Your liberty is a condition of your actions, marked by the absence of laws and rules imposed on you by other people that restrict, under the sanctions of force and punishment, your capacity to make your own choices. The organization of people imposing these laws is the State.
Morality, or what one regards as right and wrong, does not enter these definitions and does not have to enter the discussion. Morality is your personal choice because one of your choices is deciding for yourself what acts are wrongful and another choice is deciding whether to act wrongfully or not. Not everyone agrees on what acts are wrongful or how to act. In deciding these matters, one has to come to terms with what others (and your God if you are a believer) consider to be wrongful. One does not live in a vacuum. Life is social. If you consider robbery to be rightful and others (and your God) do not, you can expect consequences if you engage in robberies.
My personal notion is that wrongful acts are those that injure others by various ways of invading their persons, lives, and property. But people have different ideas about property and different ideas about what is wrongful. This may cause the workings out of human relationships under liberty to vary in practice, but the above definition of liberty still stands. Liberty is your freedom to decide matters without being forced.
Liberty does not equate to lawlessness. Liberty does not exclude that you live under laws and rules of your own choosing, for you may choose laws and rules that you prefer, such as laws against crimes like murder and robbery. Your liberty excludes laws being forced upon you against your will but allows you the scope to choose laws to live with.
The State consists of all those people that force laws upon you without your consent. This means that the State decides what is right and wrong and imposes its ideas on both its willing and unwilling subjects. A State imposes its morality on all citizens within its realm.
Liberty even includes that you choose to become a State and use force on others. A person who wishes to circumvent the State so as to enhance his liberty to commit acts against others that they regard as wrongful is just as much an enemy of the people he wrongs as is the State. He is basically out to replace the State by his own State. He wants to impose force and punishment on others and/or he wants them to behave in accordance with his idea of what is wrongful. He wants to impose his morality on others. That is what a State does via its laws.
I personally consider injuring others by invasion to be wrongful, but that is a subjective statement, not a statement of objective fact. We have to recognize that liberty includes the liberty for others to do what we consider to be wrongful things. There is no uniformity of morality. There is no objective right or wrong that can be proven or that everyone recognizes. This inability to prove an objective morality does not mean that man is doomed to live in chaos. Far from it. If there exist groups of people with willing agreement on morality, and there always are such groups, this coalescence of values greatly enhances the prospects of peaceful societies. These societies can co-exist. These groups can be quite large and lend a high degree of stability to the greater Society that comprises many component societies.
Those who favor liberty argue that the benefits of liberty and rival laws far outweigh the costs of having a State impose its morality on everyone and every society via its laws. The State basically tends to homogenize and eliminate societies within its borders. It merges different social institutions into State. The greater Society becomes the State, and vice versa. Liberty allows societies to flourish side-by-side.
In practice, the State is a complex organization. By rough but still useful analogy, one may think of the State’s organization as being like that of a corporation. A corporation has a chief executive officer; a State has a president or a premier or a dictator or a chief-of-state. A corporation has officers; a State has Congressmen or parliamentarians or legislators. A corporation has managers; a State has officials. A corporation has employees; a State has bureaucrats. A corporation has owners; a State has voters. A corporation has customers; a State has citizens.
A corporation has rivalry within its domain among departments, employees and employers, managers, and so on. So does a State. Neither is monolithic. Within a State, voters sometimes win on some laws, and sometimes lose on others. Lawmakers and executives may be at odds. Lawmakers are divided. Lawmakers and bureaucrats may be at odds. There are all sorts of rivalries over laws and law enforcement.
Since the leaders of the State have powers that greatly exceed those of others in the State, we often think of the State as being concentrated among those leaders. They represent the State or are its focal point. They coordinate its activities. They control agendas. They initiate the making of laws and carrying out of laws. They approve and disapprove. Still, the activities of voters, agencies, bureaucrats, and others in the State cannot be entirely disregarded. There is a great deal of pulling and hauling that goes on.
The people who force laws on you include all those people in the State. This includes voters and all those who participate in the making and implementation of these laws, such as parliaments that make laws, executives who carry them out, corporations that influence the State’s lawmakers, judges who interpret laws, tax collectors, agencies and rule-makers, and, of course, voters.
When you vote, you are part of the State. When you contribute to a political campaign, you are part of the State. When you run for office, you are part of the State. When you are employed by the State to do its tasks, you are part of the State. In all these instances, you are participating in actively forcing laws upon other people. When you are a vendor to the State (or the State is your customer), you are not part of the State.
When you approve of a law of the State, there is no conflict of that law with your liberty. When you disapprove of a law and find it forced on you, then the condition of your liberty is being restricted: you are unable to make certain choices without facing sanctions. You, as a citizen of a State (which is a legal designation created by States) find yourself on both the giving and receiving end of laws. You approve of some laws, and you disapprove of others. You may approve of a law against robbery while disapproving a law against alcohol consumption.
In reality, you may find, even with liberty, that you cannot choose every law that you want. Your choice may be restricted to packages of laws. Liberty then has to be understood as the absence of laws and rules imposed on you by other people that restrict, under the sanctions of force and punishment, your capacity to make choices over packages of laws. In reality, liberty may mean that you accept a certain number of laws of which you disapprove because, at the same time, you accept other laws of which you approve. Nevertheless, if the laws could be unpackaged and your range of choices could be enhanced, then your liberty could be enhanced. To keep matters simple, I will continue to speak of the case of one law at a time, but what I say applies equally well to packages of laws.
When you are outvoted on a law, your liberty diminishes. When you vote on a law that you approve of, your liberty does not diminish. However, you diminish the liberty of others who disapprove of that law. The minority or dissenting group of voters on any side of a law, finds its liberty restricted. If the vote is 53-47, then 47 percent of voters find their liberty is diminished.
This is not the whole story, because many people do not vote who have given up on the process of voting. Suppose the non-voters dissent. Then the entire dissenting group can be a majority of all people in the country. Out of 100 possible voters, suppose 35 do not vote. Suppose that the remaining 65 vote 33-32 to pass a law. Then, in fact, 33 people approve of the law and 67 people disapprove.
Extending your liberty means extending the range of your choices made under laws of your own choosing and not under laws made by others and imposed on you. Liberty does not mean lawlessness, unless you choose to live in a condition of lawlessness. It means having a choice of laws, or consenting to laws.
Let us consider extensions of liberty in which no injury by invasive action is done to anyone else. In this case, those who are intent on expanding liberty aim only to extend their own liberty. I call this extending liberty rightfully.
Why limit the extension of liberty to one’s own liberty? The State, by definition, is that organization of people that imposes laws. Extending your liberty rightfully means reducing the hold of the State’s laws over your choices. It does not mean your changing the laws so as to affect what you conceive to be the liberty of others. You do not know how they might dispose of their liberty. You do not know what they consider to be rightful and wrongful choices. Their liberty involves their capacity to make their own choices. If you substitute your social and political framework for what theirs might be, then you are a State. That is the reason for limiting extensions of liberty to one’s own liberty.
Thus, extending your liberty rightfully does not mean smashing or abolishing the State, because there are those among your fellow countrymen who want some of the laws made by the State. If you abolish the State, you abolish the exercise of their liberty. Extending your liberty rightfully does not entail your taking control of the State and changing its laws to suit your preferences. That too diminishes the liberty of those of your countrymen who prefer laws different from those you may make. What you think of as a law that enhances the well-being of others, by enhancing what you conceive of as their liberty does not necessarily raise their well-being. Suppose you control the State and make abortion illegal (or legal) under your conception of liberty. Either course is bound to make some people unhappy.
If the State happens to disintegrate while you are extending your liberty rightfully, that is different from your smashing, uprooting, or abolishing it. The State, remember, is an organization of people. It does not just disintegrate like a corpse moldering in the grave. It disintegrates by the choices and actions of people within the organization. If, while people are extending their liberty while reducing the State’s influence over them, the members of the State decide to alter its size, content, reach, and power, or even dissolve the enterprise altogether, that is their decision. You are not uprooting their enterprise. They are. If we observe changes in a State’s power or activities, they are always done by members of the State. They do not happen of their own accord.
There is no need for you, in extending your liberty rightfully, to uproot or battle the entire organization of the State. The idea is to diminish its control over the decisions you make for your life. You may join with others in that endeavor. Suppose that you are paying for defense that you don’t want or need. Suppose that you associate with others who feel the same way. Your goal is to reduce the hold of the State over you in making you support something you don’t want. The State’s goal is to force you to support its defense establishment.
If your group is able to reduce the State’s impositions, even a wee bit, then you and others in that group are a wee bit more free. If the State, which may include your neighbors, allows that to happen because it’s too costly for them to resist it, that’s their choice. If you combine with a million others and find a way to reduce the defense burden on yourselves, while it remains as high or higher on those not in your group, then your liberty goes up. If these others hang together and spend what they want to or force each other to spend, that is their doing, not yours.
A coalition like this does not preclude that you later form a coalition with some of those who opposed you on defense. You may make alliances with members of the State if it suits your purpose of extending your liberty.
Any success in obtaining differential treatment by a State that rightfully extends the liberty of those who obtain the favored treatment is a victory for those who obtain the treatment that they view as better. That treatment simultaneously is the preferred action of the State. That is, faced with your group’s peaceful or rightful resistance and having made its cost-benefit calculation, the State has done the best it could for itself by giving in to your group.
The basic idea of extending liberty (without oneself becoming a State and imposing on others) is the key principle. It is likely to be seen by a great many people as a moral activity, since it involves no injury by invading the lives, persons, or property of others. If there is a society within a State that obtains an enterprise zone or a tax-free zone, or a society whose members need not be drafted into the armed forces, or a society that makes its own laws, these societies are not invading members of the State.
Members of the State may resent the differential treatment. They may accuse others of free-riding on things the State is doing. If the State elects to invade others for such reasons, the State will bear costs. These costs will rise steeply the larger the group that is being invaded. The State’s violence will be exposed. Its actions will be baldly seen for what they are: attempts to force tribute from others. The State’s propaganda machinery will be undermined.
These matters are at present hypothetical. We are far from such situations. We are actually in the reverse situation in which the State continually is making inroads upon the liberty of its own citizens. Those who favor liberty have not succeeded in preventing these inroads. They may do better to consider forming large coalitions that seek small extensions of liberty for themselves while leaving the rest of the State intact. Instead of David attacking Goliath, David and his host induce Goliath to make a concession. One thing may then lead to another.
This article has benefitted from conversations with Adam Knott, but he is not responsible for its content. All errors are mine.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.