John Beverley Robinson

What is Freedom?




One of the clearest presentation of what is freedom. The principle of non agression and of non obstruction are the twin pillars of freedom. As stated by Robinson, "liberty means letting others be free as well as exercising our own freedom."

Source: Freedom, New York, May 5, 1894



“Do you think liberty is good for everybody?” said a thoughtful woman to me; “take the many instances of unbridled power, the Roman emperors, for example; surely they had freedom; was it well that they should?”

So people question before the complete notion of liberty fills their minds. The burglar is he not free? The wife-beater, is he not free?

But how about the other people? We ask in reply. When the Roman emperors ruled, they may have been free, but how about the people whom they ruled, were they free? So the burglar may be free, but those whom he robs surely are coerced. And the wife-beater, he too may be free to beat his wife, by virtue of his physical strength, but is she free?

Try to realize as soon as you can that freedom means freedom for all. Not freedom for one to club another, while the other is only free to be clubbed, but freedom for both to lead their lives in peace, without either clubbing the other.

But, you may object, it is not possible for one person, nor for everybody, for that matter, to do as he pleases without interfering with anybody. Suppose two want to do the same thing, how are they to settle it? Suppose I want to build my house on a certain corner lot and another man wants to build his on the same lot, how can we both be free to do as we please?

The reply is simply this: If people once admit the principle that freedom for all is advisable, the cases where the exercise of opposite freedoms clash will easily be settled. The question of the corner lot common sense would settle as the question of the choice of seats at a free show is settled, by priority of occupancy, and so with those of most of those conundrums which those propound to whom freedom is presented as a solution of pressing problems.

People are all free to walk the streets, but that does not mean freedom to walk into each other.

The trouble is that, when we leave this principle of freedom of action for all except where the actions clash, and take up the other, - that liberty is not enough, that somebody must coerce somebody else, there is no limit to the coercion process. It extends itself immediately from cases where actions do clash to cases where the action which it is supposed to suppress not only clashes with nobody's else action, but even to cases where the actions are agreeable to and approved by all concerned. Sunday laws, forbidding people to buy on one day of the week what they buy freely on others, are clearly tyranny. If the act of buying does not restrict anybody's else freedom on six days of the week, it is manifestly absurd to suppose that it can on the seventh. Sunday laws are enacted, not in protection of the liberty of those who support them, but in order that they may to that extent force their way of thinking and acting upon others at the expense of the liberty of the latter. They want, and almost all of our legislators want, to force a certain line of action upon everybody, because it is approved by religion, or conventionality, or prejudice. The principle is logically carried out by the bands of masked ruffians of whom we read every little while in the papers, who go at midnight and whip or burn a man or woman who may be exemplary in his or her dealings with others, and whose actions clash with the actions of no one else. It is not a question of clashing here, it is a question of making everybody do what we happen to think right. As a matter of fact, these White-caps are usually the most respectable men in the community, the pillars of Church and State.

There was a time when freedom was for one man, to whom all were willing slaves, deferring to his tyranny from a superstitious veneration for his position, as in the time of the Roman emperors. Of this spirit much remains in the deference still shown to the ruling powers, whether in monarchies or democracies. In such times, and toward such a spirit of crawling submission, rebellion by any means was the only remedy to urge upon mens's minds.

But a different state of affairs is coming and has partly come. The many have the power and are learning to use it. It is no longer necessary to urge the many to assert their liberty against the few. Rather it is for us to urge that liberty means letting others be free as well as exercising our own freedom.

For that is what liberty does mean to one who knows what it is. He who is free will have no desire to make others act according to his own code; he will scarcely even advise or suggest to others what they ought to do.

Upon the opposite spirit, the slave's spirit that we inherit from the past, to force others to do our way, rests the present power of government, by which those who think they govern are themselves enslaved and plundered.

Truly, the majority has the power, but the blind use of that power will always recoil upon the users, by supporting the system of economic slavery which now grinds alike governors and governed.

The majority must learn, what we are trying to teach them, that it is safe and proper to use their power only to protect liberty. And that precludes compulsory taxation.


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