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On Liberty

Over at Cato Unbound, there’s a very deep and fascinating discussion going on over the nature of liberty.  Here’s Tom Palmer’s contribution.

I especially like this passage in Tom’s essay; it makes an important point that is, alas, frequently ignored (especially by economists):

In particular, calling wealth or possession of assets liberty introduces something quite different from liberty as a uniquely social concept.  Freedom is an inherently social concept, devoid of meaning outside of society, whereas the concept of assets (or wealth) is not an inherently social concept.  A man all alone on a planet, with no connections with other moral agents, can hardly be said to be either free or unfree.  He doesn’t live in a free society, just as he doesn’t live in a generous society.  For the same reason, he could not be said to be unfree.  He doesn’t live in a society, at all.  Liberty, like generosity and kindness, refers to a relationship among persons (or at least among moral beings of some sort).  (It may involve other terms, as well, but it is nonsensical to invoke the concept of liberty without invoking a multiplicity of persons.)  On the other hand, assets, like hunger and thirst, do not require any relationship with other moral beings.

Bill Gates is certainly wealthier than I am, but he’s not more free than I am.


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