How to Know When You Have Liberty

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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There seems to be a lot of confusion on this point. Many people believe they are living in a state of liberty, while others don’t think so. How can you know for sure? I have devised a simple test that, I believe, can be used to determine when you have liberty.
I am here following the distinction that some use, between freedom and liberty: freedom is being free in your own mind--even a prisoner in a gulag can be free. Liberty is the external condition of being able to do what you want, within the usual constraints of nature--a prisoner in a gulag does not have liberty.
Now, it is possible to have liberty, no matter what political worldview you subscribe to. A communist can have liberty, if he lives in a place that allows him to be a communist, just as he wants to be. This is so for any other political persuasion; liberals can have liberty, and conservatives can too. Some people may not realize this. Anyone can have liberty; whether they are free is another question altogether, that I won’t address here.
Let’s start this investigation with an analogy. Imagine you live in a large city. Every morning you get up, get in your car, and travel along your favorite road, Liberal Way. You travel on Liberal Way because you are a liberal (just assume this for the moment). This road has all the things you need. There are other roads, like Conservative Boulevard, and Progressive Avenue, and even a gravel road called Communist Lane, but you are not interested in going there, although you may have tried it once when you were younger.
Now, you do have to drive through some ugly, blighted areas, but you are sure they are that way because of what happens over on Conservative Boulevard. Likewise, conservatives think the blight they drive through on Conservative Boulevard is because of what happens in Liberal Way. You both wish the rest of the city was more like your own preferred road, so the blight would go away and you could be proud of your entire city. And, you try to make that happen through political means.
One day you get the notion to drive outside the city. You start going but are soon stopped by a fence with a sign, “NO EXIT PERMITTED.” You sadly turn around and go home. You then go back to your old routine, but this event keeps gnawing away at the back of your mind. For some reason you can’t quite fathom, the city loses its friendly feeling. The familiar sights along Liberal Way start to seem a bit “off"; nothing is quite as it appears. You start to feel as if you are in a prison.
Do you have liberty? At first it seemed so, because Liberal Way had everything you needed--except for one thing you hadn’t noticed before: you can’t get out. You can switch to Conservative Boulevard, or Communist Lane, or any other road in the city, but there is no way out of the city. You begin to feel trapped.
No, you don’t have liberty. You previously thought you did, when you thought about it at all. The newspapers you read occasionally told you that you lived in a free city. But now it dawns on you that that was a lie.
And it’s even worse. You realize that if you got over the fence, you’d just be in another city, differing from yours only in cultural details. There would still be another fence. There is no “outside.” (This is for the “love it or leave it” crew, who seem to think that is some kind of answer.)
So, we realize that liberty is not only about getting the stuff and doing the things we like to do on our own favorite road, nor is it the ability to go on some other road. Liberty is the absence of the fence. It is the ability to get outside, even if we don’t want to!
So, we’ve discovered our true test of liberty. The people trying to get outside are called “anarchists.” They are no longer happy with any of the roads in town; they want out. The way you can tell when you have liberty, is when those who want out, can get outside. In other words, it is when anarchists are left alone. That is the test.
You don’t have to approve of anarchism. You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to have liberty. But unless anarchists can live the anarchist life, paying no taxes they personally didn’t sign up for, conforming to no regulation they personally didn’t agree to, then you have no liberty--regardless of your own opinions on need for taxes and regulation. You are instead, in a prison.
This should be no surprise to you. Everybody knows that tolerance is the supreme civic virtue. (That’s "tolerance" in the old sense of the word, not including any connotation of approval.) To tolerate an anarchist, you have to let him be. Right now, there is no tolerance for anarchists. They are not permitted to live as anarchists anywhere. There is a cost to this lack of tolerance, though, and that cost is living in a prison. If you are like many people today, you are just now discovering that cost.
For those who inevitably suggest that anarchists move to Somalia, that won’t work--everyone in the United States remains in a prison. Liberty used to be the unique identifier for America; it is America more than any other place that brought the notion of liberty into this world. It is our job as Americans to make room for anarchists here, some place in America. We all need to tolerate them. No one can do it as well as Americans can; and it’s the only way out of our prison, the only way possible for every one of us to have liberty.


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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


KenK's picture

That's what Sartre was getting when he noted that: "Hell is other people"* (telling you what to do). Having or needing to reign in our personal prerogatives and impulses in order to live amongst others** is the whole basis for the emergence of statism IMO. I appreciate your insights Paul. Do you have any thoughts about what the next step is?

* No Exit, J.P. Sartre,

** Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud,

WhiteIndian's picture


I've been using the prison metaphor to describe city-Statism (civilization) since reading Daniel Quinn, who used it. Prison is a good illustration.

I think Richard Manning has an even more accurate metaphor -- civilization as a ZOO. We're animals in cages, and animals in cages turn psychotic -- and that is exactly how hunter-gatherers view civilized people. Psychotic.

Richard Manning on the Psychosis of Civilization

Considering that schizophrenia is a Disease of Civilization, as psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey argues in Schizophrenia and Civilization, I think Manning is onto something.


Freud had it nailed, but thought of city-Statism (civilization) as a "necessary evil."

He wrote, "The principal task of civilization, its actual
raison d'ette, is to defend us against nature...But how
ungrateful. how short-sighted after all to strive for the abolition of civilization! What would then remain would be a state of nature, and that would be far harder to bear."

Most city-Statist imprisoned (in-zooed? LOL) people agree with him, including the vast majority of libertarians.

That last 60 years of anthropology, ethnology, and evolutionary biology debunk Freud's blind acceptance of the Hobbesian mythology. Man in a "state of nature" enjoyed "The Original Affluent Society." (Sahlins, 1972)

The next step? Our lives need to "mirror our genetic heritage" as Manning states in the youtube video above.

Paul's picture

Thanks for that link. I too think along those lines although I don't necessarily exclude even city life from our genetic heritage. We built it after all, just as we built culture. Anyone who wants to live in a city should do so. BTW I've got Sahlins' book "Stone Age Economics". I wonder how his ideas have stood up over time.

WhiteIndian's picture

Fine business on the Sahlins tome, especially the chapter "The Original Affluent Society." I think it is much like "On the Origin of Species."

Humans have indeed built culture. Perhaps it is historically inevitable.

We also have developed the Sixth Great Extinction. Is suicide inevitable?

We are the Gods about which we created myths. And we'll either suicide ourselves via nuclear weapons or other Collapse, or learn to attenuate our lust to dominate the planet.

Frankly, I think it'll go nuclear, and our specie will be like bacteria in a wine barrel. Catabolic collapse, blip in time. 22 generations from now, Stone Age, and my children's children will be hunting the genetics I'm preserving/"improving" (basically, re-wilding, as best one can do besieged by a Monsanto wasteland and its city-lyzed hoards) after I (or somebody) cuts the fences on "my" land.

BrianDrake's picture


"The way you can tell when you have liberty, is when those who want out, can get outside. In other words, it is when anarchists are left alone. That is the test.

You don’t have to approve of anarchism. You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to have liberty."

You have actually defined, by description, anarchism. If residing/living your life on Liberal Way, Conservative Boulevard, Communist Lane, etc. is something one chooses to do voluntarily, is able to leave when they choose, and is unable to compel others to adopt the same choice (i.e., force others to live on Communist Lane, or "stay in the city"), then there's no "archy" there. No archy = anarchy.

Anyone who desires this situation, is de facto, an anarchist. That they personally prefer certain forms of social organization over others is secondary to the fact they desire a society where no man is forced to the form of social organization preferred by another. You could call these people "anarcho-Liberals", "anarcho-Conservatives" or "anarcho-Communists", but the fact remains, they are all anarchists.

So I argue there's no middle ground between anarchy and statism. A statist who agrees to "leave the anarchists alone" is not a statist, he is an anarchist. Because, by "leaving the anarchists alone", he is agreeing that no man may be bound by a State he did not consent to. And, assuming he is coherent, this understanding extends to himself as well. He only continues as a "citizen" to the State the anarchists seceded unmolested from because he chooses to do so. If he chose not to, he would assert the same right he recognized in the "anarchists", that is, the right to be left alone by that, or any other State. But this philosophy attempts to transform the "State" he persists in being a "citizen" to into a voluntary institution. By definition, a State is NOT a voluntary institution and thus any State that "lets the anarchists alone" is no longer a State. It is a governing-services organization that, since it respects the wishes of its "citizens" to voluntarily opt in or out, must now compete with alternatives for the continued consent of its "citizens", which are now more accurately recognized as customers. And thus we have described market anarchy.

The "you can remain a statist, just leave the anarchists alone" tactic might be a sly way to trick a statist into becoming an anarchist without realizing it, but it doesn't change the fact that deciding to "leave the anarchists alone" makes one an anarchist.

I personally prefer, and find more useful the idea that liberty = self-ownership. The test to see if you have liberty is to ask if any human person, or group of persons has final authority over your life other than you. If the answer is yes, you don't have liberty, someone else owns you...and thus you are a slave.

Paul's picture

I can't dispute your points here on a logical or linguistic basis. But I think you mistake my aim here.

People (including myself) are not perfectly logical or consistent, and I don't expect them to be, either. I prefer to work with them as they are, not as I wish they would be. They may be feeling more like a prisoner these days. I'm hoping they see where this feeling comes from. Making no other changes than letting anarchists go is a way for them to restore their liberty. I don't care if they think through the implications. I don't care what label they stick on themselves, and I certainly do not want to go to the effort of convincing them they are really anarchists even if you or I might think they really are so. There is no profit in it. All I want is a trade: tolerance for a small number of people who consider themselves anarchists, in return for restoring that feeling of liberty.

It's not my job to improve people or to make them logical; it's their job. It's my job to get liberty for myself if I can manage it. If they want they can observe what happens in a really free society, and profit from that knowledge. Or not. It's entirely up to them.

Actually, to correct you on one point, I am not assuming that letting anarchists go is necessarily accompanied by putting down the government cudgel entirely. In fact I am assuming that most likely liberals and conservatives still will continue to battle over the election process, only leaving anarchists out of it. I'm not suggesting a very large change for them, but a very small one. Just tolerance, that's all.

BrianDrake's picture

"It's not my job to improve people or to make them logical; it's their job."

Well said.

I agree that if we can "trick" people into behaving as anarchists, it does not matter if they embrace that label. Leave us alone and I don't care what they think beyond that.

I disagree with your correction. As I elaborated in my first comment, there is no "government cudgel" in a society that respects the right to "opt out". Boxing is not the same as assault. The participants may be performing the same violent actions, but the fact that they are both voluntary participants, and they recognize their decision to engage in violence does not give them right to use violence on those who don't consent, is what distinguishes their sport from aggression.

The moment the liberals and conservatives concede they may only "battle over the election process" with other willing participants, and not those who say no, there is no State (obviously assuming this decision to "leave the anarchists alone" is put into practice). They can of course call it a State, and call themselves whatever they want, but the reality is that is not a State, any more than boxers qua boxers are violent criminals.

That statists can still be "statists" in a state-less society does not require much imagination. Even in our current Statist world, there exists the example of BDSM clubs. In the market, sans the State, there will probably be "political clubs" catering to those with an even darker fetish for pain and conflict. "Conservatives" and "liberals" can duke it out to their heart's content (even violently-enforcing rules set by the electoral winners upon each other). But as long as they genuinely leave alone those who do not consent, it is anarchy.

Going back to your rhetorical strategy, if it works, great. More power to you. I'm just not convinced that it's genuinely an easier, more effective strategy because at its core, I don't really see it as a different strategy. An anarchist is the only person who is genuinely wiling to leave other people alone, and if it was really that easy to convince people to leave others alone (i.e., to be an anarchist, whether they used that word or not), we'd already be living in glorious anarchy by now.

"I'm not suggesting a very large change for them, but a very small one. Just tolerance, that's all."

But you're wrong, that's the largest change possible for them. Tolerance is the crux of the matter. It is what distinguishes us, the anarchists, from EVERYONE ELSE. Again, if "just tolerance, that's all" was so simple, we'd already be living in glorious anarchy.

Now don't get me wrong, I actually think most people are anarchists at heart; that they don't have the desire or at least the courage to individually enforce their preferences on others (i.e., the desire/courage to enforce their intolerance). But because they've been raised as Statists, that's the way they've been programmed to think. And while I will also not claim perfect logical consistency (though admitting a failing is not the same as embracing that as desirable), I argue it is the logical INconsistency of Statism that's the achille's heal of that rotten philosophy (and what makes it rotten to begin with). And thus, it is the progress TOWARDS logical consistency that will help people see the State for what it is and recognize that tolerance must be afforded to others if it is expected for oneself.

So if your method of presentation is effective in connecting with a statist and helping them move a bit more towards logical consistency, and eventually to a point where they agree to treat others they way they want to be treated (that is, left alone when desired), then bravo. Good luck to you (sincerely).

Actually, rather than just wishing you well, I'm curious if you can report on the effectiveness of your proposed strategy. How often have you used it and what have been the results? Honestly, if you've got an effective tactic, I don't think I'd be alone here at Strike the Root in being very interested in your success.

Paul's picture

Sorry about taking so long to respond; sometimes I forget to revisit these threads.

"The moment the liberals and conservatives concede they may only "battle over the election process" with other willing participants, and not those who say no, there is no State..."

Your error here is in speaking collectively. What I am talking about is a change of individuals. The State (to speak collectively for the moment) does not do anything it pleases; it must concern itself with legitimacy (or to be more accurate, the appearance of legitimacy). Eventually enough statists will disapprove of state action against anarchists, and then it will stop happening (probably in the same way that Catholics stopped approving of persecution of Protestants, in Catholic majority areas). We don't imagine the Catholic Church has ceased to exist because there is now tolerance of non-Catholics.

"But you're wrong, that's the largest change possible for them. Tolerance is the crux of the matter. It is what distinguishes us, the anarchists, from EVERYONE ELSE. Again, if 'just tolerance, that's all' was so simple, we'd already be living in glorious anarchy. "

No, I disagree. Most people are actually quite tolerant, and getting more so as time goes on. We no longer kill gays or string up dark people or beat Catholics, for the most part. The people we call "statists" simply have one area of inconsistency in their generally tolerant behavior, an area that has been carefully cultivated by the state through indoctrination camps and the Ministry of Propaganda. It is that simple. The reason we're not living in glorious anarchy is because it is hard to break through that indoctrination, through worldviews implanted by the state. It usually takes some kind of shock to break through - and we certainly face a major shock in the short-term future.

As to successes, I actually have been having successes in internet discussions. If for example people want socialized healthcare, instead of arguing against socialism (well, I still do, but try to tone it down) I just tell them I agree they should have it and hope they get it. And even that I will do everything I can to help them get it. But I also say I don't want any part of it myself, neither the "care" nor the taxes to support it. I tell them I want to live in my own way. This really defuses their opposition. But if they decide to agree with me, I'm not going to start calling them an anarchist, any more than Catholics should be called Protestants when they start tolerating Protestants.

WhiteIndian's picture

Restoring Non-State liberty to sovereign individuals with the personal responsibility to care for themselves and their families is easy: end city-Statism.

Resist or Die

Suverans2's picture

Ending "city-Statism" may be "simple", but it is most certainly not "easy"?

easy adjective▸not difficult to do, or not needing much work ~ MacMillan Dictionary