The concept of freedom, like equality, is something that just about everyone, with very few exceptions, will gladly support in the abstract sense. This in itself is a great thing, but it becomes an issue when the average person’s support for freedom drops quite significantly when the concept is applied to a specific scenario. As author Brian Doherty briefly notes towards the end of his book Radicals for Capitalism, this phenomenon creates a false positive for libertarians when polling the public on their general view on freedom.
So what exactly is freedom?
Freedom, by definition, implies a lack of coercion or force from another. This outside force could be another individual, or an organization such as a government. As long as this externality is applying force to restrict one’s choice, it is limiting freedom.
What many get wrong is to believe that the constraints of reality can limit freedom. A man is less free if he is thrown in jail based on what he puts into his body. But he is not any less free because he suffers the natural consequences of putting harmful things into his body. The harmful biological consequences of his actions are constrained by reality, not by another person. So long as he is the sole bearer of these negative consequences, there is no need to restrict his freedom, and allowing these negative consequences to follow through would not be limiting his freedom.
Freedom can be understood by clarifying the difference between positive and negative rights. Negative rights only require inaction from others, whereas positive rights require action from others. For example, negative rights imply everyone has a natural right to not be aggressed against by others. Positive rights imply that everyone has a right to free healthcare and education, paid for by others. When libertarians defend freedom, they defend negative rights. Freedom exists when an individual’s negative rights are protected. The problem with positive rights is that they often violate negative rights. For someone to have a positive right to free healthcare or education, others’ negative rights would be violated when they are forced to pay for these services. Even if everyone is granted this positive right, it is still a violation of negative rights if the opportunity to be exempted from the service is not available.
If a man is alone on an island with no interference from the outside world, he would be as free as he could be, since all his negative rights would remain unviolated. Granted, being stuck on an island alone doesn’t sound like the idea of a utopia. Most people would gladly choose to live in one of the semi-free societies across the world, where they would lose some of their freedoms, rather than maintain peak freedom on an island.
Fortunately, the choice isn’t limited to two options. Free societies tend to be the most prosperous. When property rights (included within negative rights) are protected, people feel more comfortable taking the risk to start a business or similar investment because they are confident their profits will not be unfairly confiscated. When people are free to pursue their goals and freely interact and trade with others in whatever way they voluntarily see fit, society benefits as a whole, which means people within such a society will, as time goes on, receive better standards of living, including healthcare and education, without requiring the enforcement of positive rights.
To understand what is and isn’t freedom is paramount to defending it. Many activist organizations will falsely claim to defend freedom by supporting authoritarian policies that supposedly protect “the right to not starve” or “the right not to be a victim of a shooting.” As stated earlier, both of these “rights” will often be better protected as a nice side effect of a free society. By protecting freedom, many other important aspects of life will also be protected.