The problem with “liberty”

A manufactured home, in two halves, under a freeway overpass
A manufactured home, in two halves, under a freeway overpass

I’ve talked to many people who love this quote, often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Abraham Lincoln, or others:

…Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.

— John B. Finch

To be clear, I am a huge fan of real liberty. I think it’s great to swing our fists, but I would say that real fist-swinging liberty includes a respectful distance from noses. Your right to swing your arm leaves off pretty far from my nose. My nose has liberty, too, and if you start swinging your fist too close I must interpret that as an act of aggression.

Let’s draw a distinction, then, between liberty — in which we all enjoy as much freedom as possible through cooperation and some sensible agreements — and “liberty,” where any encroachment on some theoretical maximum of personal freedom is the very definition of “tyranny.” Liberty is my right to swing my fist around, so long as you would not be reasonably concerned that I’m going to hit your nose with my fist; “liberty” is my absolute right to come within an inch of your nose with my fist.

People who like “liberty” dismiss externalities, those factors out of our control. What if I didn’t see you swinging your fist? What if I’m blind, or if you are? No matter. To the “liberty” fanatic, it’s my responsibility to take care of my nose. If I’m blind, I have to take that into account. If I get punched in the nose, it’s actually my fault. Liberty relies on cooperation — yes, rules — to make sure there’s common space to give both fists and noses a safety buffer. “Liberty” is a world where every fist and nose is personally responsible for its own safety, and nothing more.

Idealistic “liberty”

Most “liberty” proponents aren’t bad, merely idealistic and a little self-centered. Their good fortune is a result of their good choices and practices; your bad luck comes from your bad choices — your moral failings, really. If you take care of your responsibilities, you’ll never get punched in the nose. If your nose hurts, you probably did something wrong. Poverty, cancer, heart disease, racism — do they even exist? This kind of idealism is, at worst, a mild strain of willful ignorance. But if it includes the idea that others must conform to the ideal, it becomes more dangerous.

Aggressive “liberty”

There is a smaller group of people for whom “liberty” is part of a very aggressive world view centered around a deterministic version of “personal responsibility.” There are no externalities, only failures to take responsibility for one’s own fate through right thoughts and right actions.

If you make the right health choices, you won’t get cancer or heart disease; therefore, any illness is a failure of personal responsibility. By making good decisions and working hard enough, anyone can pull themselves out of poverty; therefore the poor are at fault for being poor. Racism can’t and doesn’t exist — discrimination is illegal, don’t you know — and therefore any problems in the black community, for example, are supposedly their own fault.

Because externalities are not important, any program that attempts to take care of such factors — affirmative action, socialized medicine, or food stamps — is seen not as a way of addressing a systemic problem, but as a power grab intended to take away “liberty.” The idea that not being bankrupted by a routine medical procedure is a type of freedom would make no sense to the aggressive “liberty” fan club. And the idea that there are inequities and imbalances on the playing field would be downright offensive to them.

Toxic “liberty”

It seems ironic, doesn’t it, that the concept of “liberty” could be useful to fascists, authoritarians or white supremacists. But it’s actually central to these ideologies.

Let me be clear: believing in liberty (or “liberty”), having a libertarian bent, or maintaining a strong sense of personal responsibility does not make one a fascist. However, if one is already a fascist, a toxic version of “liberty” is a vital tool. Fascism and its ilk center around ideas of purity, moral and otherwise. By adding “moral purity” to “liberty,” fascists can draw conclusions that support their prejudices.

Having concluded that any problems in the black community are their own fault, for example — racism doesn’t exist, remember? — fascists can support a belief that non-whites are inferior.

If poverty is a moral failing, and wealth comes from moral people doing the right thing, then there is literally a moral obligation to steal from the poor and give to the rich. After all, the rich deserve it!

If poor health is a result of bad choices, then socialized medicine is evil: it takes away individual freedom, gives handouts to the morally inferior who don’t deserve it, and enslaves us all in a communistic tyranny.

In other words, if it’s your fault when your nose gets punched, then fascists feel they have the “liberty” — nay, the obligation, to punch you in the nose.

True freedom

Real liberty comes when we help each other. The only way to make things better for all of us is to listen to each of us. If we want to know what problems a particular community faces, we can ask them. If we want to be free to do as we please, we can work together towards a world where actual freedom is less likely to be derailed by bankruptcy, discrimination, or other external factors. True freedom comes from listening, helping, and cooperating — not from swinging our arms.

Peter Conrad is a writer and artist with a penchant for grammar and a knack for the technical. See his latest at or

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