Almost every American places “liberty” near the top of the list of what they value most.  But what, exactly, do they mean by that?  People from across the U.S. political spectrum agree that a person is not free unless they are free from certain kinds of coercion, such as armed robbery or arbitrary arrest or being totally silenced or physically assaulted.

But is freedom from  this kind of “person-against-person” coercion (i.e. “negative freedom”) enough for one to be considered truly free?

Libertarians and economic conservatives not only say yes; they in fact consider it essential to define freedom that way in order to protect liberty from any attempt to promote the general welfare by means which take freedom away from one person (e.g. by forcing them to pay taxes) in order to help another (e.g. provide school lunches for poor children).  While sharing with liberals the goal of providing for the needy, they might say that not only must charity be freely given in order to be charity, it must be free of coercion in order to avoid other evils which might attend any steps taken down the slippery slope of increasing the power of the State.   

For  liberals, however, freedom-from is not enough. They would argue that one also needs the “freedom to” have certain basic needs met (“positive freedom”) without which the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is meaningless.  In other words, without food, or health care, or shelter, or education, is “freedom” real?

Liberals might also point to the need for another kind of “freedom from”--namely, freedom from systemic coercion. For example (the liberals ask): What if the law allows you to own property, but you actually have no property and there are no jobs in your area that you can get that will pay enough for you to get any property? What if, in that situation, paying for your kid's college education requires you to have some property to borrow off of? The positive idea of freedom says that, under these circumstances,  you’re not really free. More generally, the idea is that a person needs a certain minimum life or health support system, or certain kinds of access, or certain services, without which they will in effect be coerced by their situation or by others with greater resources.  (even though they are legally free to do anything and there is no threat of force). They might, for example, need public education, minimum wage laws, or the Social Security program.

To libertarians and other economic conservatives, however, this is dangerous talk. They might say that, while seeming to embody noble goals, advocacy of this kind of “positive freedom” is bound to expand the power of the state and thereby lead to reduced freedom. Why? Because every program, service, or “protection” that’s provided by government in order to help people be “free” (not real freedom, from this point of view) has to be paid for by taxes, which means someone is being coerced to pay for some other person’s (or their own) so-called benefit. So (say these conservatives), let’s keep our idea of freedom pure; let’s not confuse it with success, happiness, or fulfillment. One can be free without achieving those things, and if we confuse them then we end up making it too easy for governments to justify coercion in the name of freedom.

What’s said above hints at another element of the disagreement. Economic conservatives believe that great benefits flow from having free markets, where “free” means that buying and selling are not interfered with by coercive rules such as minimum wage laws. They believe that when people enjoy freedom from market interference their own efforts will be enough to give them a fair chance at success, happiness, and fulfillment. Whereas liberals and leftists say that untrammelled markets when left on their own lead over time to many of the problems one sees today: a sector of low-wage jobs that lead nowhere, persistent unemployment and underemployment for many, and huge corporations that dominate small business and have undue influence over government (ironically leading to a reduction in market freedom but in the ways that big businesses prefer).

Thus there might be a dilemma: if "freedom" includes positive freedom then it’s a complicated thing to provide, one that imposes many trade-offs and dilemmas. For example, some people's freedom-from coercion would be violated if they’re forced to pay taxes to support the education of other people's children, but if people are not taxed in that way then everyone might suffer (and be less free) because they live in a society that includes a high percentage of uneducated citizens, many of whom might be unemployable. What is the answer? Maybe it depends on the nature of economic markets. Certainly the red-blue divide on the issue turns partly on that point.