The Fragility of Liberty – Part One

Patheos Blog

The Fragility of Liberty – Part One

On Disparate Meanings of “Liberty”

I have long noticed a widespread distaste for the phrase “economic liberty,” not least among Catholics in southern Europe, especially in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. In all these nations, of course, there are great champions of economic liberty. But many journalists and religious spokespersons shrink from endorsing it. This is especially seen among those inclined toward socialism, which in this context means a strong trust in the beneficence of government.

One hears phrases such as “untrammeled economic liberty,” “a free rein to self-interest and selfishness,” “an unwillingness to curb the appetites of the rich.” Wealthy people in business are assumed to be grasping, avaricious, dismissive of and cold to the poor – and such humans are in need of very strong government “bridles.”

A part of this distaste for liberty arises from confusion about three different senses of the same term. In a famous essay on liberty, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin distinguishes negative liberty and positive liberty.[1] This duality feels natural to European thinkers, whose gravitational pull seems primarily to point to the state, the North Pole of Continental thought. Negative freedom is, Berlin suggests, freedom from outside coercion, perhaps even release from all “fetters” and laws and regulations. But positive freedom is the action of the state to lift up the poor and the handicapped so that they might enjoy the fruits of freedom. Positive freedom comes from the aid of the state. On the Continent especially, the indispensable duality seems to be individual and state. Continental liberals often picture the state as the great threat to liberty. Continental social democrats, socialists, communists (and the Nazis and Fascists too) have tended to see the state as the great enabler of liberty.

On the American side of the Atlantic, however, the first reflex in thinking of liberty is to differentiate between two inward pulls of the human heart. The first is toward following animal liberties, wherever instinct leads. The second is to aim at human self-government over our animal instincts, so as to give rein to the higher human powers of self-reflection and deliberate choice. On this side of the water, the essential duality seems to be animal liberty (the liberty to give rein to animal instincts) versus human liberty, such as that reflected in the Statue of Liberty: Liberty under the torch of reflection and light, held aloft by the lady’s one arm, and liberty under the book of the law, which is held under the lady’s other arm. Liberty as internalized self-control, as in the lines from the second stanza of “America the Beautiful”:

Confirm thy soul in self-control Thy liberty in law.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed many things that Americans would not do, even though they were permitted in the law, because these were forbidden by a religion more demanding than the civil law.[2] The Americans, he explained, distinguished the liberty of animals from the liberty proper to humans as humans.[3] Humans were expected to master their animal instincts, and to live according to reason and religion, beyond the capacities of the other animals.

The less a people is able to trust the self-government of its own citizens, the tighter it will insist government controls must be – the more it will treat its citizens as animals in need of constant restraint from above. And it will leave its victims tied down under the new soft despotism that Tocqueville dreaded, but could foresee.



[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[2] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1 (1835), chap. 17, pt. 2: “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?”

[3] Ibid., chap. 2, pt. 2: “There is a liberty of a corrupt nature which is effected both by men and beasts to do what they list, and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty ‘sumus omnes deteriores’: ‘tis the grand enemy of truth and peace, and all the ordinances of God are bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good.”