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What is the difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’?

I don’t know why I yesterday took a random dip into Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I did, and I came across the following striking passage about the psychologist Victor Frankl. I think it was just coincidence that Frankl got a mention in one of the comments on this, although having chanced upon this passage, maybe that made me really notice it.

Anyway, here it is:

Frankl was a determinist raised in the tradition of Freudian psychology, which postulates that whatever happens to you as a child shapes your character and personality and basically governs your whole life. The limits and parameters of your life are set, and, basically, you can’t do much about it.

Frankl was also a psychiatrist and a Jew. He was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where he experienced things that were so repugnant to our sense of decency that we shudder to even repeat them.

His parents, his brother, and his wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among the “saved” who would remove the bodies or shovel out the ashes of those so fated.

One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms” – the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

In the midst of his experiences, Frankl would project himself into different circumstances, such as lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would describe himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.

Through a series of such disciplines – mental, emotional, and moral, principally using memory and imagination – he exercised his small, embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment; but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence.

In the midst of the most degrading circumstances imaginable, Franki used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.

My emboldenings are Covey’s italics.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I consider those paragraphs to be worthy of the attention of Samizdata readers.

But I have a question, relating to one particular matter raised by Covey, which is the very definite way he uses the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’. ‘Liberty’ he uses to denote external circumstances, while ‘freedom’ is more like an inner mental experience. Liberty is political and perhaps also economic. Freedom is psychological, even existential. So, are these regular usages that I have been unaware of all these years? (I confess – for I’m not proud of this and have always meant to sort it out in my mind some day – that I have tended to use these two words interchangeably.) Or is Covey unusual in knowing when to say freedom and when liberty? Or are others equally definite about the different meanings of these words, but in different ways to Covey?

As often with me here, comments are not merely welcome; they are positively invited, not to say solicited.

26 comments to What is the difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’?

  • I don’t think Frankl’s distinction has become a common one, but I know that others who’ve written about the philosophy of freedom have used it.

    Other distinctions have been drawn between “liberty” and “freedom.” Both Robert Anton Wilson and Robert A. Heinlein have used “freedom” to signify an inalienable condition: the power to do as you please as long as you’re willing to bear the consequences. Neither of these writers has explicitly defined “liberty” as the political instantiation of a regime of inviolable individual rights — i.e., what a libertarian would mean by it. However, you can be sure that Heinlein, at least, would have made at least some distinction.

  • Bag

    The way Frankl is talking about liberty is to treat the idea as a range of what is allowed. He is making no distinction between rules made by humans and the limits imposed by nature. Freedom is the existence of a different category that doesn’t rely on the dimension of liberty to be possible. A lot of the writing concerning the Holocaust is an exploration of this disconnect. That comment to the side, there are a more arguments exploring this idea through a series of reductions than there are claiming that ‘freedom’ was responsible for something instead of an articulated right. (See the Reformation for this sort of thing.)
    This happenstance has caused some to argue that discovering ‘freedom’ by reduction is not valid and others to doubt anything that doesn’t start with such a reduction. You are now up to speed.

  • To perhaps be too curt to be useful:

    Liberty is what the situation brings to you. Freedom is what you bring to the situation.

  • It may be cheating to look at dictionary definitions:

    “Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)”
    Freedom Free”dom (fr=e”du^m), n. AS. fre’od=om; fre’ofree + -dom. See Free, and -dom. 1. The state of being free; exemption from the power and control of another; liberty; independence. 2. Privileges; franchises; immunities.


    “Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)”
    Liberty Lib”er*ty (li^b”~er*ty^), n.; pl. Liberties (-ti^z). OE. liberte, F. libert’e, fr. L. libertas, fr. liber free. See Liberal. 1. The state of a free person; exemption from subjection to the will of another claiming ownership of the person or services; freedom; — opposed to slavery, serfdom, bondage, or subjection. 2. Freedom from imprisonment, bonds, or other restraint upon locomotion.

    I think Hayek would argue that “liberty” is “freedom from coercion”.

    Did Frankl write in English originally? If not, I’d wonder what he really said, as “freedom” and “liberty” bot translate to “Freiheit” offhand.

  • Brian,
    I have never heard the distinction between freedom and liberty that Frankl uses, although it is very interesting. Even though I often use the two words interchangably, I generally take liberty to mean barriers against coercion, and take freedom to mean license.

  • Brian,

    A stimulating post. Frankl comes close but his idea of does not sufficiently explain the relationship of mind to experience. Ordinarily, that relationship is one of engulfment. Our ordinary mental state is peculiarly weak, almost fundamentally flawed. We have a powerful tendency to be identified within, indeed possessed, by life’s river of events. We cannot simply choose from a menu of reponses to our experience without first having some degree of detachment or self-possession. In other words, self-consciousness is the beginnings of freedom and, ultimately, we must BE. However, even for someone in the make or break circumstance of a death camp being is not a matter of personal choice. I’m sure a lot of readers will know what comes next and I won’t pursue the matter further.

    Liberty is an externality insomuch as it concerns behaviour and not state. It is the product of a certain negotiation or imposition of terms. It is, therefore, moral, legal, political, social, sexual and, in essence, collective.

  • Antoine Clarke

    ‘Freiheit’ is German, ‘Liberté’ is French.

    Having said that, Frankl’s distinction is useful, so as an [Empiricist] English speaker, why not use it?

    In French there is not the ‘sheep’ versus ‘mutton’ distinction: ‘mouton’ is the animal and the meat of it too.

  • You might be interested in this article, though this one is, perhaps better: neither of them fit properly within the subjective/objective mold. As a classicist, the closest analogs to Frankl’s experience are found in the teachings of Epictetus (there is a shorter version available, as well as an even shorter ancient summary).

  • Charlie

    Yeah, and “freedom” is something else in Japanese. Are you saying that you know Frankl used the French word in his original? Otherwise, you miss my point: I’m asking what Frankl actually wrote, in hopes of finding more insight into what he meant.

  • Love this post. I have seen this distinction once or twice but never a nicely brought out. Orlando Patterson in his tome “Freedom” broke freedom into three types:

    “Personal” (such as seems to be the “freedom” described in this post);
    “Sovereignal” (the power to act as one pleases regarless of the wishes of others as far as one can which seems closest to the “liberty” as described here, though he did not specify that word for it) and;
    “Civic” (the capacity to participate in the life and governance of a community). This latter freedom seems quite distinct from the others in that through time it has been routinely denied to whole groups who may enjoy the prior two.

    Something to chew on, I suppose.

  • toolkien

    I haven’t seen such a distinction between freedom and liberty so clearly drawn before, but, going with it, it takes the notion of the sense and meaning of liberty/freedom to its epistemological root. The usage above then is merely axiomatic and labels the internal experience from the external realities everyone can take note of. In this case Freedom is the internal value judgement and Liberty the mechanics of social interaction. But this the starting point for all rational human beings, trying to get their internal system of value judgements to mesh with their fellow humans, and their value systems.

    I examine the internal experience and value judgement process even further to basic internal drives (such as existential angst and its opposite, hope) and the differing experiences that attach to them for different people. So what is Freedom for me and what is ‘freedom’ for someone else are going to be contingtent on experience as they interrelate with basic drives. It is the function of getting along with each other, and our differing opinions on how each of us is to best reach a positive internal state, that is Liberty.

    We all ultimately want to exist in the same internal state, we just differ completely on how that is to be accomplished when other people have to be taken into account. It is to what ends an individual, or association, will go to have other people conform to their conceptions, and how much curtailment of general liberty is required. I can’t think of any refined set of beliefs (religions, collectivism) that doesn’t promise a reward of ‘freedom’ if only one would allow themselves to be ‘enlightened’ and see that the chains put on them are ultimately for their own good.

    And that, of course, why I am against the State from having control on information as they will ultimately skew it in an attempt to control what people experience, and the opinions they develop there from, and creating the illusion of freedom without any liberty. What is the problem if people perceive a sense of freedom but have little liberty? From my experience and readings of history, such illusions last for only a period of time anyway, and the masses, now aware, see the constriction of liberty for what it is and leads to more violent methods of recasting a new order.

    I think it essential to allow for maximum liberty, even for those with whom you fundementally disagree. I think it should be the mission of any libertarian to have people question to what ends they will go in forcing someone to behave or think differently especially when they, or their property, are not at direct risk. Too many people want to have a sense of comfort brought about by forcing others to abide by their belief system.

  • Dale Amon

    Robert A Heinlein, our father who art in heaven, said:

    “You can never conquer a free man. The most that you can do is kill him.”

    Same thing really.

  • Shannon Love

    I think etymology would help make the meaning more clear. The ghosts of the words original meanings still shade our use and understanding of them even though many now regard them as synonyms.

    In pre-enlightenment times, “liberties” meant special privileges granted to a select group by secular authorities. Town charters were often termed “grants of liberties” and we still retain this original meaning of the word in the phrase “to take liberties with” During the enlightenment, the authority to grant liberties moved philosophically from secular rulers to God or nature.

    The word “free” originally meant un-enslaved or un-ruled. A “Free Dom” was a household that was not the property of another family. A free person was someone who belonged to a family by birth, marriage or voluntary alliance. The un-ruled households existed in a state of quasi-anarchy before the rise of the centralized state. The defense of freedom meant preventing the encroaching state from taking the ability to act or choose that existed before the arrival of the state power.

    So historically, “Liberty” and “Freedom” began at the opposite ends of the spectrum of state power yet eventually they met in the conceptual middle. In modern parlance, “Liberties” spring from a centralized top-down authority. “Liberties” are granted by or wrested from the power of the state. “Freedoms” by contrast are a distributed bottom-up phenomena that exist prior to the state. One looses “Freedoms” as the power of the state grows into areas it did not previously govern.

    As the state evolves overtime individuals may gain liberties or lose freedoms depending on how the state projects its power. In the free west, individuals have gained liberty as the state has surrender power in the areas of speech or religion but they have lost freedoms in areas of economics and personal vices as the state has projected it’s power into those previously untouched areas.

    (Frankl’s meaning is better understood by considering not the inmate in a concentration camp but rather the solitary castaway on a deserted island. The castaway has total liberty since no other human is there to restrict his actions but he is only as free as he lets himself be. For example, if he convinces himself that dangerous predators roam the island, he may self-imprison himself in the back of a cave, to fearful of the monsters in his mind to venture forth. He could starve to death like a camp inmate even though their conditions of liberty and freedom are exactly reversed. )

  • In extremis Frankl seems to have stumbled upon the state of ‘renunciation’ described in the Bhagavad Gita.
    Not the typical run of the mill meaning of renunciation, but rather a state of being detached from the ends of your actions, and one of internal harmony.

    The best translation for native English speakers I’ve found is that by Barbara Stoller Miller.

    The etymology outlined immeditately above does shed much light on the historical difference between the terms liberty and freedom in English, but to my mind Frankl seems to be talking about a temporary satori or samadhi type state, and as such perhaps ‘freedom’ is too shopworn a word to convey the full import of the state of being he attained in the camps.

  • Doug Collins

    I recall something about Kant and later philosophers -particularly Germans- who define freedom as living with a “correct” set of rules as opposed to “incorrect” ones or -horrors- no rules at all. I may be doing them a disservice but I don’t think so. Arbeit macht Frei comes to mind. The fact that ‘freedom’ began replacing ‘liberty’ with Lincoln and FDR, the two Presidents who made the biggest quantum jumps in state power, leaves me feeling very uneasy about the word.

    Shannon Love’s comments are very interesting. I wonder what modifications to those ideas of the genesis of Liberty and Freedom should be made for a state which, at least in principle, is a creature of the sovereign citizens. It would seem to me to involve voluntary and reversible grants of minimal liberty to the state, rather than grants of liberty to the people.

  • Freedom and liberty are synonyms. But since the concept of freedom (or liberty) can be applied to all sorts of relations – not just relations of physical coercion – one can make special meanings out of the word.

    “Spiritual freedom” is what Frankl is indicating; it could just as well be “spiritual liberty.” It is that feeling of power and self-direction that a person even coerced and manhandled and shackled can feel. And this feeling is not simple self-illusion. It is closely allied with moral autonomy, and leads to personal growth. Such a person, unleashed into a free society, can do amazing things.

    Every person who gains a grip on his or her own self, and becomes “self-actualized” and morally autonomous, has a measure of this spiritual freedom.

    The ancient Greeks, and indeed most of the major religions, talk about this. One reason they did, and one reason religious people often refer to these notions as “true freedom,” is the simple result of the beleaguered and transient nature of real-world individual liberty (political freedom of actual persons); in times of tyranny, spiritual freedom is often the only freedom to be had. So the inward concept, in times of trouble and massive coercion, becomes dominant. It is simply one way of adapting to coercion, reacting to it.

    One worry that some libertarians and many conservatives and all communitarians harbor is that the more real-world freedom (individual liberty) the less spiritual freedom the people will exhibit. Nietzsche phrased this poetically in terms of “the last man.” A mere consumer. One who has let himself be a slave to the system, who merely does what he is told, and gobbles up what pleasures he can, and takes for granted the real freedoms he has, and easily gives up some freedoms for other securities, etc. Life, for such creatures, is not very serious; a conscientious consideration of options is lost as he merely “goes with the flow”: no concept of excellence can take root that would demand great spritual resolve. He is a mere creature of a pleasure nexus. The institutions of society are there to make him feel good. He complains when something doesn’t go right, and “his rights” are one way streets that lead to him….

    I think this describes humanity in the welfare state quite well, and these people (us, even, perhaps too frequently) are not heroic, and the spiritual resources of such people unimpressive. The rights that welfare states put in place are coddling rights. There is little to really lose, and the abyss of ruin is pushed off till death, which we can ignore longer and longer. Our basic medical care allows us to postpone consideration of this eventuality until most of us are too weak to really care any longer….

    So, spiritual freedom is something that anyone concerned about practical freedom must consider. My basic attitude towards practical individual freedom has always been this: I want this because it would give me the strongest incentives and disincentives to become a better person, more spiritually “free,” and autonomous.

    I’m not the only one who feels this way. James Buchanan wrote a great little essay called “Natural and Artifactual Man” wherein he makes a very similar point. If I remember correctly, you can find this essay in the Liberty Press collection “What Should Economists Do?”

    I believe it was Lester H. Hunt in his fine book “Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue” who argued that Nietzsche’s view of politics was to discourage the education of “last men” and nurturing through sometimes brutal methods the growth of “overmen.” This perspective is not too different from the Menckenian social Darwinism that has some bearing on libertarian discussion.

    My own views are less cruel, more Spencerian. The kind of human being that a culture of liberty would encourage (and require) is not a mere consumer, demanding attention. There would have to be more spiritual self-direction than that. And Frankl’s observations are in that ballpark. I think in a free society, spiritually free men would be more common than in our own society. If there weren’t, that society would not last.

    We certainly do not want to encourage the growth of a few overmen by tyrannizing the masses of last men, killing, maiming, harrassing, and so on. The way to spiritual freedom is not best driven by tyrants – Frankl’s experience under the Nazis notwithstanding. I think we can agree that liberty itself is a sometimes harsh mistress, and provides enough challenge and even distress to encourage men and women to strengthen themselves.

    Of course, the perceived harshness of liberty is precisely why we do not have it today, and are unlikely to have it tomorrow.

    These issues are also related to Schumpeter’s idea that capitalism creates its own destroyers. Issues of pattern maintenance in a free society bear more thought than libertarians have given it thus far. Addressing the issue while focusing on the concept of “spiritual freedom” is a good place to start.

  • Was that not the root of Thoreau’s works? That you could put him in jail for not paying a tax (denying him Liberty), but you could never deny him his freedom. Freedom can never be taken, it must be given (if it is to be surrendered at all). Liberty can be infringed. You cannot infringe on someone’s freedom.

    ‘The history of liberty’, Mr Justice Frankfurter once observed, ‘is the history of the observances of procedural safeguards.’

    I think there are other authors who make that distiction, but I don’t think it is as common as it should be.

  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it doesn’t matter in the least what labels we attach to concepts so long as we are clear what we are talking about.

    Karl Popper wrote:

    “One should never get involved in verbal questions or questions of meaning, and never get interested in words. If challenged by the question of whether a word one uses really means this or that, then one should say: ‘I don’t know, and I am not interested in meanings; and if you wish, I will gladly accept your terminology.’ This never does any harm. One should never quarrel about words, and never get involved in questions of terminology. One should always keep away from dicussing concepts. What we are really interested in, our real problems, are factual problems, or in other words, problems of theories and their truth. We are interested in theories and how they stand up to critical discussion; and our critical dicussion is controlled by our interest in truth.”

    Where words like freedom and liberty are concerned we need to keep a particular eye out that we are not tricked or decieved by conceptual equivocations. Political liberty and metaphysical liberty are two totally different concepts and so long as we are clear what we are talking about we can use any words we like. The concepts themselves don’t matter since our only interest is in classifying statements as either true or false.

  • I like the internal/ external differences some, but don’t think they are as important as the difference in adult & child freedom.
    Adult freedom is the freedom to act, but the duty to accept the negative consequences, to pay for the results.
    Child freedom is freedom from suffering the negative consequences, freedom from excessive payment.

    Most voters want both, and the nanny state is the attempt to give the voters what they ask for (deserve?). The welfare liberals have a good point about a starving person not really being free, nor really at liberty. That the nanny state fails is, of course, merely because it hasn’t been “done right”.

  • toolkien

    The one thing about all this discussion that hasn’t seemed to have been addressed is the notion that since freedom is a state of mind anyway (as defined under initial reference) a system that is bereft of liberty gains some legitimacy at least in the eyes of the Philosopher King whe chooses to rule. A simple reduction of the Welfare Nanny State is that they feel that imposing rules upon others is ulitmately for their own good and that they’ll get used to it eventually. “If we’ve got to be somewhat heavy handed, and the mass has to go through a period of internalization until they finally see the light, those are the breaks” seems to be the justification for imposing tyranny. Almost has a ‘dictatorship of the proleteriat’ quality.

  • Tom Grey writes:

    “The welfare liberals have a good point about a starving person not really being free, nor really at liberty.”

    No they don’t, this is pure sophistry and an example of the kind of equivocation I was warning about.

  • Paul Coulam is clear-thinking and correct in discriminating between metaphysical freedom and political liberty. In the popular mind the lack of such clarity allows for a very wooly conflation of the two. People sincerely expect a wider range of things they are free to do to confer personal freedom or liberation. This will invariably prove not to be the case at all. Freedom cannot be got from liberties.

    Paul disdains social conservatism and often lambasts my, of course, always clumsy commendations of it. But the heart of conservatism is stability, and the heart of stability is the potential, at least, for some sort of freedom. It might be an extrapolation too far – and open me to charges of a further and no less egregious conflation – to claim that conservatism tends towards the metaphysical. The latter shrinks from such worldly aspects of personality or identity. But it is not mere coincidence that those all too human emotions about nation, land, people, family are associated, by and large, with the political right.

    I offer this line of enquiry to anyone who believes that the only opposite dynamic to liberty is one form or other of authoritarianism, and that conservatism must necessarily be one such form. Personally, I’m convinced otherwise.

  • Friedrich Nietzshe

    The better the state is established, the fainter is humanity.

    To make the individual UNCOMFORTABLE, that is my task.


  • Lynn

    Freedom,Liberty they r synonyms wa bass.

  • Chris

    Liberty is the expression of freedom as restricted by circumstances. Freedom is inherent in any choice.
    Paul Coulam is spot on.
    Metaphysical freedom and political liberty. Political liberty is the practical outcome of the expression of metaphysical freedom, as constrained by one’s circumstances. Simply stated, circumstances infringe upon liberties, not freedoms.

  • Park

    Freedom is what you have.

    Liberty is what you were had.