Paul Jacob

One of the profoundest explanations of freedom does not contain the word "freedom."

Or "liberty."

But it does reference the human schnozz:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.

Nosing about in books and on the Web, I've found the statement attributed to a number of people, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Helvetius. But it doesn't matter who said it. What matters is its truth.

And its truth is as plain as the nose on your face.

It's about the limits that are necessary for civilization. And it's about the right to liberty, which is very personal as well as a good for all.

Though people think of "liberty" and "limits" as opposites, this maxim shows how the two, together, make up one necessary and basic principle.

A Preposition You Can't Refuse

There's been a lot of confusion about the words "freedom" and "liberty" ? two words that I'll treat as synonyms.

Being free (or merely "feeling free") means, to many people, not only acting without restrictions or opposition, but also efficaciously, with power, able "to do whatever one wants."

And with this definition in mind, most thoughtful people see a principle of chaos. If I may swing my fists wherever I want, and you swing your fists wherever you want, there'll be a lot of broken noses and no peace ? and, after a while of this, maybe no people, either.

But as philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously noticed, this conception of freedom as "freedom to" is not the only conception. And it is not really what civilized people mean when they talk about freedom for all, or equal liberty.

What we are talking about is "freedom from." From what? Coercion. Compulsion. Swinging fists.

And an old principle of law is worth introducing, here, too: initiation. You have no right to swing your fists at my nose, unprovoked. But, should you lay one on me, I have the right to defend myself with my fists, and my right to swing my fists might extend not only to where the tip of your nose protrudes into society, but also a half an inch or so beyond that point, where your nose crumples. (But not much further: "an eye for an eye" may seem harsh, but really it was a limit: no more than an eye for an eye was what was meant. There are limits even in self-defense.)

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.