To understand our difficulties with defining freedom, it’s helpful to consider our intellectual history. In a society that imagines itself to consist of free and equal people, the question of how laws and regulations come to have authority is explained by an imaginary “social contract” that the members of a society are said to consent to, exchanging unchecked liberty for some measure of peace, order and security. This way of thinking about how people get along — largely through informal, metaphorical, but sometimes literal contracts — strongly informs how we imagine ourselves getting along in society. It’s our origin story, and it has immense power to frame the way we think.
But before we can understand what makes for a fair contract between equals, we have to explain what constitutes a free choice. And the contract tradition has some serious problems in that vein. For instance, Thomas Hobbes, an early and influential contract theorist, wrote that “Fear and liberty are consistent; as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will: it is therefore the action of one who was free.” In other words, calamitous circumstances don’t diminish a person’s ability to choose freely; they just change the available choices. In this mind-set, non-physical coercion may not be decent or seemly, but it doesn’t invalidate the freedom of the choice that follows.