/ˈlɪbəti/. Freedom from captivity, slavery, constraint or tyranny.
Like most beneficiaries—and survivors—of the US educational system of the late 70s and 80s, I was taught early about the Declaration of Independence and drilled, a little selectively I now realize, in the basic tenets of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson’s summation of the core principles of the declaration, despite the problems of realizing them, retain an admirable concision and elegance: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In my mind, each part of this founding formula becomes more complex as I grow older and arguably slightly wiser. I basically understand what "life" is—and I understand "happiness" to ultimately lie in the realm of the unabashedly subjective—but I’m still not sure what "liberty" really means. Nor, it seems, was Jefferson, as evidenced by the presence of legalized slavery in his own home and his nascent country.
The word "liberty"—the state or condition of being free—comes to English from the Latin "libertas" (freedom) whose root, "liber" (free), gives us the familiar (and equally complicated) word "liberal." Libertas became "liberte" in French, familiar in France’s national motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" and is first unambiguously documented in English in the Tyndale bible of 1526 where we find the word:
[he] who so loketh in the parfaict lawe of libertie and continueth ther in (yf he be not a forgetfull hearer but a doar of ye worke) the same shall be happie in his dede
Initially applied only to individuals, the word liberty quickly moved from the "me" to the "we," becoming a common term for describing groups of people who were free from the rules and whims of despots or autocrats.
And so the origin of "libertarian" is clear: take a focus on liberty and add the all purpose "-arian" (with-an-i) suffix, used since the 16th century to indicate being a believer or advocate of something, and you have a political philosophy with liberty and freedom at its core, residing at one end of a spectrum whose opposite is populated by Necessitarians, the ultimate hard determinists, to whom free will, and thus freedom, isn’t even a thing.
Most discussions and definitions of liberty use freedom as an interchangeable synonym. Starting from a peak around 1800, the use of "liberty" slowly fell, relative to "freedom," until the early 1900s, when freedom started pulling away and has maintained a sizable advantage ever since. My guess is this reversal of fortune was largely a function of the World Wars, where "freedom" was featured in the mottos, slogans and popular rhetoric of that chaotic time. I was surprised to realize that despite the ascendancy of the word "freedom," it doesn’t appear even once in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
And there’s a possible dynamic behind the rise of the word "freedom" that subtly influences our vocabulary still: unlike the Norman (through French) word liberty, freedom’s roots come from the Saxon (through German) and—broadly speaking and most often subconsciously—because of the historical circumstances of the Norman invasions of England, words of Saxon origin have been preferred by common people while words of Norman origin have been preferred by the ruling classes. This Saxon/Norman interplay also lies behind culinary synonyms for living vs cooked animals, such as sheep and mutton, swine and pork, and so on…the commoners who raised and butchered the animals were Saxons, while the new ruling class, who ate the the prepared meat, were Normans. To this day, more than 950 years after the Norman invasions of England began, Britishers with Norman surnames—Campions, Devereauxs, Mandevilles and the like—have on average more accumulated wealth and longer life expectancy than those with Anglo-Saxon last names.
But while these origins might quietly influence our choice between "freedom" and "liberty" — is there more to it? Is there a meaningful difference? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says no, that "some attempts have been made" to distinguish the two but "generally speaking these have not caught on."
But I wonder… Pondering my own use of the words—and an informal survey of friends—I find a distinction: freedom is perceived as an internal construct, liberty an external one. I can be deprived of my liberty by others, but no one can ultimately take away my freedom.
As Virginia Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own,
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Or as Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it in his indispensable memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning,
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.