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.

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