George H. Smith explores some theoretical aspects of a rights‐​based conception of freedom.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

I began this series of essays with the intent of providing historical background that will aid our understanding of the rights‐​based conception of freedom, as found in the writings of John Locke and many other classical liberals and libertarians. Some of my discussions, however, may seem to have wandered off‐​topic, so this essay will refocus our attention on some key theoretical issues and examine them in a bit more detail. What you are about to read is both a summary and an elaboration of some of my earlier discussions. (For the sake of convenience but at the risk of oversimplification, I shall dub the two kinds of freedom discussed here the Lockean and the Hobbesian.)

In the Lockean tradition freedom was commonly viewed as a state of affairs that exists between two or more persons. Freedom, in other words, pertains to an interpersonal relationship. A given relationship is regarded as “free” to the extent that no one (including a government) violates the rights of anyone else.

It was this conception of freedom that led to John Locke’s claim that the purpose of law is to “preserve and enlarge freedom,” not to abolish or diminish it. A social relationship is described as “free” if all parties in that relationship can exercise their equal and reciprocal rights without coercive interference by others. According to this approach, it is possible, in theory, to have a political state of “perfect freedom.” This would consist of a society whose government is strictly limited to the protection and enforcement of individual rights. To the extent that the powers of government are limited in this fashion, we are said to have a “free society.”

This conception of freedom has been assailed for being value‐​laden. A correct definition of “freedom,” we are told, should be value‐​free, so as not to prejudice the outcome of political debates. At this point critics of a rights‐​based notion of freedom typically resurrect the conception of freedom defended by Thomas Hobbes, Robert Filmer, Jeremy Bentham, and other philosophers who argued that all laws – including laws that prohibit murder, theft, and other criminal acts – necessarily restrict freedom. Freedom, properly conceived, should mean the freedom to do whatever one wishes to do without the coercive interference of others.

According to the Hobbesian conception, if a law prohibits rape then we should say that the potential rapist is not “free” to rape, because his action has been restrained by coercive laws. Of course, the coercive act of rape would itself interfere with the freedom of the victim, and to the extent that a woman resists her attacker, she is also restraining his freedom to rape. Moreover, if the rapist attempts to overcome the resistance of his victim, then he is restraining her freedom to resist; and should she continue to resist, then she is restraining the freedom of the rapist to overcome her resistance – and so on, until we find ourselves enmeshed in an endless network of conflicting freedoms.

This Hobbesian conception of freedom focuses on individual actors within a social relationship, not on the nature of the relationship as a whole. A Lockean would analyze the rape scenario in a much different manner than I have just described. The rapist, in using force against his victim, has introduced physical force (or the threat of force) into a relationship where it did not previously exist. At that point in time, beginning with the initiation of force, a coercive state of affairs is said to exist between two people, and that state of affairs will continue to exist until the threat of rape is removed. Thus, if the victim successfully uses force to repel her attacker, her use of force ends (at least temporarily) the coercive state of affairs that was generated by the rapist. This marks the essential difference between force used offensively and force used defensively. The defensive use of force can terminate a coercive state of affairs.

This, I think, is a reasonable interpretation of Locke’s conception of social freedom. My account is also consistent with subsequent classical liberals, such as Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer, who explicitly formulated principles of equal freedom. All such writers were thinking of freedom in terms of a social relationship, a state of affairs that exists over time, not merely in terms of individuals and individual acts considered in isolation from their broader social context. That this idea of freedom involves value concepts, such as rights and justice, was understood and freely admitted by most liberals. Consider the following remarks (1826) by the French liberal Victor Cousin:

The business of the State is to cause justice to be respected by force.…The State does not take into consideration the infinite variety of human elements.…It does not embrace the whole man; it regards him only in his relationship to the idea of the just and the unjust.…Thence arise all duties and all legal rights. The only legal right is that of being respected in the peaceful exercise of liberty; the only duty, or at least the first of all, is to respect the liberty of others. Justice is nothing more than this: justice is the maintenance of reciprocal liberty. The State does not restrain liberty, as some aver; it develops and secures it.

The Lockean conception of freedom need not involve value judgments; it, like the Hobbesian conception, can (in some cases) be analyzed in a purely descriptive manner. Consider this scenario: Mr. Jones walks up to a complete stranger and punches him in the face, after which he attempts to beat the stranger to death. According to the Hobbesian conception, Mr. Jones is exercising his freedom to murder in this situation by restraining (and ultimately abolishing) the freedom of the stranger. In other words, one party in this relationship is free whereas the other is not free.

In contrast, a Lockean would focus on the relationship that exists after Mr. Jones threw his first punch. By initiating force, Mr. Jones generated a coercive state of affairs relative to the stranger. A coercive relationship stands in contrast to a voluntary relationship. A voluntary state of affairs is said to exist when no coercion is used by anyone in the relationship.

The Lockean need not introduce value concepts in describing my scenario. He may describe the relationship between Mr. Jones and the stranger as coercive without injecting value judgments into his account. He may even say that Mr. Jones initiated the coercive relationship without necessarily condemning Mr. Jones, whether explicitly or implicitly, by appealing to the rights of the stranger.

We are here dealing with a simple relationship in which we can directly observe which person generated the coercive relationship by using physical force. But things become more complicated in situations like the following: Mr. Jones walks into a house, picks up a television, and walks out with it. Now consider the question: Was any coercion involved in the action taken by Mr. Jones?

We cannot answer that question without additional information, such as: Does Mr. Jones own the television set? If not, if the television belongs to someone else, then did Mr. Jones take the television with the permission of the owner?

As we move beyond overt acts of violence against individuals to actions that involve external goods, we cannot even identify a coercive relationship without knowledge of the relevant property rights. To own something is to have the rightful power to use and dispose of it. Thus if the television belongs to someone else, and if Mr. Jones takes it without the owner’s permission, then the owner no longer has the power to use and dispose of his property as he sees fit; such freedom has been denied him by Mr. Jones. In depriving the owner of his freedom to use and dispose of his television, Mr. Jones has generated a coercive relationship between himself and the owner.

Mr. Jones, by exercising physical control over property that does not belong to him (without the permission of the owner), prevents the owner from exercising the same control. This generates a coercive state of affairs between Mr. Jones and the owner — a relationship will continue to exist until and unless the owner regains physical control over his own property (or, perhaps, the equivalent in value).

This is a barebones example. I have not considered what happens if (say) Mr. Jones destroys the television, because such possibilities are not relevant to my basic point. My example merely illustrates the need to specify property titles when we move beyond a simple relationship between two people to a more complex relationship that involves external goods. If this third element is introduced, we will be unable even to identify the presence of coercion, much less pinpoint who initiated the coercion, without taking property titles – who owns what – into account.

I am here dealing with a complicated set of interrelated problems that would take a book to address satisfactorily. Again, however, it is unnecessary to take theoretical detours, given that I merely wish to indicate, first, the role that property rights play in the Lockean notion of freedom; and second, the theoretical value of the Lockean conception in developing a full‐​blown theory of rights and freedom.

In my next essay I shall return to some of the historical thinking that contributed to the view that “freedom” signifies a state of affairs, a relationship between two or more people in which coercion is absent. There are some significant considerations here, such as the common practice of contrasting “freedom” with “slavery.” Slavery pertains to a state of affairs that exists over time, not merely to a single incident; and freedom – its opposite – was commonly viewed in the same manner. Similarly, philosophers often spoke of a state of nature, a state of war, and a state of peace. As Locke put it, “he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me.” And to enslave me is to “compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom.”

Before providing additional historical background, I wish to reiterate a point I have made before: I am not arguing that the Lockean conception of freedom is the only true or admissible conception, or that the Hobbesian conception has no legitimate role in political philosophy. Rather, I simply wish to rebut the common argument that the Hobbesian conception is somehow superior to the Lockean because the former is supposedly value‐​free, whereas the latter is value‐​laden.

If Locke and other liberals employed a rights‐​based notion of freedom, this is because they were engaged in debates about rights and rightful powers, as exemplified in the idea of sovereignty. Even Hobbes, in his defense of absolute state sovereignty, hitched a theory of rights to his conception of freedom. Liberal opponents of absolutism, in their defense of self‐​sovereignty, merely followed suit.

It is surely not a philosophic sin to engage one’s adversaries on the selfsame ground on which they stand, especially if that common ground is essential to the discipline known as political philosophy.