. American courts used to behave in a way similar to that of the English courts before 1906. The English Act of 1906 was conceived as a “remedy” on behalf of labor unions against the decisions of the English courts, just as the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 was intended to defend the unions from the orders of American courts. At first sight one might think that both the American and the English courts were prejudiced against the unions. Many people said so both in the United States and in England. As a matter of fact, the courts adopted against the unions only the same principles that they still apply against all other people who conspire, for instance, to damage property. Judges could not admit that the same principles that worked to protect people from constraint by others could be disregarded when those others were union officials or union members. The term “freedom from constraint,” for the judges, had an obvious technical meaning that explained the issuing of injunctions to protect employers as well as everyone else from other people’s constraint.

Nevertheless, after the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act everyone became “free” in this country from the constraint of everyone else except in cases where union officials or union members wanted to constrain employers to accept their demands by threatening or actually causing damages to the employers themselves. Thus, the expression “freedom from constraint” in the particular case of injunctions has changed its meaning in America not less than in England since the passage of the American Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 and the English Trade Disputes Act of 1906. The American Wagner Labor Relations Act made things even worse in 1935, not only by limiting further the meaning of “freedom” on the part of the citizens who were employers, but also by openly changing the meaning of the word “interference” and therefore introducing a semantic confusion that deserves to be quoted in a linguistic survey of “freedom.” As Watts has pointed out, “No one should interfere with the legitimate activities of anyone else if to interfere means the use of coercion, fraud, intimidation, restraint, or verbal abuse.” Thus, a wage earner does not interfere with the owners of General Motors when he goes to work for Chrysler. But, as Watts points out  in his essay, we could not say that he does not interfere if we had to apply to his behavior the criteria used by the Wagner Act to establish when an employer “interferes” with the union activities of the employees whenever he hires, for instance, nonunion employees in preference to union members. Thus, of this use of the word “interference,” the extraordinary semantic result is that while union people do not interfere when they constrain employers to accept their demands by unlawful acts, employers do interfere when they do not constrain anyone else to do anything whatever.

We are reminded of some strange definitions, such as the one given by Proudhon (“Property is theft”), or of the story of Akaki Akakievitch in Gogol’s famous tale The Overcoat, in which a robber deprives a poor man of his overcoat, saying, “You have stolen my overcoat!” If we consider the connections that the word “freedom” has in ordinary language with the word “interference,” we can have a fair idea of the extent to which a change such as the one we have seen may now affect the very meaning of “freedom.”

If we ask what is actually the meaning of “freedom from constraint” in such present-day political and legal systems as the American or the English, we are confronted with tremendous difficulties. We must say, to be honest, that there is more than one legal meaning of “freedom from constraint,” depending on the people who are constrained.

Most probably this situation is connected with a semantic change that huge pressure and propaganda groups have promoted in recent times and are still promoting all over the world in the sense given to the word “freedom” in ordinary language. Professor Mises is accurate when he says that the advocates of contemporary totalitarianism have tried to reverse the meaning of the word “freedom” (as it was previously more or less commonly accepted in Western civilization) by applying the word “liberty” to the condition of individuals under a system in which they have no right other than that of obeying orders.

This semantic revolution is probably connected in its turn with the speculations of certain philosophers who enjoy defining “freedom,” in opposition to all the usual meanings of the word in ordinary language, as something that implies coercion. Thus, Bosanquet, the English disciple of Hegel, could state in his Philosophical Theory of the State that “we can speak, without a contradiction, of being forced to be free.” I agree with Maurice Cranston when he suggests, in his recent essay on this subject, that such definitions of freedom are based mainly on a theory of the “bifurcated man,” that is, of man as a “mind-body unit” that is at the same time rational and “irrational.” Freedom thus would imply a sort of coercion by the rational part of man over the irrational part. But these theories often are strictly connected with the notion of a coercion that can be physically applied by self-styled “rational” people on behalf of, but also eventually against the will of, allegedly “irrational” people. Plato’s theories seem to me the most notorious example in this respect. His philosophical notion of a bifurcated man is strictly connected with his political notion of a society in which rational men ought to rule the others, if necessary without regard to the latter’s consent—like surgeons, he says, that cut and burn without bothering about the cries of their patients.

All the difficulties to which I have referred warn us that we cannot use the word “freedom” and be rightly understood without first defining clearly the meaning we attach to that word. The realistic approach to defining “freedom” cannot be successful. There is no such thing as “freedom” independent of the people who speak of it. In other words, we cannot define “freedom” in the same manner as we define a material object that everyone can point to.


Source: Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law [1961]