Liberty and its bankrupted meaning

I recently had a lively chat with a local political figure over the meaning of liberty. My definition, as I proposed it, is that liberty is the absence of external constraint. You can peruse his reply to my definition tomorrow, and learn more about the popular concepts.

Now my definition is wordy. The word “external” is redundant. I should have said, freedom from restraint. That’s the three-word definition in the American constitutional dictionary, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (1839). If I had said that, I would have been correct.

The modern definition from Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed. (2004), is more nuanced. Which is to say fuzzy, in favor of the state. The definition is watered down so much there’s barely a sniff of liberty. But there is a great deal of odor of the kind you find governmental offices, whether city hall, post office, federal building, police station or county courthouse, especially older ones.

Liberty 1. Freedom from arbitrary or undue external restraint, esp. by a government.

Notice where the dilution pours into the concept? That’s right. “Arbitrary or undue.” These adjectives are suitable whenever the bureaucratic and surveillance state needs to ascertain its limits. The general assembly’s rules and the U.S. congress’ statutes control you and your activities. But you enjoy the liberty of not being subject to “arbitrary or undue” restraint. Your subjection is there, but cannot be arbitrary or capricious.

A second definition in Black’s is “A right, privilege, or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by a grant; the absence of a legal duty imposed on a person.”

Black’s made a slow dance toward statism. Here’s what it said in 1968. “LIBERTY. Freedom; exemption from extraneous control.”

That sounds fine. But a problem with this definition smacks the senses after a few seconds. The problem arises from the word exemption.

Exemption, adj., Freedom from a duty, liability, or other requirement; an exception.

You are exempt when you are released from a duty or liability to which others are held. So the definition of liberty is not about freedom anymore. It’s about a state of servitude. That is the ground, the basis. Freedom is the area of liberty that you are given by your betters. Liberty, then, is not an immunity as it once was. It is a privilege — a favor, a grant, a condescension by an authority. Freedom is a reward, no longer something that inheres in your person.

Is the modern idea of liberty the one for which American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are dying? We are told they give their lives for our freedom. Well, under which definition?

‡ Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (Chesapeake, Va.: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1995, 1828)