On the Confusing Nature of Liberty, Rights and Freedom and Its Pragmatic Resolution

On the Confusing Nature of Liberty, Rights and Freedom and Its Pragmatic Resolution: Observations on the recent article “How Freedom Became Tyranny” [1] by George Monbiot[2]

An interesting semantic, linguistic and cognitive problem not addressed in Mr. Monbiot’s article involves the very nature of liberty, the philosophical source from which the concepts of freedom and rights seem to flow.  Not addressing or understanding it is at the root of a great deal of current confusion.  Words are our intellectual tools and absent fortunate happenstance, improperly used lead to unfortunately predictable results.

Liberty, rights and freedoms are, in a political and legal sense, a relatively modern concept encompassing values formerly treated in Western society as duties and obligations.  To the classical Greeks participatory political rights where obligations imposed on citizens to which non-citizens were not subject.  The same is true of the philosophical position of the Stoics in Rome and of their philosophical Christian descendants.  That perception changed gradually as a result of the tension between the Church and emerging states in the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, but not in a logically consistent manner.  Thus, the concept of liberty-rights-freedom that emerged, while devastatingly beautiful, is logically muddled and consequently difficult to cognitively use in a meaningful fashion.

As they emerged in the 17th century from their linguistic and philosophical genesis largely in the cauldron of evolving contractualist theories of government, all three concepts were premised on the nature of liberty and that in turn was irrevocably tied to the evolving nature of the concept of sovereignty.  From its origins in natural and divine law, sovereignty somehow came to rest inherently in the individual (the arguments on the nature of that journey were many but its destination was eventually pretty much agreed to).  However, their residency in the individual was transient and they apparently soon flowed either in whole or in part towards the emergent sovereign-state.  The nature of that excursion was at best mythical in its primordial route but treating the result as a “convention” in David Hume’s sense, it has become a pillar of modern theories of state, power and government.

In essence, the modern concept of liberty is based on residual sovereignty, and from such concept flow those of rights and freedom.  That is, liberty is what remains of individual sovereignty when a portion has been delegated to another or to another institution.  Such purported delegation is the basis for the legitimate exercise of government power and gives rise to the concept of governmental obligations.  Consequently, because liberty is a retained concept rather than one received from another, the resultant concepts of liberty-rights-freedom can never be limited or conditioned even if such limits or conditions are essential to other primal values such as justice or equality.  Since it is retained rather than granted, it cannot be limited or conditioned by anyone other than the individual (should the individual wish to further restrict his or her remaining traces of personal sovereignty).  Depending on your own philosophical beliefs, liberty may not exist at all; rather, it may have been replaced by similar but different concepts.  That was the view of philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, although not so articulated.  According to him, all personal sovereignty was delegated to the state with some aspects returned as privileges (rather than the view held by John Locke, having only a portion of the sovereignty delegated and the residue retained constituting liberty-rights-freedom).

Privileges, unlike liberty, are granted and may thus be limited or conditioned as the state, the new sovereign determines.  The essential identifying element is whether limits or conditions have been accepted.  If they have, then they cannot involve liberty-rights-freedom but rather privileges, governmental obligations or aspirations[3] encompassing similar anticipated consequences (liberty’s not quite as attractive cousins, but perhaps almost functional equivalents).

The truth is that in modern society, so called liberty-rights-freedom is conditional and hence, we have only privileges, governmental obligations or aspirations.  Because the conditions are in most cases at least arguably reasonable and essential, we ignore their conceptual impact, but even the most essential and reasonable condition renders a “right” logically nonexistent, replacing it with a very attractive simulacrum privilege (or a governmental obligation or societal aspiration).  Even if coupled with John Locke’s conditional delegation concepts, so long as the state-sovereign performs its part we no longer have liberty but merely attractive and equitable privileges, governmental obligations or aspirations, a breach in logic Locke failed to understand.  These may be dressed up in liberty’s old clothes and that may be reasonable and just and equitable, it may be the only way society can function, but it is not the liberty-rights freedom triad we keep referring to and wondering why it is at best dysfunctional.  That logic is essential to understanding how modern society can attain functionability but it’s not beautiful and we prefer beauty to logic and truth.

Under a concept of fully but conditionally delegated sovereignty we could attain a synthesis between pure liberty and pure privileges where the terms for the operation of privileges are not arbitrary and failure to respect such terms leads to a loss of governmental legitimacy, i.e., a loss of the sovereignty theoretically delegated to governments by the citizenry.  That involves the concept of “governmental obligations”, which together with the concept of privileges is what we mean (or should mean) when we talk about liberty and freedoms today, but the residue of original meaning in the liberty-rights-freedom triad makes them inadequate logical tools and hence, leads to conclusions that do not function.

Correcting the semantic and linguistic elements of our social equation is essential in order to permit its exercise at a functional logic.  What we have or aspire to have are privileges exchanged for our original sovereignty under terms designed to assure that they are not arbitrarily granted or enforced and that the sovereignty delegated by the citizenry to its government is used to assure equity, justice and social welfare through compliance by governments with their related obligations.  Only if the sovereign breaches such social contract, as it has done now by selling itself to the ever more powerful plutocracy, is a return to liberty viable, and that return poses very dangerous risks unless a new collective sovereignty along the lines of Rousseau’s perspective is quickly reestablished.

Thus, we have a confusion of terminology in a conceptual cornucopia with respect to those social values we incorrectly denominate as liberty-rights-freedom,  but which are in reality the concepts of privileges, governmental obligations and social aspirations.  All are currently marketed under the liberty-rights-freedom label but have drastically different legal consequences involving enforceability and attainability.  If we are to construct a properly functional society, those concepts must be differentiated and then properly integrated into a working system that while not improperly raising expectations does not inhibit aspirations and serves as a serviceable bridge between where we are and where we hope to arrive.

[1]Monbiot, George, “How Freedom Became Tyranny”.  Article published as “This Bastardized Libertarianism Makes ‘Freedom’ an Instrument of Oppression” on guardian.co.uk at 20.30 GMT on Monday 19 December 2011. A version appeared on p27 of the Main section of the Guardian on Tuesday 20 December 2011. It was last modified at 00.06 GMT on Tuesday 20 December 2011.  http://www.monbiot.com/2011/12/19/how-freedom-became-tyranny/, first accessed on December 21, 2011

[2] © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2011; all rights reserved

[3] Governmental obligations are the legal consequences of a conditional delegation of sovereignty and aspirations are the visions of the social state we eventually hope to attain.