Tibor R. Machan
George Orwell was a brilliant political novelists?Animal Farm and 1984
are his classics?and, both in his fictional and non-fictional writings,
made keen note of the phenomenon of language corruption. In 1984 he even
introduced the fictional dictionary of Newspeak. Among other concepts that
were tortured to death in this book, produced by the ruling totalitarian
regime, were, of course, ?liberty? and ?freedom.? In Newspeak these
concepts meant exactly their opposites, slavery. And there were many other
cases of deliberate distortion which the fictional regime perpetrated so
as to keep the population confused and conceptually disarmed.
In fact, of course, the phenomenon of such corruption of language is by
no means only fictional, of which Orwell was well aware and to which he
meant to alert us all. But neither is such distortion mostly deliberate,
as it was in 1984. In many cases?as in the recent essay by Professor of
History David Hackett Fisher of Brandeis University, penned, you might
have guessed it, for The New York Times (February 7, 2005)?the corruption
of language is carried out nearly unselfconsciously. Professor Fisher
achieves his obfuscation of the concepts of ?liberty? and ?freedom? not by
insisting that they mean their very opposite but by conflating them with a
great variety of their different senses. And his motivation seems to be
the sentiment, ?Why don?t we all just get along?? Let me explain.
Concepts, of course, evolve. They are mental tools by which human beings
identify and navigate reality. They do not spring into full awareness at
once but must be formed, often slowly and sometimes over several
generations. Take the modern scientific concept ?atom.? It took centuries
to get it formed and shaped so it now has a pretty clear, unambiguous,
comprehensive, and useful (though never final) meaning in particle
Value laden?moral, ethical, political, aesthetic?concepts are especially
troublesome. They are always being contested. Once a concept with
implications for values succeeds and gains prominence, most people with
agendas in the areas of morality and politics want to conscript it to
their own purposes.
Classical liberals, over the last several centuries, have formulated
conceptions of liberty and freedom such that they have come to mean, in
their most consistent renditions, individual independence from the
oppression of others, including the government or state. Even the family
doesn?t own a person, not once he or she has reached maturity?everyone has
the right to liberty, period.
There are some other senses in which the concepts ?liberty? and ?freedom?
are used, of course, coming from different contexts and different
traditions. Being free of a headache for someone with such pain isn?t what
being free of a master is for a slave, although there is a similarity.
Being free from governmental or criminal intrusion isn?t the same as being
free to obtain food, to fly to Paris or to purchase a Rolls Royce. But,
again, there is a similarity.
In Western political history the big breakthrough came when classical
liberals identified the human individual as having the right to liberty.
This took centuries of development but with John Locke and other such
liberals it emerged as a solid, coherent idea. Every adult is sovereign,
self-ruling, not a subject of others? will, be these others neighbors,
family, bureaucrats, a monarch, the majority, or whoever.
Professor Fisher, however, wants to assimilate all these often mutually
exclusive ideas of liberty and freedom, so that every tradition?including
those actually quite antithetical to individual liberty?in which the words
have appeared is pacified. He insists on being inclusive and
By attempting this, however, he perpetrates the corruption of the
coherent classical liberal idea, the one that has in fact served to
liberate millions of people from the oppression of their fellows (whether
the oppression is tyrannical or paternalistic, whether from coercive
governments or authoritarian families).
There will simply never be any value laden concepts that will yield to
this effort of happy assimilation. Some will always find your or my or
someone else?s conception of liberty, freedom, justice, goodness, or
equality displeasing. There is no escaping having to take a stand. And the
stand that succeeds is the one that provides the most comprehensive,
consistent, clear, and unambiguous version of the relevant concept.
By trying to please everyone with his idea of liberty and freedom,
Professor Fisher, most likely inadvertently, undermines the work that
these concepts are supposed to do for human beings, namely, help identify
and cope with a vital aspect of human reality.