Ideologically Motivated Linguistic Revisionism

…en Español!

I don’t know why Palmer keeps accusing Schmidtz and me of conflating wealth with freedom. We explicitly disavow this in the book.

Anyways, here’s our view:

1. In normal English, we in fact use the words “liberty” and “freedom” to refer to more than just negative liberty.

2. This isn’t a recent development–people have been using the word to mean lots of different things for a long time. Berlin recognized this. So, if you claim that “liberty” should only mean a particular kind of negative liberty, you appear to engaging in ideologically motivated linguistic revisionism. You better have a good justification for that. Libertarians think they have a good justification. It doesn’t look that way to me. It just looks like they’re trying to pick a definition that privileges their theory.

3. The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

4. Empirically, one of the best ways to promote positive liberty is to protect negative liberty.

5. Nothing is at stake ideologically on how we define our terms. Whatever role government gets, if any, in protecting or promoting any kind of liberty (however we define the term) depends in part on how well government can do the job and what the alternatives are.

Palmer says liberty is an inherently social concept. Not so, at least not in common English. He’s once again engaging in ideologically motivated linguistic revisionism. That’s okay if he has a good reason, but I don’t think he has one. Here’s an earlier essay explaining why. Excerpt:

Palmer says that no matter what happens to a man on a desert island, the man is neither free nor unfree, because liberty is an inherently social concept. Palmer might want to limit his talk of ‘liberty’ this way. Ordinary people do not, and they are not obviously mistaken in having a range of concerns that are not so limited. Stipulating that they are mistaken will not do.

Before ever reading any philosophy, I would have found it obvious that if Robinson Crusoe were pinned under a log, he would thereby be unfree, and would want to be liberated from the burden of being thus pinned. I likewise would have considered it obvious that when a log pins Crusoe down, this is morally different than when a mugger pins him down, or when a policeman pins him down after Crusoe has robbed a bank. Some philosophers say that because these three cases are morally different, we shouldn’t use the same word. But the question of whether to use the same word is a question about how to be clear. In using the same word, we can obscure differences while emphasizing similarities. Using different terms can obscure similarities while emphasizing differences.

We can just as easily say that in all three cases, Crusoe becomes less free (in the same sense of ’free’), but that the moral significance of these cases is different. In the first case, the situation is regrettable, but no one has done anything wrong. In the second case, the mugging is wrong, not merely regrettable. In the third case, the policeman limits Crusoe’s freedom, but with justification.

Palmer asserts ‘liberty’ can only refer to a certain kind of relationship among people. He thinks other uses of the term are confused. Or, perhaps, when hears the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird”, he thinks Collins and Van Zant are speaking metaphorically. Palmer does not show us why we must confine our use of the term ‘liberty’ to social situations. Like the average English-speaker, I feel comfortable saying that birds are free to fly in a way people are not. If somebody objects that the bird’s freedom to fly is different from the freedom in question when we discuss free speech, I agree. So, ordinary English uses of the term ‘liberty’ refer to many different things, and we philosophers should be more precise by saying what particular kind of freedom or liberty we have in mind.


In a Brief History of Liberty, Schmidtz and I take issue with the fact that so many people–Marxists, libertarians, neoclassical republicans (like Pettit), left-liberals, etc.–try to reverse engineer a definition of “liberty” to fit their favored political views. Our view is that basically nothing is at stake in how we define the word. We argue don’t have any good reasons to try to revise common English.



  • Pretty sure you’re right!

  • Sean II

    I think we can all agree that Skynyrd was speaking literally in “Free Bird”, as that song narrowly concerned the escape of one person from one particular interpersonal obligation. Hardly a general endorsement of the concept of freedom, lord knows.

    Tragically, the Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” invites us to understand freedom in economically ignorant terms, by tempting us with the idea we can enjoy benefits without costs. A profoundly utopian and therefore un-libertarian definition, which I certainly will not come on and take…no, no, no, no.

    Matters are not made better by Hendrix, whose “Stone Free” urges us to see freedom as mere irresponsibility, a refusal to be bound by anything, including the physical facts of the universe. Even those in libertarianism’s anarchist branch got to, got to, got to get away …from that.

    Only The Who had it right. Freedom does indeed taste of reality. Whenever I tell people what it takes to reach the highest high of spontaneous order, they do laugh and say “nothing’s that simple”. When it comes to the decrepit faiths of conservatism and progressivism, very few have the guts to leave the temple.

    And finally, I think the ongoing scarcity of libertarian political clout most eloquently demonstrates that we are still waiting for them to follow us.

    • I think the rock group Free, got it right when they assured us that everything is “all right now”.

    • Wot, no Rage Against the Machine (‘Freedom’)?

      • Sean II

        I was afraid that if I mentioned RATM, it might summon an invasion from the gang at Crooked Timber.

        • matt b

          If a libertarian Comedy Central ever gets set up you could be our Jon Stewart. That was a good line.

    • gcallah

      “I think we can all agree that Skynyrd was speaking literally in “Free Bird””
      Sean, you missed the “free as a bird” line?

  • I don’t quite understand the personal tone, as evidenced in “keeps accusing.” Somebody translated an essay into Spanish. I did read your book (thank you for the copy you gave to me, at the same conference where I gave you a copy of my book), and I thought that your use of the term freedom to refer to abilities did not add clarity to our understanding of liberty. It’s a shame you seem to feel hurt by that.

    I’m in India at the moment and don’t have your book before me, so if I missed your explicit disavowals, it would be nice to share them again. Did you also explicitly disavow any equation of ability with freedom?

    Liberty is used in English to refer to social situations. A field may be free of pests after it’s been sprayed with pesticide, but it would be very odd to say that it was at liberty from pests. One can use freedom to refer to a lack of cancer, but political freedom is best understood as freedom from coercion, not freedom from cancer. When we use the term so promiscuously, our ability to speak meaningfully about whether freedom leads to more prosperity (for example) is seriously diminished, since prosperity means more abilities and if abilities are freedom, it’s freedom leading to freedom. Your book did not help us to understand whether one society is, on balance, freer than another, as I wrote in my criticism.

    But really, Jason. You should stop being so hurt by disagreement and criticism. I was explicitly asked by the editor to be provocative, so it would provoke a discussion, not this kind of hurt feelings, which simply don’t become you. You’re a smart and thoughtful person and you have interesting things to say, which means people will criticize what you say.

    If you wish to raise this interesting issue again, be my guest. But please don’t accuse me of some kind of personal vendetta against you because someone else translated an essay into Spanish.

    • gcallah

      “You should stop being so hurt by disagreement and criticism.”
      Where is the evidence that he is “hurt”?! He received some criticism and responded to it in a very calm fashion.

      • Sean II

        That’s the new stylistic variant of the straw man, where you don’t distort the content of someone’s argument, just the tone of it. Example:

        A – “Ah, but my case against the “multiplier effect” does not hinge on what you call empirical evidence and what I call mere anecdotes. I’m saying the concept cannot be convincingly described in any way that is not obviously illogical.”

        B – “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Clam down, buddy. Where is all that anger coming from?”

        The net result is still to draw attention away from the substance of things in dispute, but from some reason, I find this ploy much more infuriating than the strawman classic.

        * Also, I apologize for breaking my own rule against mentioning fallacies by name in comment threads.

  • matt b

    I think many libertarians are uncomfortable with the idea of “positive liberty” because their bedrock belief is that in a libertarian society everybody is equally free. Since freedom means non-interference and since, in a libertarian society, no one would be able to coercively interfere with others that means Bill Gates is no more free than a poor beggar since nobody can coercively interfere with either of them. If you say that freedom encompasses the abiity to excercise one’s will or fulfill one’s desires that scares orthodox libertarians because it means those with resources are, in some sense, freer than those with fewer resources. Of course, the orthodox view is full of problems. It implies that a poor single mom who had to spend 14 hours a day working just to feed, clothe, and shelter herself and her children is as free as a millionaire who can never work again and have enough to do whatever he wants whenever he wants.

    • I think it’s better just to say that in a libertarian society, everyone enjoys equal freedom-as-non-interference. However, positive liberty–or, if you want, call it “power” in the Aristotelian sense–is not something that people will have equal amounts of in any society. But one good thing about market societies is that they lead to people have more positive liberty, if unequal positive liberty.

      • matt b

        I see, I see. I was just wondering how you might address potential conflicts between positive and negative liberty. For example, left-liberals have argued that government protection for unions- laws which basically say you can’t fire people for trying to organize and so on and so forth- do restrict the negative liberty of the employer but this can be justified on the grounds that the positive liberty of workers is maximized. On this account, without a union many, though certainly not all, workers will be in a poor position to exercise their will given their limited skills which give them little bargaining power so the only way to create the conditions in which they are meaningfully free- in the sense of having sufficient power to achieve some measure of control over their lives- is to create a legal framework in which non-interference in the workplace is curtailed to some extent to give employees a fighting shot at negotiating terms which secure some minimal standard of well being. Is there a libertarian response here that takes the left-liberal goal of maximizing the positive liberty of workers as legitimate but advocates different means and if so what might those means be? Of course we are big believers in markets but without some government protection for unions can we be sure that those who don’t have much to offer in terms of skills will not suffer indignities or have no choice to be labor under decidedly problematic conditions?

  • matt b

    I was wondering if Jason or any other like minded people might comment on the critique of positive liberty that goes something like this “If liberty means the ability to effectively exercise one’s will then does this not mean that in some sense Donald Trump is less free than Bill Gates since he might want to buy 100 companies but only has money to buy 50 whereas Gates has enough to buy 100 and then some.” The basic argument is that if you say Trump is less free since positive liberty is a component of freedom you’ve reached an absurd conclusion.

    • My view is that in one sense of “freedom”, the typical rich person is freer than the typical poor person. In another sense of “freedom”, they are the same. Superman is free to fly in a way I am not.

      • matt b

        Thank you for making that distinction clear Jason. I think that’s a fine way to look at it though I’m sure you will continue to encounter a great deal of resistance from the enforcers of orthodoxy.

  • Without entering into the rights or wrongs of this particular dispute, I will say that your claim that “We argue [that we] don’t have any good reasons to try to revise common English” is mistaken. For example, in physics terms like ‘force,’ ‘mass,’ work,’ etc. are given specific meanings whereas in ordinary language the terms can be used in much more variegated ways. But the physicists had very good reason to redefine the terms, namely, they were putting forward a new theory about how the world works (some of the terms get redefined when newer theories are proposed). The same happens in social theory. Ordinary language is a pretty poxy tool to use for any serious thinking. If we want to improve our theories about the world and advance our understanding, we generally have to move away from the ordinary uses of terms.

    • Danny,

      I agree that we should revise common language under some circumstances. For instance, philosophers use the word “knowledge” more precisely than the average person. But when I survey disputes over the meaning of the word “liberty”, it seems to me that people are usually just trying to make it come out that their favored institutions are the most free by definition and also that whatever kind of freedom is compatible with their favored institutions is also by definition the best kind.

      Schmidtz and I argue that what appear to be debates about the meaning of liberty are instead really debates about something else. Debates about meaning reduce rather than add clarity, because we’re obscuring what the real issue here.

      The debate between your average Marxist and me isn’t really about what the word “liberty” means. It’s about whether capitalism or communism exploits peoples, brings them together or apart, leads to violence, impedes or promotes people’s ability to lead their lives, etc.

      • Sean II

        I am reminded of something Popper said (I can’t remember where). The gist of what was that you almost never catch physicists quibbling about definitions, because its usually easy enough for them to stay focused on the facts and theories behind the terms.

        Gravity still got to be called gravity before, during, and after a radical shift in how it was understood.

        If you stopped a physicist halfway through a lecture on optics and insisted that “light” was a racist hate-word, and that decency requires the concept to be called by the new name of “inclusion beams”…it would hardly shatter his world. He would be able to continue: “Okay, as I was saying…one of the most fascinating properties of li…of inclusion beams is…”

        Imagine the tantrum you’d get, using same trick on a humanities professor or a political pundit. The less clear the concepts are, the more desperate is the need to compensate by fetishizing words and phrases.

        • good_in_theory

          This is, of course, why so many philosophers do things like make words like “grue” and “bleen”, or speak of, to fabricate an example, “liberty” type 1, 2 or 3… because they’re uncomfortable with nominal designations.

  • famadeo

    Liberty is not the same as freedom. Liberty means *political* freedom. Robinson Crusoe enjoys freedom but not “liberty”. In this sense, I sort of agree with Palmer that liberty is a social construct. This may be splitting hairs, but since clarity is the concern…

    Changing the subject, I must say that point 4 makes me cringe. It certainly begs the question. What epistemological tools are being used to analyze this? It seems to imply that all it takes to ensure a holistic freedom is simply focusing on eliminating all interference. This is “empirically” true? It’s certainly counter-intuitive.

  • martinbrock

    Of course, the point assumes the semantics of “freedom”, but I agree with Palmer that a person on a deserted island is neither “free” nor “unfree” in a libertarian sense. A person must be free of something, and being bound by gravity is not being “unfree” in any political sense. The only meaningful “liberation” in the libertarian sense is liberation from the coercion of another person or organization of persons. If ordinary people (and physicists) speak of “freedom” from gravity, so what?

    Some people do confuse libertarian freedom (of the sort I advocate) with wealth. They imagine being “free” of want regardless of misfortune for example, but insofar as people want artifacts, this usage of “freedom” necessarily assumes entitlement to the service of other people regardless of the desire of other people for reciprocal services. In other words, this “freedom” is simply another word for enslavement, and as such, I can’t take it seriously.

    If we want to enslave everyone else for the benefit of particular people, whether the disabled or heirs to titles of nobility, let’s just say that. Maybe enslaving everyone to the disabled is justifiable, but let’s justify it rather than dance around the issue rhetorically.

    Confusing freedom from an artificial force with freedom from a natural force is simply incoherent. Confusing freedom with slavery is incredibly inconsistent. It’s the sort of political dishonesty that drove me to libertarianism in the first place.

  • Fallon

    Boy, things sure move fast these days. On my way into the office I caught
    the tail end of a radio spot. A reassuring female voice was saying: “BHL.The
    little red pill. Feel linguistically neutral again..” Then an authoritative male voice rapidly squeezed in something like: “If you feel that you are suffering from Adult Onset IMLR contact your doctor of philosophy. Right now.” Then something about BHL should not be taken if you have allergic reactions to limited statism or operate heavy machinery.

  • ralph

    Maybe there’s nothing “at stake” in how we define the word, but it’s an abuse of language. Liberty means a lack of interference. The “evolution” in colloquial use is not so much natural evolution as intentional propaganda and appropriation of language and symbol. It’s the intellectual dishonesty I am against. They use it as a way of short-circuiting debate. (You’re not “really free” if you have to work for a living…are you against freedom?) They should just say what they mean. And yes, what Marxists refer to as “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting, but that doesn’t change the definition of the word.

    Don’t you think there should be a word for what you call “freedom-as-non-interference”? For most people, that word would be “liberty”.

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