This paper explores possible disagreement between direct and overall liberty. Direct liberty corresponds to the inherent aspects of a policy reform (and its concomitant enforcement), while overall liberty subsumes also its wider and long-run aspects. Both direct and overall liberty are important, and each has virtues relative to the other. The virtue of direct liberty is its concreteness and definiteness. The virtue of overall liberty is its fuller accounting of an action’s consequences in terms of liberty. If direct and overall liberty often disagree, then there is ambiguity in saying whether a policy or action augments “liberty”—a term that is almost never clarified by the distinction between direct and overall—and critics will contend that “liberty” is meaningless or illusory.
This paper thinks out eleven possible areas of disagreement between direct and overall liberty. We maintain that some areas of possible disagreement are genuine and perhaps significant—the three most notable being military actions, controlling pollution, and what we call “coercive hazard.” Yet we argue that on the whole the main tendency is for direct and overall liberty to agree. The article fortifies the liberty principle by arguing that the tension between direct and overall liberty is not so great as to undo its coherence and focalness.
We also use our analysis to understand the differences between libertarians and conservatives. Both claim to favor overall liberty, but conservatives see far greater disagreement between direct and overall liberty, and hence more often support contraventions of the direct-liberty principle.