Liberty or Freedom?


Many involved in Front Porch Republic embrace the idea of a smallholder economy based on family production under conditions of widespread ownership of productive resources. This was the vision of a moral economy held by the more radical republicans among America’s founders and revived in the 1790s by Thomas Jefferson, George Logan, John Taylor and other leaders of what would become the Democratic Party. Even John Adams had thought this way in the revolutionary fervor of 1776. “The only possible Way then of preserving the Ballance of Power on the side of equal Liberty and public Virtue,” he wrote in a letter that year to James Sullivan, “is to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates.”

Catholic distributism, also important at FPR (see John Médaille’s several recent posts on the subject), helps us to ground the American smallholder ethic in a Christian anthropology and a natural-law understanding of the common good. As in all Catholic thought, this religious understanding includes a strong presumption of political responsibility for securing a cohesive, stable social order. Thus it is important today both for the political necessity it entails (given the existing pattern of wealth concentration) and for the particular kind of order it envisions. By the end of the Reagan Administration, Glenn Hubbard found, less than 9 percent of households had active business assets worth more than $5,000, but those few that did controlled about 40 percent of total household wealth.  The bottom half of  American households now controls less than 5 percent of our total net worth.  Our republican founders could not have imagined a distribution of wealth so concentrated, nor a democracy so threatened by the rule of property.

James Matthew Wilson recently reflected here on the smallholder vision as embodying “the need for autarchy.” Property right, in this view, is designed to secure a moderate economic competence for one family and the next, but instead, Wilson argues, it has become a tool of unlimited accumulation. Of course we have social laws that restrain even “rightful” accumulation in a few minimal ways. But underlying this, it seems to me that “autarchy,” an essentially Stoical construal of the idea of a household economy—complete self-rule based on ownership of productive resources–cannot be the basis of a stable society or the ideal moral condition of its members. Most obviously, it goes too far (potentially) in opposing the household to the common good. The very architect of the idea of self-rule based on ownership of property, John Locke, already predicted the grim proletarian future of this idea in the famous passage in his Second Treatise describing the “turfs my servant has cut” as part of the landowner’s “labor” entitlement. The fruits of the labor of those without property were instantly assimilated to the justice of proprietary autarchy. Thus modern capitalism was born in contravention of the fundamental laws of God and nature, which provide for a wide distribution of productive resources and political responsibility to secure as much. Locke’s liberal seduction of Christian thought in philosophically sanctifying private property as a necessary and virtually limitless extension of inviolable God-given personhood penetrated to the core of Western culture almost without resistance until the nineteenth century. Standing athwart the anti-human extremes of liberalism and socialism, Catholic social thought, beginning with the Jesuit neo-Thomists who laid the intellectual groundwork for Rerum novarum, devised a theory of individual or household property balanced by public responsibility for securing conditions of widespread ownership or self-sufficiency by other means. Leaving much room for technical debate on the proper means for securing these ends, I ask if we can rebuild a republican-Christian synthesis in American politics today, and if we can, what kind of  common action, duly justified, can dismantle the existing pattern of wealth concentration and restore the sovereignty of families and communities.

As with the New Deal, the intellectual groundwork for a transformation on this scale will take decades to clear and till and sow, but it is essential that we do this work of cultivating another vision of modern life.  This is difficult in the United States because the fabric of American political thought is perhaps unique in being woven through with strong contradictory threads that have never been reconciled—mostly notably, proprietary liberty and communitarian order. An uncomfortable and sometimes combustible co-existence of these ideas has ebbed and flowed, often in regional forms.

Reflecting on this, I am struck by the fact that “liberty” and “freedom,” words we tend to use interchangeably, are really quite distinct in origin and meaning. I examine this briefly—very generally—in my forthcoming book God’s Economy, drawing on David Hackett Fischer’s fascinating discussion in his popular (and marvelous) study Liberty and Freedom. Fischer looks at our political heritage from the vantage point of distinguishing liberty and freedom as almost two different traditions. He starts with etymology and cultural linguistics, and the differences he finds in that regard are rather striking. Our English “liberty” derives from Latin and Greek—from the Latin libertas and the Greek eleutheros. The basic meaning here is “release from restraint,” or more generally, being separate and distinct from others. “Freedom,” on the other hand, is an Anglo-Saxon word that derives from the Indo-European root friya or priya, which, strikingly, means “dear” or “beloved.” The Norse, German, Dutch, Flemish, Celtic, Welsh, and English words for freedom all share this root in the concept of endearment or belovedness. We see this in the English word “friend,” sharing the same root as “free,” as with Freund and frei in German. Notably, the oldest known word associated with the idea of freedom is a Sumerian word, Ama-ar-gi, the root meaning of which is literally “going home to mother.” The word was used to describe the slave’s return to his family, his transformation from a condition of bondage to one of belonging, Fischer stresses.

Freedom was intrinsically a collective idea in the Northern languages. Broadly speaking, it did not refer to individual independence, but signified the condition of being joined to a free people, joined by rights of belonging and by reciprocal duties of membership in that people. It is implicitly a concept attached groups if not groups of families, that is, communities. A belonging that frees the person, as the group is free, must be sustained by an equality of rights and duties within the group, independent of other authorities.

While not devoid of corporate applications in the law, Greco-Roman “liberty,” in contrast, meant emancipation from other people—individual separation and independence from others’ control. It is a concept of status attached to individuals. The medieval libertas ecclesiae is translated “freedom of the church” in English, Latin and English “liberty” being insufficiently corporative to apply to the Church as a body (although Latin does have the physical concept of “corpus” itself, of course). In its common use in the Roman Empire, liberty was the opposite of slavery: the context of its meaning was the imperial state stratified into nobility, commons, freedmen, and slaves. Liberty meant release from slavery into the status of freedmen, nothing more. It could not be conceive as arising from one’s membership in a free community.

Our Bill of Rights is the world’s greatest monument of negative individual liberty. But our Christian heritage bears the imprint of the deeper idea that true liberty—freedom—derives from connectedness, not separation. Fischer stresses Germanic influences that shaped this tradition, as with Martin Luther, who described the “freedom of a Christian” as a seemingly paradoxical combination of two conditions. Luther said: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none”; at the same time, “A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Through Christ the person is made free, subject to no other person; and yet, the person is also bound in Christ to serve others. Many of us grew up in churches where something like this was taught.

Baptist “soul freedom” is Germanic too, originating in Central Europe and finding a home at last in the United States, for better or worse. Soul freedom springs in part from the narrower sense of liberty one would expect from a historically persecuted sect. It means liberty of conscience first, in the negative, individualistic sense of restricting outside authority in matters of the soul. But it is not only that: issuing from God’s direct, unmediated reign in a person’s heart and mind, soul freedom breaks down barriers all around you as well. It is oneness with God through which you are connected and equalized with everything God loves. As it’s put in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” Luther adds muscle to the point in his Galatians Commentary: “There is neither magistrate nor subject, neither teacher nor hearer . . . neither master nor servant, neither mistress nor maid: for in Christ Jesus, all states, yea, even such as are ordained of God, are nothing.” Notably, the most radical Baptists originally preached and practiced community of goods.

For Roger Williams, the fearless Baptist come-outer and great pioneer of American religious liberties, soul freedom went hand in hand with political democracy and economic equality. He wrote passionately of his struggles to “defend a free people, not enslaved to the bondages and iron yokes of the great oppressions” of the “soul and body.” To these great oppressions, he wrote, “I say liberty and equality, both in land and government.” Now this fits with Fischer’s word study—Williams’ freedom was that of a “free people,” not independent individuals. And the oppressions of a free people were remedied not only by liberty, by political restraint, but by equality in the underlying conditions of a life together, which in Williams’ time meant equality of land.

Williams leads us to the heart of this question of freedom and liberty. The fact is, in America, both traditions are found side by side. This makes sense because we’re a nation of diverse immigrant populations with a national culture synthesized out of many traditions. Strikingly, in common speech, most of the Northern European languages have freedom but not liberty; the Mediterranean languages have liberty but not freedom. Only English contains both (thanks to the Norman Conquest). Only English gives us a choice between liberty and freedom, or the richer possibility of having both, or at least a creative tension between the two. Ethan Allen, the father of Vermont statehood and the first to capture a British fortress in the Revolutionary War (Fort Ticonderoga in 1775), wrote that he and his men, after breaking open the casks of rum, drank to “the liberty and freedom of America.” To our ears today, these may seem like synonyms used for rhetorical effect. But to Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, Fischer argues, they were two different things. And when we recognize how they were different, we realize how impoverished public life has become on the side of liberty as distinct from freedom. As Fischer states:

A person who was born to freedom in an ancient tribe had a sacred obligation to serve and support the folk, and to keep the customs of a free people, and to respect the rights of others on pain of banishment. In modern America too many people have forgotten this side of our inheritance.

Folkways carried these differences as much as language. Compare the Vermont state flag, with its pine tree, cow, and sheaves of wheat (an image from the Vermont coat of arms of 1821) and its motto of “Freedom and Unity,” with Alabama’s  famous secession flag of 1861, which had a blond goddess of liberty holding an unsheathed sword on the front, and on the back a blooming cotton patch guarded by a rattlesnake ready to strike, with the words noli me tangere written underneath, a quote from the New Testament which literally means “do not touch me.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “do not touch me” to Mary Magdalene when he appears to her after the Resurrection. The scriptural meaning was simply do not cling to my physical presence. The Confederate meaning was do not touch my human property. When Vermont declared for independent statehood in 1777, breaking away from New York, its Declaration of Rights abolished slavery. It was also the first state to establish universal manhood suffrage, removing property qualifications from the franchise. And it further declared that “private property ought to be subservient to public uses, when necessity requires it.”

The American duality of freedom and liberty is encapsulated in our very Liberty Bell. As a cultural icon, the bell is a symbol of republican liberty—release from tyrannical power and the resting of authority in the consent of the governed, understood as an aggregate of individuals. But look at the scripture verse cast in a ring of raised letters around the top of the bell. It says, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It’s been quoted so many times that we do not recognize it any more. But, in fact, it is not a random verse and does not refer to political liberty, whatever the intentions of the bell’s Quaker sponsors in the eighteenth century. The verse, of course, is Leviticus 25:10, which proclaims the coming of the Jubilee, Israel’s ancient law of distributive justice.

The biblical Jubilee commanded three basic things: debt forgiveness, the release of slaves, and the redemption of alienated lands back to original family ownership. It was designed to restore economic balance and freedom to the whole people of Israel, protecting small kinship holdings against the predations of any aspiring ruling class. It was a dramatic restorative vision, maybe never implemented in ancient Israel, but deeply embedded in the collective memory of Judeo-Christian peoples and faiths. When Jesus returned from the desert to begin his ministry in Nazareth, he went to the synagogue and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, where it is written,

The Spirit of the Lord is on me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom
for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

To release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The “year of the Lord’s favor” is a reference to the Jubilee. For Jesus, there was no more deferral of the ancient justice. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he declared. Think of the equivalent policy today. American households are drowning in debt, and only a small percentage of the population owns significant productive assets. The Liberty Bell speaks to this condition, and we don’t even know it. In fact, it did not even acquire the name “Liberty” until the abolitionists began to use it as a symbol of emancipation from slavery (the slaves, notably, used “freedom” more than “liberty” in their prayers and songs). It was only then, briefly, that the deeper meaning of the Jubilee reference began to surface in the language of liberty, echoing with the slaves’ cry for freedom and the communal meaning of freedom. But Reconstruction failed to redistribute the land, and by the end of the century industrial consolidation was fully at hand in the North. The meaning of freedom, if not liberty, was fading fast.

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