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Two Definitions of "Freedom" — Only One of Them Is Right

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January 6 marked the anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, and January 11 marked the anniversary of his 1944 State of the Union address, where he expanded on what he saw as its meaning. That makes this an appropriate time to recognize the cognitive dissonance in FDR’s view of freedom, cited to this day as justification for expanding government power over Americans’ lives.

On the surface, an articulation of multiple freedoms would seem to be consistent with freedom for all. But FDR’s version was not.

The first two of FDR’s “four essential human freedoms”  — “freedom of speech and expression” and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way”—are consistent with freedom for all. Both can be enjoyed universally, because the freedom of one person to speak or worship as he or she chooses does not take away from the same freedom for others. Government need only disallow intrusions on those rights, including by government, the agency with the greatest power to invade citizens’ rights.

In contrast, FDR’s third freedom--“freedom from want”— cannot be similarly general. It commits government to provide some people more goods and services than arise from their voluntary arrangements with others. However, in a world of inescapable scarcity, that commitment by an agency with no resources of its own, but only what it commandeers from its own citizens, must necessarily constrict others’ equal freedom to enjoy the fruits of their self-ownership and productive efforts through voluntary cooperation with others. That is, such a freedom is unavoidably at odds with freedom for all.

Similarly, FDR’s fourth freedom — “freedom from fear…that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor,” seems unobjectionable on the surface. After all, protecting citizens from foreign aggression is a central role of government. However, it ignores similar abuses at the hands of their own government, which history is replete with. In particular, since FDR’s third freedom requires government aggression against its citizens to get the required resources for its “benevolence,” his “freedom from fear” omits the most significant agency citizens need fear when it comes to their freedom. It also ignores any serious understanding of the Bill of Rights, the “Thou shalt nots” designed to disallow such violations by our government.

FDR’s “Four Freedoms” rhetoric dramatically changed the meaning of freedom into something inconsistent with freedom for all Americans. And that same distortion has continued to this day. Consequently, we must remember that the central, universally-held freedom our founders sought to guarantee was, as Ludwig von Mises summarized it, “freedom from the government…the restriction of the government’s interference.” It creates no positive claim on the beneficence of government (i.e., forced charity from others), but preserves freedom from government dictation, broadening the canvas for peaceful, voluntary arrangements that respect everyone’s rights. Unfortunately, those on whom such burdens are imposed are simply ignored when “freedoms” that are inconsistent with general freedom are declared.

Freedom is a wonderful and inspiring word, full of hope and possibilities. But it has been manipulated to mean something that reduces general freedom—expanding some freedoms for some people, by taking away the equal freedom of others. A host of abuses have found a foothold in that cognitive dissonance, diminishing the best hope and greatest possibilities for society. That is why improving our potential for mutual advancement depends on the rediscovery of a consistent understanding of freedom as universal freedom from government coercion, not something for nothing promises that force nothing for something onto others.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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