In a comment to my Crime And Federalism post about the Ninth Amendment—in which I argued that my own concept of liberty includes the right to choose suicide, but that the concept of liberty in the Declaration of Independence probably does not—David Giacalone writes that I “always write as if the definition of the word ‘liberty’ is clear as a bell,” and that I “disagree with the position of Brandeis history professor, David Hackett Fischer, on the various and varied meanings of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’” He then demonstrates what “the meaning of ‘liberty’ for drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence” was, by quoting a dictionary from fifty years after the signing of the Declaration. The first definition is “Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind.”
Now, I’m not sure how this is relevant to what I said—especially since my point in my post was that my view of liberty differs in some important respects from the Lockean concept of liberty represented by the Declaration—or how Giacalone “know[s]” that I would disagree with Prof. Fischer. I’ve read very little of Fischer, and have mentioned him and his ideas not at all, so far as I can remember. Nor can I account for Giacalone’s tone, except that it’s probably related to his temper tantrum the other day.
Obviously “liberty” is a word that can have several meanings—many words are like this. But this mustn’t become an excuse for using words to mean the opposite of what they really mean. Abraham Lincoln warned us of this when he said that
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name…. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty…. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.
Those who believe that “liberty” means the right of some people to deprive other people of freedom, are perverting that word, or using it irresponsibly. Consider, for instance, a hypothetical defender of anti-trust law, who believes that he has the right to prohibit a competitor from making consensual contracts, simply so that he can keep his prices up. Or a hypothetical defender of the welfare state, who believes that he has the right to deprive other people of their earnings, so that he can engage in the “liberty” of living off of that other person’s labor. This is the wolf’s definition of freedom.
We can get a good sense of what liberty means in the Declaration by consulting its foundations. John Locke tells us that liberty means
to be free from restraint and violence from others…and is not…‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’ For who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him? But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.
Thomas Jefferson writes
If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling & indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less right in himself than one of his neighbors or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery & not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable and for the preservation of which our government has been charged. Nothing could so completely divest us of that liberty as the establishment of the opinion that the state has a perpetual right to the services of all it’s members. This to men of certain ways of thinking would be to annihilate the blessing of existence; to contradict the giver of life who gave it for happiness & not for wretchedness; and certainly to such it were better that they had never been born.
These definitions, of course, are consistent with the definition of liberty as “Freedom from restraint, in a general sense, and applicable to the body, or to the will or mind.” That is, so far as I can tell, precisely how I use the term. What I do not do—and I can only conclude that this is what sticks for Mr. Giacalone—is use the term to rationalize the deprivation of some people’s liberty so as to accomplish alleged social benefits for others—or to allow some men to do as they please with the product of other men’s labor. I don’t believe in the wolf’s definition of liberty. It is for this reason that I oppose the Regulatory Welfare State that Mr. Giacalone seems to cherish.