What Is Freedom?

"Freedom" is a term used to mean many different things, even when limited to the political context. To some, freedom means the ability to speak one's mind in public without being put in jail. To others, freedom means having affordable health-care, and gainful employment. To still others, freedom means the ability to take over the media or make demonstrations that disrupt private functions.

However it is defined, freedom is something that all people want, and believe they deserve. This makes the term particularly valuable to politicians. By advocating "freedom," they can promise to satisfy each person's desire—while evading the fact that the desires of people often conflict.

Why Define Freedom?

Why define any term? To have a clear understanding of it, and to assure that people understand each other when they use it to communicate. When a term is misunderstood, confusion occurs, and bad things can result, ranging from hurt feelings to broken promises, to wars. To prevent these things, language must be used well. Without clear definitions, using language can cause more problems than it solves.

A definition of "freedom" is particularly important. Freedom is something that people are often willing to fight to protect. By "fight," I mean with fists and weapons. Two people who hold differing notions of freedom will eventually find themselves at odds.

The non-violent resolution of a conflict between persons requires a process of thinking and talking. Thinking and talking require clear definitions.

Unfortunately, many people wait for a conflict to arise before they start thinking and talking. This is potentially dangerous.

Properly defining "freedom" proactively is a means to living peacefully with others.

Freedom Defined

It should be obvious that freedom is not just the ability to do or have something you want. Unfortunately, this is not obvious to some people. They often speak of freedom in the plural, e.g. "our freedoms," as if there were only many different kinds of freedom, but no general idea which applies universally and settles any contradictions between the specific kinds. Such "freedoms" are most often discussed in complementary, contradictory pairs, as in "my freedom to walk where I want, versus your freedom to keep trespassers off your property."

This notion of "freedom" means nothing more than "an unobstructed desire." It lends no more validation to any desire than any other. It gets us nowhere in the resolution of interpersonal conflicts.

Freedom, as I seek to define it, must serve as a standard for resolving disputes between individuals. It must assist us in identifying which preferences are valid when the preferences of two people conflict.

To be such a standard, freedom must be an objective, abstract notion; a notion that applies in the same way to every person, independent of his preferences, and provides a means of determining who, in any conflict between persons, is attacking freedom, and who is upholding it.

Freedom, then, is a state of affairs between people. It depends not on what people want, but on what people do.

I define freedom as the state of affairs which exists between people who do not initiate physical force on one another but instead deal with each other strictly on a voluntary basis.

What is the basis for my choice of this definition? It's each person's right to live his own life. Freedom is each person's respect, in action, for the rights of other people.

This essay will not discuss rights at length, however. Here I seek to describe freedom rather than rigorously defend it so that the reader can better understand what he may or may not ultimately choose to defend.

Forms of Physical Force

Since I have defined freedom in terms of physical force, I must clarify what physical force is.

Physical force is the imposition of one's will upon another, by physical means.

Such imposition comes in two forms: physical harm, and imprisonment. The first is an attack on someone's body. The second is an attack on his action.

The notion of physical harm should be clear to the reader. Some obvious examples are of punching someone, stabbing him, shooting him, pushing him out of a window, crushing him, or infecting him with a disease.

The notion of imprisonment may require clarification. To imprison someone doesn't require a prison. It requires only that the person be prevented from escaping some form of physical restraint, whether locked in a room, tied to a chair, or pinned to the floor by someone strong and heavy. Imprisonment is the physical prevention of escape. As such, it must be distinguished from mere physical exclusion. Locking your house at night, to keep burglars out imprisons no one.

Physical Force as Gaining Another's Compliance

Physical force is the act of gaining a person's compliance by physical means. The form of compliance need not be complex. Perhaps all that is desired of the victim is for him to die, lie still, bleed, or scream in pain. Other examples of physical force are more purposeful: torturing a man until he divulges a secret formula, or punching a woman so you can take her purse. Physical force is having your way with someone, using physical methods instead of asking permission.

Because a person's will is involved, physical force cannot be understood purely perceptually. To cut someone's abdomen is a form of harm, but it cannot be construed as force if the person doing the cutting is a surgeon doing it with the permission of a well-informed patient. Likewise, to lock someone in a room for a limited time isn't physical force if it is done at his request. Physical force is against someone's will.

It should also be noted that for an action to be construed as physical force, it must be imposed by one person upon another. To accidentally cut your own foot (on your own knife which you've left on your own floor), or to lock yourself in a room, are not cases of physical force, because they are not interpersonal. Physical force is a social concept. As such, it refers to the actions of people upon others.

Force and Life

There is an important relationship between physical force and human life. Physical harm is the destruction of a person's body. Imprisonment is the destruction of a person's ability to act. Someone's body, and his ability to act, are the basic means by which a person lives. Therefore physical force, in either form, is an attack on human life.

Life is action. To hobble a person, or to circumscribe his action, is to attack his life. An attack on life is what constitutes harm. Physical harm is the most basic form of harm. It is the most direct attack on someone's life.

There are some who may object to my calling any form of physical harm an attack on life, instead preferring that I only consider homicide to be such an attack. Such thinking equates life with mere survival. In my thinking, the issue is not whether an attacker leaves one alive. It is how much life he has taken away. Homicide is a special attack on life in that it takes away all of it.

There are even some who may object to my calling imprisonment a form of harm. To me, this viewpoint seems deliberately to avoid progressing beyond perceptual observation. The argument claims that since a man in prison may have an intact and healthy body, he has not been harmed. Regarding harm, however, I am not fundamentally concerned with whether someone's body is intact, but whether his life is being taken away from him. Imprisonment, then, is certainly a form of harm.


Given the above basic forms of physical force, more abstract forms of physical force can be derived. The first step of this derivation involves the introduction of a threat.

A threat is a harm that is likely to happen. To threaten is to endanger.

To threaten someone, e.g. by aiming a gun at his face, while not actually physically harming him, is, properly conceived, an instance of physical force against him. This is because, like imprisonment, a threat is an attack on someone's ability to act. With a gun in one's face, one's own purposes are dispensed with, and one's existence continues only at the permission of the gunman. Such an assault, while not immediately destroying a body, is an act of destroying someone's life, for a while, by forcing him into the role of a zombie.

Since a threat is a means of attacking life, it is properly considered a form of harm. Each threat of harm is, effectively, an attack in itself.

This is why it is proper for someone to physically attack a person who is holding them at gunpoint. To threaten someone with a weapon is to attack them, and therefore warrants forcible self-defense. The argument: "But he hadn't harmed you yet," is false. To threaten is to harm.


Human existence benefits immensely from the use of material goods created or obtained by humans. The principle of private property holds that items belong to certain individuals by virtue of the effort exerted to produce or obtain the items. Since a person's property is the product of his actions, stealing his property is a way of taking his life. Therefore, stealing is an indirect form of physical force.

Like pointing a gun in someone's face, stealing is the redirection of someone's efforts to serve one's own purpose. Unlike direct threat, though, which takes someone's life one moment at a time, theft can take someone's life in large amounts at once and can make that person's life serve a thief's existence long after the robbery has occurred.

Theft, then, properly conceived, is slavery across time and space, by material means. It is the use of someone's past efforts to serve one's own future existence.

Some may object to my characterization of theft as a form of slavery. "Theft is impersonal," they might say. "Slavery concerns the ownership of one person by another." But why own a person anyway? To have what he produces. Theft has the same goal.

Some may object that theft isn't slavery because theft does not imprison a person. But is imprisonment essential to slavery? No. Imprisonment is a means of seizing a slave's labor. Essentially, the meaning of slavery is "to take another's labor against his will." Property is the material effect of labor, so theft is a form of slavery—a particularly powerful kind because so much labor can be taken in so little time.

Fraud is simply a sophisticated and deceptive form of theft and therefore constitutes an even more indirect form of physical force.

Trade and Physical Force

To trade is to give someone something they want in exchange for something you want. Trade is the antithesis of physical force. Both parties are willing. No one is harmed, imprisoned, threatened, defrauded, or stolen from. The process is completely voluntary.

If either party is forced to trade, the transaction is not a trade, but a theft.

Some may say that one person's choice not to trade "forces" someone who may wish to trade. This is an equivocation. It is not physical force to deny people opportunities you might provide.

Our desires can run counter to the actions of others. When this happens, to respect freedom, we must carefully consider whether physical force has been used before we employ it ourselves.

Freedom, therefore, requires the recognition of the right to refuse to trade, i.e. the right to set one's price. This implies, then, that there can be no such thing as a right to be traded with, or the right to a "fair price." Such a "right" amounts to a right to steal.

If even though you make a great offer, the only way you can gain its acceptance is by using force, you are a thief, not a trader. The moment you use an ability to harm as a means of "convincing" people that your offer is good is the moment your offer becomes worthless.

Government as Institutionalized Physical Force

The government in any society is an agency that has the legal power to harm individuals. It is the centralized agency whose basic method is physical force.

Law is basically an ultimatum from the government. It is a statement of what must or must not be done, under penalty of harm.

Some governments are based on law, and some are not. A government based on law isn't necessarily just, but at least it might be predicted. A government not based on law is based only on the arbitrary desires of the ruler or rulers.

I hold that the proper purpose of government is to protect human life, and not to destroy it or take it away. Since freedom is the state in which one's life is secured from interference by others, a proper government protects freedom and does not infringe upon it.

To pass government regulation forcing someone into a transaction violates his right to live. It is to require the person to ignore his own judgment, and to comply instead with the requirements of the government, under threat of harm. It turns the person into the government's zombie.

The government, when thus used, is, in principle, like a gun aimed at each person's head. The result is the same. The extent of the oppression is the extent to which people become fundamentally concerned with compliance rather than with living their lives. An example of this is the huge amount of effort expended on U.S. income-tax return preparation annually.


Employment is a form of trade. It is the trading of labor for a wage or some other compensation. Proper employment is voluntary, not only on the part of the worker (who would otherwise be a slave) but on the part of the employer. This means that the worker works for no less than he chooses, and the employer pays no more than he chooses. If the employer chooses to pay too little, or if the worker chooses to be paid too much, employment does not occur. The worker may consider the employer to be stingy, or the employer may consider the worker to overrate himself, but for either of them to use force to gain the other's compliance amounts to extortion.

For the government to be the agent of such extortion does not alter its essential nature: the violation of a worker's or employer's right to live his own life—to seek out the options he considers worth his time or money.


Should an employer legally be allowed to discriminate among potential employees on the basis of skin color, sex, or any other essentially unimportant personal attribute?

Before answering that question, consider the following questions:

  • Should an employee be legally allowed to discriminate among potential employers on the basis of skin color or sex, or any other essentially unimportant personal attribute?
  • Should a consumer be legally allowed to purchase goods only from black store owners?
  • Should a store owner be legally allowed to refuse to sell goods to women?
  • Should a publisher be legally allowed to advertise only black-owned businesses?

Which answers to the above questions would uphold freedom?

The Will of Ignorant People

Some people have stupid ideas. What is to be done about them? There are two choices:

  • Force them to do what is right.
  • Leave them free to discover the error of their ways.

Many intellectuals today opt for the former, confident not only that their beliefs are correct, but that their methods are effective and proper.

I believe that while I may have superior beliefs to an ignoramus, forcing my values on him is neither proper nor effective. To be forced to do something makes one blind to the value of doing it. It just makes one a zombie, which is hardly better than an ignoramus.

My view is that the will of ignorant people is as sacred as the will of the wise, so long as their will is not to initiate physical force against others.

Why is the freedom of the ignorant so important? Because freedom is what destroys ignorance. A slave can remain ignorant. He need not change his beliefs, because regardless of them, he must do what he is told. Since he is not in control of his life, he has no need or motive to develop the wisdom that control of his own life would require.

Freedom makes wisdom possible, by making fruitful the contemplation of alternatives. A mind concerned with compliance cannot afford the luxury of a forbidden vision. Someone given a choice between death and taxes will choose taxes and eventually will consider them as necessary as his eventual death.

An enslaved body creates a dull mind. If one is a true enemy of ignorance, then one must defend the ignorant from the "wise" who would harm them.

We all start life ignorant. To be enslaved because we are more ignorant than others is hardly just. We must all be free to test our visions, stumble, and learn from our errors. We must be allowed these errors, so long as they do not cause us to interfere in the lives of others.

We must each discover for ourselves what is right, and we must not force our beliefs, customs, habits, or values upon others. We must protect ourselves, and each other, from those who would use the threat of harm as a means of gaining our acceptance of their wishes, no matter how wise those wishes may ultimately be. 

The looming threat of harm at the will of other people is the enemy of rational thought, and rational thought is the only way anyone becomes wise.

Freedom is the only way to defend wisdom, and, consequently, the human existence that depends on it.


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