Thursday, January 17, 2019

Autonomy vs. liberty

When most people think about liberty, they actually think freedom.  And while those two words are used interchangeably, there is some merit to the comparison of autonomy and liberty. 

For what is autonomy? What does it mean for us as individual people? How does this reflect upon our own liberty? What liberty do we have as individual people?  And does it mean we have the necessary autonomy to carry out what we need to do?


noun, plural au·ton·o·mies.

  1. independence or freedom, as of the will or one's actions:
    the autonomy of the individual.
  2. the condition of being autonomous; self-government or the right of self-government:
    The rebels demanded autonomy from Spain.
  3. a self-governing community.


noun, plural lib·er·ties.

  1. freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
  2. freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.
  3. freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.
  4. freedom from captivity, confinement, or physical restraint:
    The prisoner soon regained his liberty.
  5. permission granted to a sailor, especially in the navy, to go ashore.
  6. freedom or right to frequent or use a place:
    The visitors were given the liberty of the city.

Looking at the first definitions of both words, it would appear that no autonomy would exist without liberty.  Or, liberty begets autonomy. Maybe?

Is the idea of liberty a macro one?
Is the idea of autonomy a micro one?

This would appear to be the case, as autonomy tends to look at the "self" and liberty has no mention or reference to the individual. In the United States societal context, liberty is historically meant as individual liberty.  The freedom of the individual to do as s/he pleases, needs, or requires. There could exist societal liberty that could curtail autonomy, and it was the intention of the founders of the United States to clarify that liberty in their view truly implied individual autonomy, and did not infringe upon it.

Many people would just look at it as splitting hairs and use the two almost interchangeably.  As mentioned previously, that may work in the case of freedom and liberty.  But autonomy comes from a societies view of   For somehow, one would not exist without the other.  But, we typically talk about these words in political context today, and all too often, the subtle differences in the meanings of words are used to mislead. Sometimes people will use words lazily, but sometimes they are using the words acutely in an effort to misinform.*

The phrase, "of the people" is the most referenced with respect to individual liberty.  It is used repeatedly through the US Constitution and its amendments to show that the power in this new country is and ever will be from the individual and not from a powerful governing body.  This was a 'radical' departure from other countries, particularly the countries that predominantly populated the new continent.  This history that the founding fathers had played a major factor in making sure the structure of these United States was different.  Had the people who settled in North America come from different places or for different reasons, the new Constitution may have looked very different, had it been completed at all.

Today's general population tends to overlook the history of ourselves, and look at "what's working" elsewhere. This becomes problematic when you look at the structure of governance.  Typically, other countries can implement programs from a top-down position of power and be able to access the funds necessary to enact them.  Adding or expanding programs will occur with less debate or opposition because the power is relegated to a small group.

However, when power is disseminated over a larger group, or an entire population, the possibility of dissent is more likely.  Dissent and opposition adds to the conversation and helps provide a more appropriate program or solution for a multitude of reasons. 

  1. Unintended consequences
  2. Better objectivity
  3. Alternatives
  4. Compromise 
One person by definition will have a single viewpoint. The human condition is such that s/he will think of only that which affects them personally, privately, emotionally. This however leads to a conclusion that will only help the one person. Adding in multiple minds, thoughts, and views opens the situation to conclusions that can have broader appeal and not singular benefits.

By seeing and understanding another's viewpoint, the emotional component of a decision is more removed. Emotional responses are unavoidable, but seldom result in a "best" solution. Some component of a need will be overlooked, missing, or just plain ignored. Just join a conversation on social media today and you'll see information disseminated without consideration of other viewpoints.  This is no way to pass legislation or implement successful programs.

Giving power to more individuals also provides an opportunity to discover an alternative to solve the problem at hand. One, two, or thirty people may think one way to do things is good, but that 31st person can discover a different way that may be easier, cheaper, and more acceptable.

When a "best" way isn't decided upon, then compromise is the answer.  Having individual freedom allows you to do as someone else wants, do it the way you want, or to find something that will work for both of you.

In the end, we need to realize that we are all endowed with liberty as a whole. However, we need to implement, display, or execute that liberty to truly have autonomy within our society.  

*misinformation was voted "Word of the Year" for 2018 by

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