On Liberty

john-stuart-millPerhaps it is a little conceited of me to steal the title of Mill’s classic work for this post, however it seemed the only title apt for this train of though. Recently, I’ve been reading and viewing many historical documentaries, and it made me think of what actually constitutes liberty. We live in a modern world, with the internet, and the human freedom index, which shows the Western Democracies as the most free in the world relating to its metrics. Yet, they also have the highest volumes of laws and regulations of any nations in history. In fact, one of the major contentions in BREXIT was not only the volume of laws and regulations, but also who was permitted to influence their passing. Laws are rules that are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, with the social institutions having the power to coerce people into following them. After all, law without enforcement is moral philosophy.

However, this seems to be a contradiction to me, that the most free societies are also those with the strongest rule of law. The United States has 5000 Federal criminal laws with 10.000 – 300.000 regulations that can be enforced [1]. The European Commission passed a total of 49,699 laws between 1993 and 2014 [3]. The UK Parliament  So, what strikes me as strange, is the thesis that these countries are the most free while their citizens are regulated and controlled by law to such an extent.

Laws an regulations apply to every aspect of life. They govern interpersonal behavior, criminalizing certain behavior, such as assault, rape, murder and various other forms of violent crime. They cover what we say, in the form of hate speech laws, libel laws and blasphemy laws. They cover what we may do to ourselves, such as assisted suicide. What we may put in our bodies, banning certain narcotics and permitting others. When you can consume alcohol, where you can consume alcohol, which types of alcohol you may consume. They regulate what products we may sell, buy or even what we can give away. They cover how these products are to be produced, where they can be produced, why they can be produced, by who they are produced by and whom they are produced for.

Yet, somehow we live in the freest societies in history. I suppose that in a sense this is true, we have democratically elected governments in both Europe and the U.S.A, which to some extent indicates that the population of these countries brings it on themselves. Yet, it was argued by Hobbes in “Leviathan” back in 1651, that government never gets smaller, it always grows and takes on a life of its own. Perhaps this is what leads to the inflation of statutes and laws that rob people of their freedom. Bill Clinton even passed a law taxing toilet paper in 1996. There was a cry for government to stay out of people’s bedrooms, yet there are laws regulating marriage, civil partnerships, abortion and the most recent one feminine specific medical needs as part of the Affordable care act.

The Necessary Evil of Government

The debt burden for the average U.S graduate in 2016 was just north of $37.000, which means they leave College, ready to start their lives burdened by debt [4,5]. As they settle down, get married, buy a home and cars, this quickly increases, ensuring that they must avoid breaking the ever increasing volume of laws, and maintain their employment so that they can pay their debt. If they finally manage to mostly get their house paid off, minimize their credit card debt, and finally pay off student loans, then their children need help to pay for college so they can start on the same spiral.

Combined with a society that prizes consumption and steadily has increased “needs” for consumption, translated into “the modern lifestyle” that involves buying a new phone every 2 years, a new laptop every 2 – 3 years, sometimes more often. The only new axiom being that marketers can always make people buy something they do not need. This has been driven by among others “female liberation” that thanks to females entering the paid work sphere, means more income per family, which means more things the family can buy. The human tendency to want to keep up with the neighbors, and to ensure that their children have the best possible start in life mixes with a culture that prizes consumption and thus create mountains of debt.

In purchasing everything that is supposed to make life better, people are sacrificing their future freedom for present consumption. For instance, the government likes to tell people that they should buy property and own a house. However, one never truly owns a house, one rents it from the government at a cost of property taxation and various other costs.

The government steps in and takes a cut out of all this, as people’s incomes grow, that is more income tax, as properties grow so do property taxes, one can always be certain that a government will be able to tax whatever they incentivized you to do. The reasoning behind Hobbes describing a government as a Leviathan [8] , is that a government rarely becomes smaller, and over time thus transforms into a monster. A small government begets a medium government, a medium government a large government and a large government a Leviathan.

Whenever Government must get involved, the consequence is more government, not less government. While in some cases, this may be positive, in many cases it means restricting freedoms of citizens in unnecessary ways. Drug and alcohol prohibition would be examples where an array of arguments exist that in some cases, the punishment is worse than the crime.

What is Freedom Really?

The internet is in many forms a great invention, it allows millions of people to share information and communicate, yet it also brought back the lynch-mob and the pillory. Within small communities the social tools for compliance, such as shunning, shaming, punishing, guilting and so on, have always played a role to ensure the balance between individual and group. The free countries according to the Human Freedom Index [6], that measures 76 distinct indicators within the following areas some of which, I will cover:

  • Rule of Law
  • Security and Safety
  • Movement
  • Religion
  • Association, Assembly and Civil Society
  • Expression
  • Relationships
  • Size of Government
  • Legal System and Property Rights
  • Access to Sound Money
  • Freedom to Trade Internationally
  • Regulation of Credit, Labor and Business

The top 10 countries according to the metrics in 2015 were in order, Hong Kong (province of China), Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Ireland, United Kingdom and Sweden. The highest levels of freedom are in Northern Europe and North America (United States and Canada). The index views itself as adopting a view in the Lockian tradition, in which freedom implies that an individual “not be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own“, this comes from Locke’s “Second Treatise of Civil Government” [7]. They continue:

“Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint.4 (That contrasts with a mechanistic concept whereby anything that limits a person’s ability to do what she wants—be it a natural, physical barrier or another person who happens to be standing in her way—is considered an infringement on her freedom.) Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others.” [6]

They further, draw a distinction between positive liberty, which they define as requiring the removal of hindrances or constraints that impede one’s personal improvement or fulfillment of his potential. This is contrasted with negative liberty, which in the simplest terms means non-interference by others. The former is argued to undermine the latter, as people inevitably have conflicting views on what self-improvement is and how to achieve it. Thus, one persons view on self-improvement could mean removing rights from other people through conflict. Thus, their measure is

“we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise” [6]

Laws and regulations by their nature exists to interfere with and limit the accepted behavior of people, to the preference of the majority within a democracy. So, it is somewhat interesting to me that the countries where interference by government is listed as being at a minimum, also appears to have a very high amount of laws that interfere with and limit the behavior of people. Does this indicate simply that the laws within these countries are those, which are the least authoritarian?

The index is highly weighted towards economic freedom, illustrated by the following quote by Trotsky:

‘In a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.’” [6]

This quote gets quite directly to the point that if you take away someone’s ability to earn a living, one can substantially restrict freedom not by acting but simply by implication. In this regard, the internet is both hero and villain, in that it permits people to earn a living from a relatively small number of consumers. While on the other hand, we have also had many cases where the response to views, actions or expressions of what is deemed immoral, unacceptable, has been to attempt to take away the ability of people to make a living. This illustrates the point about positive freedoms, because in these cases a cardinal argument is frequently related to the right of people not to be uncomfortable or offended by others.

Rule of Law

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” Thomas Jefferson

The rule of law has previously been touched on, to point out the irony of the freest states having a high volume of laws. From the Jefferson quote, one can draw multiple principles of what makes a law violate or be in accordance with maximum liberty.

A) It must be universal.

B) It must follow the principle that the only actions not permitted are those that violate the universal rights of all men and women.

C) All human beings have the same set of rights.

It also begets one question; what is a tyrant?

Point A, B, and C are complimentary in that, both A and B, are founded on C. All humans have certain inalienable rights. From these rights they have the ability to engage in certain actions, however their actions must be constrained by the equal rights of others. Finally, this must be applied universally. From this, it follows that in order for a law to be just, it must be built on C, and may only ensure that actors do not engage in actions that violate B.

However, this can be taken to the point of reductio ad absurdum very rapidly, and thus result in laws that are not in accordance with the original intent. For instance, if one in C posits that all humans have right not to be offended, and following this enact a law that states that you may never offend another, then the consequence of this is quite absurd as when one communicates one may never know if a statement will offend in advance. Thus, in order for such a law to function, people must be mind-readers. Laws are frequently formulated with good intent in accordance with the values of the person who formulates it, however in order for a law to be viewed as maximally just, it must have the support of the majority of the people who are required to follow it. Exemplified, a great majority would agree that all humans have a right to life, and therefore, taking someone’s life would violate the universal rights.

How free can a person be when governed by up to 300.000 laws, covering topics from AA batteries to Zealotism?

Security and Safety

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin

Liberty and Security have an interesting relationship in the same manner information security and user friendliness. The more secure one makes a computer system the less user friendly it becomes and the more secure and safe one makes a state, the less free it becomes. This is exemplified in the gun control debate, where one side argues that less access to firearms would limit the availability for people who utilize them to violate the inalienable rights of other citizens. However, the other side argues that an armed populace that may revolt against tyranny. This is strangely enough the embodiment of Franklin’s quote, as the former wishes to purchase perceived safety from a present threat, whereas the latter refuses to give up an essential liberty, the right to protect oneself.

Another example comes in the form of the various security agencies and their ability to gather information on citizens and other people within their jurisdiction, which is argued to be in order to defend the population from those who are plotting to harm them. Whereas on the other hand this is also a violation of the right to privacy.


The freedom of movement refers to the ability to travel both within and outside the state of ones residence. In addition to the ability of women to move. One could argue that this is an inalienable right, to leave a state or area that is not suited to ones preference to one which is more in line with the personal values of each individual. However, this is one of those points that move beyond national policy and towards international policy. The pragmatic difference in not being permitted to leave an area, as opposed to not being permitted to enter another is non-existent.

Freedom of Religion

In the document [6] outlined as freedom to establish a religious organization and the autonomy of such organization. However, perhaps are more interesting measure would be the existence of diverse groups of though on this issue, where there exists no conflict. On a more individual level, the pizzeria that would rather not cater a same sex wedding, was pilloried quite heavily on social media, as has been the case with other religious objectors. The concept of “voting with your wallet” though as American as apple pie, is the exact sentiment that Trotsky described in the quote from earlier.

Association, Assembly and Civil Society

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that.” Hillary Clinton

One of the larger headers, this covers the freedom of association, freedom of assembly and demonstration, autonomy of political parties, professional organizations and educational, sporting and cultural organizations, and the ability to establish such. However, one of the more interesting threats to these fundamental liberties is the “guilt by association” applied by Secretary Clinton in the above quote. Seeking to paint with a broad brush to tar and feather those who have associated under the Trump banner.

This is a good example of freedom not being sought suppressed by the state directly by overt coercion, but by citizens through the utilization of pillory tactics.


My favorite heading, covers press killings, laws, regulations, political pressures and controls on of the media. Freedom of access to foreign information and state control of the internet. What would have been interesting would have been corporate controls over the news media, especially in a multi-national capacity. If one businessperson owns 100% of media channels, and operate them for profit this creates certain incentives. Secondly, it creates a situation where the ability to influence large groups of the population lays with few people. As we have seen the greatest threat to freedom of expression comes not necessarily from the state, but from other citizens.

The campaign against Tim Hunt is a great example in that this was a highly renowned scientist becoming the victim of a media storm, which forced his resignation from his position at University College London, over a brief toast at a lunch [9]. This case in many ways exemplifies that threats against freedom of expression, may not only originate from the state.

State control of the internet is perhaps the next big hurdle for freedom of expression, where the ability to partake in the public discourse from behind a pseudonym is now being pushed against. Furthermore, with extensive surveillance of internet traffic from government, in addition to the threats posed by the major data companies, it will be an interesting 5 – 10 years. As more things move digital, the more transparent certain things become. It is still possible to stay somewhat under the digital radar, by using encrypted communications, cash over cards, limiting social media presence, and utilizing a pseudonym. However, I expect that it is only a matter of time before there is a push to remove anonymity from the internet, most likely in the guise of “anti-harassment” policies.

Summary and Conclusions

The Human Freedom Index distinction between positive and negative freedom is an important one, especially the negative freedom to repeat the definition:

“we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise” [6]

One would be hard-pressed to explain alcohol or drug prohibition, “Affirmative Consent“, Diversity legislation and many other examples in terms of this principle. They do however fit nicely within the definition of “Positive Liberty” defined as

positive liberty, which requires an individual removing of constraints that impede one’s personal improvement or the fulfillment of his potential.”

I would argue that a major anti-liberty force is the people, in their rush to trade freedom for perceived security. Those who do not make their thoughts known, referred to by Scott Adams as “Shadow Trump supporters”, who do not exercise their right to free expression, out of fears of consequences they will suffer from their peers.  Those who avoid association in political organizations, avoid avoid partaking in protests and civil society, because their views would result in them being called deplorable for being outside of the accepted opinions. Those who elect to not speak of their religious affiliations or lack-thereof or who go against their convictions in general, because doing so is the only option if they are to not get their livelihood threatened. Those who would sacrifice their freedom for security, and entrusting their freedom to the vicissitudes of representatives who grease the loudest wheel, and have their eyes on being reelected.

Finally, perhaps the worst group, those who trust in the state to protect them, and in doing so encourage a steady stream of rules, regulations and laws that govern virtually every aspect of modern life, in the course of seeking safety and protections, they sacrifice their freedoms. No more clear example of this exists with Prohibition in the United States, where a group tired of the consequences of the heavy alcohol consumption, demanded that the state ban alcohol. The consequence being that criminal enterprises arose to satisfy demand for alcohol.

Liberty ultimately comes down to a person exercising maximum autonomy so long as their exercise of this right does interfere with the right of others to do the same. Under this principle, one could easily argue that the laws that have grown from a twig during the enlightenment to a hedge maze after 200 years or so of democracy. The admiration I have for the authors of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, comes from their ability to formulate this in such a manner that it is still highly relevant.

The concept of freedom has been discussed since the Greeks, including the rights of the individual, the right of the state, and so on. A state at its inception has two tasks, defend its borders from outsiders and resolve disputes between its citizens. From a reductionist standpoint, this can be broken down into the military and the police. The role of the military is to defend a country from external enemies, to ensure the survival of the state. The role of the police is to maintain rule of law within the state.

When someone uses the phrase “Police State” what is often meant is that there are numerous unjust laws, that are enforced vigorously and selectively. In essence, an entire population is criminalized due to the laws and regulations, which is problem one. Problem two is that some people are free to disregard some, if not all of the laws. The simplest way to deal with such a case is to keep laws simple, understandable and universally enforced. Where these laws are based on only being made to protect liberties.

For instance, in the case where a worker complains that another worker has offended them and should be fired. What would be the correct law for such a situation. In lieu of the Trotsky quote from earlier and the principle from therein, that “Obey or Starve” is tantamount to coercion, it would follow that while the former worker perhaps should review their interaction style, the latter worker is attempting to punish behavior with starvation.

“It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.” Bertrand Russell

The State is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. What that end consists of is decided by those who can influence the state. Therefore, it follows that in a democracy, if the majority of people want their rights stripped away and with it their liberty, they can vote for that. However, the result may not live up to expectations. The question is, that with the protections offered in modern constitutes and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, is the threat of the type of authoritarian states represented by Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy really the greatest threat to liberty or has that threat come in a different form this time around?

More Reading

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Common Sense by Thomas Paine


[1] http://townhall.com/tipsheet/mattvespa/2015/06/06/how-many-federal-laws-are-there-again-n2009184

[2] https://fullfact.org/europe/uk-law-what-proportion-influenced-eu/

[3] https://forbritain.org/percentagelaws.pdf

[4] https://studentloanhero.com/student-loan-debt-statistics/

[5] http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/05/08/congratulations-class-of-2015-youre-the-most-indebted-ever-for-now/

[6] http://www.cato.org/human-freedom-index

[7] Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Hunt#Controversy_over_lunchtime_toast_at_WCSJ_2015


7 comments on “On Liberty

  1. UB says:

    What are your thoughts on the latest laws that the UK is currently passing? Surveillance, blocking “adult” content. Will it soon reach China-like state, or will people wake up and react? Strangely, no British person is complaining about these new laws that erode your freedom.


    • I think it is similar to the passing of the Patriot Act in the US or the Data Retention Directive, they are ways to restrict the rights of citizens under guise of protecting them. Ultimately, fear is the tool of government. If one thinks of government as a gigantic risk management system, it can by the law of large numbers prevent the outliers within a series, in effect reducing risk to systemic risk alone. I suspect that few people will react to it, they will throw some hissy fits to begin with, but once the laws are passed people will live with them.

      The danger is that such laws over time serve as great infrastructure when an authoritarian leadership takes control of it.


      • UB says:

        I loved this blog post much more than many others that you wrote. Is there any chance you will keep writing articles not focused on “women” and everything around it?


      • It’s very likely. While much of the blog content is focused on gender dynamics and the likes, I enjoy writing articles like this one a lot. So, I will keep writing them when the inspiration strikes me to do so.


  2. […] the individual. In order for a grouping of individuals to function, each individual is required to give up liberty for security. For instance, in a state of nature man is free to indulge in behaviors that are inherently […]


  3. […] somewhat breach against the original terms over time, wherein the collective Leviathan of the state slowly take away the rights of their population, while seeking more rights for itself. This is merely a function of incentive theory, that leads […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s