The Paradox of Liberty

June 4, 2015

As I began thinking and writing about the meaning of liberty, I realized how paradoxical the concept really was. In this Chapter 1 of Beyond Liberty Alone, I pondered the fact that liberty implies as much restriction as it does protection of freedom. That insight had important repercussions as my argument moved forward.


Most people think that the meaning of liberty is self-evident. They will tell you that liberty refers to a set of natural or individual rights that must be protected. Yet, if we probe deeper and ask what the concept “rights” means, people often stumble and have a hard time explaining what rights are, though they are often certain they are “natural,” “self evident,”or “God-given.”

There are a number of limitations with this popular understanding. Most important, it misses the fact that liberty does not refer only to protections of what is mine. Liberty paradoxically also implies limitations on what I can do. Liberty is not just my protection but other people’s protections too. Just as I am protected from them, they are protected from me.

The popular understanding of liberty that emphasizes my rights and privileges misses the fact that liberty implies restrictions and limitations, by its very definition. When we emphasize what protections liberty gives me, we are thinking from an egocentric view of liberty. When we see liberty in a broader context and understand how your liberties mean my restrictions and vice versa, we are a taking a bird’s-eye or social view of liberty. When seen only from an individual’s vantage point, liberty looks like protections of what belongs to me. When seen from the vantage point of multiple people at once, liberty emerges as a set of trade-offs and compromises between many individuals.

This point about liberty is so basic and important that it bears repeating: My liberty implies your restriction. My right to my property means you can’t touch it. My right to life means you have no right to take it from me. Every one of my rights implies your corresponding limitation. This double-sided nature of liberty can be thought of as the paradox of liberty. My liberty implies your lack of liberty, and your liberty implies limitations on mine. The bigger my liberty is, the larger the set of restrictions on you. My rights are carved out only by setting limitations on yours.

You can download a copy of Chapter 1 here: Paradox of Liberty.