Skip to main content

Freedom and Its Constraints: The Limits to What We Should Do

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

We take many freedoms for granted—like the simple act of going out to dinner with friends. But even a night out has limitations and constraints.

We take many freedoms for granted—like the simple act of going out to dinner with friends. But even a night out has limitations and constraints.

Freedom Has Contraints

You go to a restaurant with some friends. The waiter shows you to your table, and you order drinks and look over the menu—just a normal night out in good company. But this is a freedom that many of us take for granted; you are free to go to a restaurant, free to choose which restaurant, and free to order whatever you like from the menu.

Even here, however, your freedom has limitations, and your range of choices is constrained. You can only go to restaurants that are within reach, and you can only pick a dish that the restaurant will serve you. There might be other constraints as well; maybe you are allergic to some ingredients, or you are vegan. Then again, the restaurant might guide you towards choosing one thing over another through pricing or your waiter's recommendations.

There are five of you at dinner. Normally there would be six, but Jerry has lost his job and cannot afford to go. You are not exercising perfect freedom, and the freedom that you do have is further limited by the freedoms that the restaurant owner enjoys. She is free to refuse to serve you, free to open late and close early, and free to refuse to serve you another drink if she believes that you have had enough.

Freedom, then, is conditional. There are limits, limits that we normally accept without concern. But these limits—or constraints, if you prefer—have implications for society that reach far beyond the trivial.

The Two Types of Freedom

There are two types of freedom. The freedom to do something. In mature democracies, we are free to speak our minds, free to meet with whom we like, and free to go where we wish. You will notice that there are limits to these freedoms. There is also freedom from something. We are, for example, free from arbitrary imprisonment. The two freedoms co-exist uneasily.

Freedom from something and freedom to something mean very different things—and they are often in conflict with one another.

Freedom from something and freedom to something mean very different things—and they are often in conflict with one another.

Freedom and the State

In his influential 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick writes:

The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.

The Nightwatchman and Minimalist State

Nozick was a firm believer in restricting the powers of the state—and in fact, in cutting the state's function right back to that of protecting citizens against "force, fraud, theft, and administering courts of law." Anyone who has filled out an income tax form or runs up against some pettifogging piece of legislation will have some sympathy with his view. This is the so-called nightwatchman state that limits itself to ensuring that we can all sleep safely in our beds at night.

In other words, Nozick and other believers in a minimalist state want citizens to be free from government interference. With less state interference, people will be free to do more of the things they wish to do. But don't we need a state, a government to do more than this?

Let's go back to the restaurant. Jerry couldn't join his friends because he had lost his job and couldn't pay his way. Unwilling to accept charity, he refused to have someone pay for him. Under a nightwatchman state, Jerry would have to rely on his circle of contacts to help him out. There may be organizations that match people with job openings, but there may not. Profit would be the overriding motive for any agency - it may be that volunteers try to fill any gaps, but such agencies are unlikely to have the necessary reach.

Nozick's minimalist state is supposed to offer citizens more freedom—but it may well do the opposite. And what if Jerry is just at the beginning of a downward spiral? Too proud to ask for help, he loses his home, homeless he turns to drugs and crime. The nightwatchman state will not intervene.

A Role for the State

There are certain things that a state does that wouldn't be done if left to individuals. You could argue that capitalists will fulfill every possible need if there is a profit in it. After all, the new United States saw trade expanding through privately funded routes. True, but these only met the needs of some—no profit meant no service. Far from expanding freedom, relying solely on private initiative stifles it.

Adam Smith made the following famous observation in The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities, but of their advantages.

Let's take, as an example, a dam. I am willing to admit that a private company might build a dam and charge customers downstream for the water they use. But there's a lot that's wrong with this; the freedom that a farmer has to use as much water as he needs is limited by supply and price. No "invisible hand" is going to force the price down if there is a monopoly on supply. And then, who checks that the dam is safe if there is no agency to do it?


In the example of a dam, the freedom that a farmer has to use as much water as he needs is limited by supply and price.

In the example of a dam, the freedom that a farmer has to use as much water as he needs is limited by supply and price.

The Social Contract

A member of any society enters into a contract with the administration of that society. It is, it is true, a contract that she doesn't sign up to; it is imposed upon her. The contract implies that society guarantees certain freedoms at the expense of others. Our citizen is not free to do as she likes, but she is free from certain dangers. Any society is a balance between freedom from something and freedom to do something. It is a contract that is renegotiated in democratic societies every time there is an election.

Governments can certainly interfere too much. There should always be a body that reviews government actions and legislation to ensure that it stays within acceptable bounds. Still, we need the state to provide the tools that we need to make our way in society—tools such as good general education, transport, and regulation. Without a state, the weak would inevitably sink to the bottom.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.