On the nature of
liberty and license

Mortimer J. Adler

[An excerpt from The Common Sense of Politics]

I turn at once to the consideration of liberty for all. It is necessary to distinguish three forms of social freedom -- the freedom of the individual in society. It is only the first of these that the philosophical anarchist has in mind.

The first is the unlimited freedom of complete autonomy, a freedom that is incompatible with civil law and government, for it consists in each man's obeying himself alone and being able to do exactly as he pleases.

The second is the limited freedom of the residual autonomy that the individual retains when he acknowledges the limited authority of a de jure government, of which he is a consenting constituent. This is the freedom of being able to do as he pleases with respect to all matters not prescribed by the civil laws of a just government. Let us call such limited freedom "individual civil liberty."

The third is the freedom of the individual as a consenting constituent and a participating citizen. In contrast to individual civil liberty, which consists in doing as one pleases where just laws prescribe no course of conduct, this freedom which I shall call "political liberty" consists in obeying laws that are made by an authority to which the individual has consented and made by a process in which, through his suffrage, he has participated. While they are not laws wholly of his own making, neither are they laws wholly imposed upon him by force. The citizen as a self-governing individual has the freedom of political liberty in his lawful conduct.

Now, if the only liberty worthy of the name were the unlimited freedom of complete autonomy (which is the only freedom that the philosophical anarchist acknowledges), it would follow that such liberty cannot exist for men living in states and under government. However, it also follows that if such liberty were to be exercised without the restraints of justice, some individuals might enjoy unlimited freedom to the maximum, but in doing so they would encroach upon, limit, or reduce the freedom of others to do exactly as they pleased. In other words, unlimited freedom -- freedom unrestrained by justice -- cannot be maximized for all.

Herein lies the distinction between liberty and license. Liberty is freedom exercised under the restraints of justice so that its exercise results in injury to no one. In contrast license is freedom exempt from the restraints of justice and. therefore, injurious to others in infringing their freedom as well as violating other rights. When no distinction is made between liberty and license, the freedom of the strong an destroy the freedom of the weak. For the freedom of any one individual to be compatible with In equal measure of freedom on the part of all others, the freedom of each must be limited and limited precisely for the purpose of preventing the freedom of one from encroaching upon or destroying the freedom of others. Hence maximization of freedom for all, with an equal measure of freedom for each, is impossible without the restraints of justice. which confines the freedom of doing as one pleases to conduct that in no way injures anyone else.

It may be objected at this point, on behalf of the philosophical anarchist, that what has so far been shown is only that the maximization of liberty for all and with an equal measure for each, requires the restraints of justice. It has not been shown that it requires civil law and government. Let me meet that objection by proposing a hypothesis that I regard as contrafactual.

Let us suppose that individuals living together in a society without law and government not only could act in concert for their common good and cooperate peacefully, but also that each and everyone of them had perfect moral characters so that they would all act under the restraints of justice in everything that they did which affected others. On this supposition, they would have complete autonomy, for each would obey himself alone, but that complete autonomy would no longer be an unlimited freedom, for it would be limited by the self-imposed restraints of justice. This limited freedom exercised by completely autonomous individuals with complete moral integrity would not differ an iota from the limited freedom that can be enjoyed by individuals living in the state under just laws and government. I say "can be enjoyed" because, in civil society, those who are impelled to act unjustly may be coercively restrained by government, but even then they are not deprived of liberty when that is distinguished from license.

Hence if the philosophical anarchist admits that the restraints of justice are required for the maximization of liberty for all, with an equal measure for each, he must abandon his conception of liberty as an unlimited freedom for each individual to do exactly as he pleases whether he injures anybody else or not. Then the only question which remains is whether this liberty -- freedom limited by justice -- is compatible with the retention by everyone of complete autonomy. If so, then it can exist in a society without government; but if not, then it cannot exist in the absence of the state and government.

In proposing the hypothesis that we have been considering, I said that it was contrafactual. I need only recall points made earlier to show why that is the case. We have seen that it is impossible for individuals who retain their complete autonomy to live together in peace and act in concert for their common good. That would be true even if the individuals were men of perfect moral integrity, for even so they still have the finite intelligence of human beings. They would be men, not angels or gods. In addition, men being as they are or even as they might be under the best of circumstances, they are rational animals, not purely rational begins; and it is therefore unlikely, to say the least, that all would achieve the perfect moral integrity that presupposes the power of reason completely to control the animal appetites and drives.

Hence, taking men as they are or as they might be under the best of circumstances, the limited freedom that is the only liberty that can be maximized for all in equal measure cannot be achieved solely by the self-imposed restraints of justice. For the whole assembly of men, including the criminal and the vicious along with the virtuous and including all degrees of moral character short of perfect integrity, the instructive prescriptions of just laws are required to supplement self-discipline where it is inadequate, and the coercive force of law is required to prevent the unrestrained exercise of freedom by those whose uncontrolled impulses are unjust.

Let me briefly sum this up. The unlimited freedom that some men would have access to in the absence of government and law would defeat the realization of the ideal of maximizing liberty for all. It is anarchy, not the state and government, that is incompatible with the realization of this ideal. When a man's limited freedom is seen as consisting in his individual civil liberty in all mattes not regulated by just laws, together with his political liberty as a consenting constituent and a participating citizen of a de jure state and government, then, in principle at least, we can see no reason for denying that the fullest possible realization of freedom for all is not only compatible with, but is also dependent upon, the institutions of a just state with just government.