The liberty to feel free

Recently we had a very interesting discussion with South African friends who have spent some time in Switzerland. They perceived our home to be a very “unfree” country, where regulations ruled and citizens controlled each other like hobby policemen. We then pointed out that we are actually looking forward to experiencing  freedom again in Switzerland – something we truly miss here. You can imagine the following debate of examples which didn’t lead us very far: house rules versus indemnity forms, hobby traffic policemen versus neighbourhood watch patrols, the freedom to hike on anyone’s pastures versus the liberty to fence off huge portions of the country.

Many  of these examples illustrate the differences in jurisdiction: individual rights are generally valued higher in the South African law system than in Switzerland, where the protection of common goods such as water, land, soil, or air are represented strongly. On the other hand, in Switzerland, everyone is responsible for their own well-being, whereas no South African will let you do anything without signing an indemnity form first.

But maybe more interesting than (and also cause and effect of) these jurisdictional distinctions are differing expectations and perceptions. The English language knows two words for the German Freiheit: liberty and freedom.  (And from here on I have to quote Stuart from this forum, I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks!)

“Liberty comes from the Latin word libertas, which means “unbounded, unrestricted or released from constraint.” Libertas even contains the idea of being separate and independent.

The English word freedom can trace its roots to the Germanic or Norse word frei, describing someone who belongs to a tribe and has the rights and protections that go with belonging. Besides freedom the root frei becomes the English word friend.

To have liberty is to be unencumbered.

To have freedom is to have the aggregate benefits and protections provided by society.

As citizens we give up some of our liberty in exchange for freedom. This is the social contract. It allows us to enjoy our liberty far more than we otherwise could. (Being unencumbered isn’t much fun in a lawless place like Sudan.)

Freedom is given by society to its constituents. For example, our society provides medicine, education and rule of law (among many other things). Any one of these would be far less valuable without any other. Therefore the aggregate is more than the sum of its part, so the word “freedom” has its own unique meaning.“

Most probably, looking for liberty won’t help in appreciating freedom – and vice versa. The two can be found in both countries, but in different places and occasions.

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