The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek)

The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek)

by F. A. Hayek

ISBN: 9780226315379

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in History

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.... Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. —Abraham Lincoln

1. We are concerned in this book with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society. This state we shall describe throughout as a state of liberty or freedom. These two words have been also used to describe many other good things of life. It would therefore not be very profitable to start by asking what they really mean. It would seem better to state, first, the condition which we shall mean when we use them and then consider the other meanings of the words only in order to define more sharply that which we have adopted.

The state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others is often also distinguished as "individual" or "personal" freedom, and whenever we want to remind the reader that it is in this sense that we are using the word "freedom," we shall employ that expression. Sometimes the term "civil liberty" is used in the same sense, but we shall avoid it because it is too liable to be confused with what is called "political liberty"—an inevitable confusion arising from the fact that "civil" and "political" derive, respectively, from Latin and Greek words with the same meaning.

Even our tentative indication of what we shall mean by "freedom" will have shown that it describes a state which man living among his fellows may hope to approach closely but can hardly expect to realize perfectly. The task of a policy of freedom must therefore be to minimize coercion or its harmful effects, even if it cannot eliminate it completely.

It so happens that the meaning of freedom that we have adopted seems to be the original meaning of the word. Man, or at least European man, enters history divided into free and unfree; and this distinction had a very definite meaning. The freedom of the free may have differed widely, but only in the degree of an independence which the slave did not possess at all. It meant always the possibility of a person's acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore "independence of the arbitrary will of another."

This oldest meaning of "freedom" has sometimes been described as its vulgar meaning; but when we consider all the confusion that philosophers have caused by their attempts to refine or improve it, we may do well to accept this description. More important, however, than that it is the original meaning is that it is a distinct meaning and that it describes one thing and one thing only, a state which is desirable for reasons different from those which make us desire other things also called "freedom." We shall see that, strictly speaking, these various "freedoms" are not different species of the same genus but entirely different conditions, often in conflict with one another, which therefore should be kept clearly distinct. Though in some of the other senses it may be legitimate to speak of different kinds of freedom, "freedoms from" and "freedoms to," in our sense "freedom" is one, varying in degree but not in kind.

In this sense "freedom" refers solely to a relation of men to other men, and the only infringement on it is coercion by men. This means, in particular, that the range of physical possibilities from which a person can choose at a given moment has no direct relevance to freedom. The rock climber on a difficult pitch who sees only one way out to save his life is unquestionably free, though we would hardly say he has any choice. Also, most people will still have enough feeling for the original meaning of the word "free" to see that if that same climber were to fall into a crevasse and were unable to get out of it, he could only figuratively be called "unfree," and that to speak of him as being "deprived of liberty" or of being "held captive" is to use these terms in a sense different from that in which they apply to social relations.

The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want. Whether he is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person's will rather than his own. Freedom thus presupposes that the individual has some assured private sphere, that there is some set of circumstances in his environment with which others cannot interfere.

This conception of liberty can be made more precise only after we have examined the related concept of coercion. This we shall do systematically after we have considered why this liberty is so important. But even before we attempt this, we shall endeavor to delineate the character of our concept somewhat more precisely by contrasting it with the other meanings which the word liberty has acquired. They have the one thing in common with the original meaning in that they also describe states which most men regard as desirable; and there are some other connections between the different meanings which account for the same word being used for them. Our immediate task, however, must be to bring out the differences as sharply as possible.

2. The first meaning of "freedom" with which we must contrast our own use of the term is one generally recognized as distinct. It is what is commonly called "political freedom," the participation of men in the choice of their government, in the process of legislation, and in the control of administration. It derives from an application of our concept to groups of men as a whole which gives them a sort of collective liberty. But a free people in this sense is not necessarily a people of free men; nor need one share in this collective freedom to be free as an individual. It can scarcely be contended that the inhabitants of the District of Columbia, or resident aliens in the United States, or persons too young to be entitled to vote do not enjoy full personal liberty because they do not share in political liberty.

It would also be absurd to argue that young people who are just entering into active life are free because they have given their consent to the social order into which they were born: a social order to which they probably know no alternative and which even a whole generation who thought differently from their parents could alter only after they had reached mature age. But this does not, or need not, make them unfree. The connection which is often sought between such consent to the political order and individual liberty is one of the sources of the current confusion about its meaning. Anyone is, of course, entitled to "identify liberty ... with the process of active participation in public power and public law making." Only it should be made clear that, if he does so, he is talking about a state other than that with which we are here concerned, and that the common use of the same word to describe these different conditions does not mean that the one is in any sense an equivalent or substitute for the other.

The danger of confusion here is that this use tends to obscure the fact that a person may vote or contract himself into slavery and thus consent to give up freedom in the original sense. It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter in our sense; or that a Jesuit who lives up to the ideals of the founder of his order and regards himself "as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will" could be so described. Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one's government is not necessarily to secure freedom. Moreover, it would seem that discussing the value of freedom would be pointless if any regime of which people approved was, by definition, a regime of freedom.

The application of the concept of freedom to a collective rather than to individuals is clear when we speak of a people's desire to be free from a foreign yoke and to determine its own fate. In this case we use "freedom" in the sense of absence of coercion of a people as a whole. The advocates of individual freedom have generally sympathized with such aspirations for national freedom, and this led to the constant but uneasy alliance between the liberal and the national movements during the nineteenth century. But though the concept of national freedom is analogous to that of individual freedom, it is not the same; and the striving for the first has not always enhanced the second. It has sometimes led people to prefer a despot of their own race to the liberal government of an alien majority; and it has often provided the pretext for ruthless restrictions of the individual liberty of the members of minorities. Even though the desire for liberty as an individual and the desire for liberty of the group to which the individual belongs may often rest on similar feelings and sentiments, it is still necessary to keep the two conceptions clearly apart.

3. Another different meaning of "freedom" is that of "inner" or "metaphysical" (sometimes also "subjective") freedom. It is perhaps more closely related to individual freedom and therefore more easily confounded with it. It refers to the extent to which a person is guided in his actions by his own considered will, by his reason or lasting conviction, rather than by momentary impulse or circumstance. But the opposite of "inner freedom" is not coercion by others but the influence of temporary emotions, or moral or intellectual weakness. If a person does not succeed in doing what, after sober reflection, he decides to do, if his intentions or strength desert him at the decisive moment and he fails to do what he somehow still wishes to do, we may say that he is "unfree," the "slave of his passions." We occasionally also use these terms when we say that ignorance or superstition prevents people from doing what they would do if they were better informed, and we claim that "knowledge makes free."

Whether or not a person is able to choose intelligently between alternatives, or to adhere to a resolution he has made, is a problem distinct from whether or not other people will impose their will upon him. They are clearly not without some connection: the same conditions which to some constitute coercion will be to others merely ordinary difficulties which have to be overcome, depending on the strength of will of the people involved. To that extent, "inner freedom" and "freedom" in the sense of absence of coercion will together determine how much use a person can make of his knowledge of opportunities. The reason why it is still very important to keep the two apart is the relation which the concept of "inner freedom" has to the philosophical confusion about what is called the "freedom of the will." Few beliefs have done more to discredit the ideal of freedom than the erroneous one that scientific determinism has destroyed the basis for individual responsibility. We shall later (in chap. 5) consider these issues further. Here we merely want to put the reader on guard against this particular confusion and against the related sophism that we are free only if we do what in some sense we ought to do.

4. Neither of these confusions of individual liberty with different concepts denoted by the same word is as dangerous as its confusion with a third use of the word to which we have already briefly referred: the use of "liberty" to describe the physical "ability to do what I want," the power to satisfy our wishes, or the extent of the choice of alternatives open to us. This kind of "freedom" appears in the dreams of many people in the form of the illusion that they can fly; that they are released from gravity and can move "free like a bird" to wherever they wish, or that they have the power to alter their environment to their liking.

This metaphorical use of the word has long been common, but until comparatively recent times few people seriously confused this "freedom from" obstacles, this freedom that means omnipotence, with the individual freedom that any kind of social order can secure. Only since this confusion was deliberately fostered as part of the socialist argument has it become dangerous. Once this identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word "liberty" can be used to support measures which destroy individual liberty, no end to the tricks by which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty and that in totalitarian states liberty has been suppressed in the name of liberty.

The transition from the concept of individual liberty to that of liberty as power has been facilitated by the philosophical tradition that uses the word "restraint" where we have used "coercion" in defining liberty. Perhaps "restraint" would in some respects be a more suitable word if it was always remembered that in its strict sense it presupposes the action of a restraining human agent. In this sense, it usefully reminds us that the infringements on liberty consist largely in people's being prevented from doing things, while "coercion" emphasizes their being made to do particular things. Both aspects are equally important: to be precise, we should probably define liberty as the absence of restraint and constraint. Unfortunately, both these words have come also to be used for influences on human action that do not come from other men; and it is only too easy to pass from defining liberty as the absence of restraint to defining it as the "absence of obstacles to the realization of [our] desires" or even more generally as "the absence of external impediments." This is equivalent to interpreting it as effective power to do whatever we want.


Excerpted from "The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek)" by F. A. Hayek. Copyright © 0 by F. A. Hayek. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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