Liberty's limits

Posted: Sep 26, 2004 12:00 AM

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.)

If you initiated the fight, then the right you took from me gives me the right to defend, in some way retaliate. Equal freedom is about reciprocity. When it is abridged, then reciprocity ? equity ? demands some principle of redress.

This is all basic stuff, and most of us understand it, though often not explicitly. Your rights should include acting, within peacefully drawn boundaries, without me or someone else disrupting your scope of action with initiated violence or threats of same.

"Freedom to" cannot be equal, without chaos. But "freedom from" can. You can have it, and so can I. We all can have it, so long as each of us limits our actions to the peaceful variety.

But . . .

"You Can't Have Total Freedom"

I hear this a lot. But to what extent does this objection rest on thinking of freedom as a "to" issue and not a "from" issue? The preposition makes a difference, because the prepositions indicate very different kinds of liberty. Berlin called the "to" kind "positive liberty" and the "from" kind "negative liberty." This terminology makes sense on a conceptual level. But because the negative freedom can be equally shared, and the positive kind cannot, I'm a lot more positive about the negative than I am about the positive.

It was the positive "feel" behind Berlin's "negative liberty" that lay behind the words of the Declaration of Independence:

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. . . .

Liberty can be had by all, if all are willing to forgo tyrannous and invasive and uncivilized acts. Those who refuse are called criminals, and they lose their rights to liberty, and we, the peaceful ones, must restrain them.

So in a sense, since criminals will always (to some extent) be with us, we will never have pure-and-total freedom. But a peaceful society guarding itself from the criminal element can be a basically free society.

Still, such a society must not only defend the right of self-defense (without which talk of rights evaporates in meaning) but also work together to pool our defensive actions, so we can live even more effectively at peace, keeping all conflict above board and out in the open, in courts of law with commonly held principles.

That's where the rest of the Declaration's famous phrase comes in:

. . . That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. . . .

And so on. One of the most noble documents in the world upholds the basic idea, that rights to swing fists are limited. In part by noses.

But We Don't Have Equal Liberty!

Equal freedom is possible. But it isn't automatic. And a lot of what government does today has nothing to do with freedom. We've come a long way from the idea that the first purpose of government is freedom.

In other words: we do not live in a completely free society.

America may be a lot closer to it than other nations, but that doesn't mean we can't do better, even learning from the freedoms that other nations possess. And gloating over our perceived higher percentage of freedom isn't exactly the highest form of patriotism.

And we should never forget what freedom is not. For instance, it is not one's privilege of being told what to do by some bureaucrat or another. Not everything (or, perhaps, not even most things) that come out of our government have anything to do with freedom. Other than to abridge it.

In my Common Sense e-letter, I often enumerate the assaults on liberty by government today. Our rights to speak out politically, to make decisions for our families, to be safe and secure on the streets and in our homes are all being eroded ? our Constitution seemingly a relic of a bygone era.

Government does so many tyrannous things in part because many people want to pretend that freedoms to constitute the highest good. A right to medical care, for instance, enslaves doctors according to the rules of the socialist state, and taken to the extreme enslaves everybody to help everybody out. And, because the demands are unlimited, but supplies scarce, capricious regulation becomes the norm, and Soviet-style queues and shortages a way of life. In a society where "freedom to" is the only freedom, no real freedom can remain. All are slaves to each other. We end up with a rule of fists, and broken noses everywhere. Unprincipled chaos. (Perhaps it's no accident that a raised fist is socialism's chief symbol.)

The only way to get back the liberties we have lost is for the citizens to stick their noses in the business of government. It's our business, really, though politicians and bureaucrats would like to think otherwise.

Shaking a few fists might help, too. But it's our noses that better define our liberty. And only by placing them firmly into the business of government will we regain our rights. Or make America freer.