I'm trying to describe that two nations which both guarantee their citizens the right to free speech, asssembly, etc, can have different enforcement policies, resulting a a nation that:

a) has less freedom than another, or b) has fewer freedoms than another

I feel like "fewer freedoms" is incorrect because the same individual freedoms (press, representation, whatever) are guaranteed in law, only being implemented differently.

I feel like "less freedom" is incorrect, because freedom describes a state of not being restricted, which seems like an boolean rather than a spectrum.

So am I misunderstanding one of these words? Is either acceptable?

  • If you say that citizens have less freedom then you have to specify 'freedom to do what'. Otherwise it just gives the impression they are locked up at night or something. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 4 '15 at 0:01

I think that how you choose to frame the comparison depends to a large extent on how granularly you define you define your categories.

Suppose that Nation A permits unrestricted movement on the part of its citizens by public transport (bus, train, or airplane) but bans private ownership and use of cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. And suppose that Nation B permits unrestricted movement on the part of its citizens by public and private modes of transport.

At a generalized level, both nations give their citizens a "freedom to travel," so it is incorrect (at that level of generality) to say that Nation A has fewer freedoms than Nation B: Both nations can check off the box for "freedom to travel," and both are tied at one freedom each.

But if you itemize the particular ways of traveling, and treat each one as a potential freedom—"freedom to travel by bus," "freedom to travel by train," "freedom to travel by airplane," "freedom to travel by private car," "freedom to travel by private motorcycle," and "freedom to travel by private bicycle"—Nation A suddenly loses the freedoms competition, six to three. Nation A has fewer freedoms (in the obscure corner of societal freedoms that we're talking about here) than Nation B does.

You might also conclude, at this level of analysis, that Nation A has less freedom with regard to travel than Nation B does, because Nation A has prohibited an area of action by citizens that is (formally, at least) unrestricted in Nation B.

Of course, many complications may arise. For example, suppose that in Nation A there is no fee for taking public transportation within the country's borders, and that for many citizens in Nation B public transportation fees are discouragingly high and private ownership of cars, motorcycles, and bicycles is prohibitively expensive. Then we might say that although Nation B offers its citizens more freedoms than Nation A does, a poor person in Nation B actually has less practical freedom to travel than does a person of any economic class in Nation A.

Part of the trouble here has to do with addressing the issue of freedom and freedoms as though these words describe something that a nation possesses, rather than as something that its citizens possess. And another part of the trouble is that a chasm frequently exists between a person's abstract right to something and a person's practical possession of it.

To circle back to your original question, it seems to me that both the notion of "more and fewer freedoms" and the notion of "more and less freedom" are quite coherent and distinct ideas that may be discussed meaningfully under suitable conditions. But they are also extremely slippery ideas because they can be appraised very differently at different levels of generality or granularity, at different gradations of abstractness and concreteness, and with regard to different populations within the state or nation.


If you feel that both are incorrect from a particular point of view, then it is incumbent upon you to explain your meaning explicitly when you state that "one has less freedom" or "one has fewer freedoms." There is no set definition of freedom that everyone can agree on--the political discourse in our country makes that clear. The freedom to bear arms is guaranteed in our Constitution, for example, but much disagreement about how to interpret the language that guarantees that particular freedom. There are legal viewpoints, moral viewpoints, economic viewpoints, philosophical viewpoints, etc. Just the fact that you ask the question is your first clue--go to almost any political website and you will see yards of comments from people using the same words to describe entirely different perspectives. Best, then, that you define the terms yourself to avoid misunderstanding (not that many won't deliberately misunderstand anyway, but ...)


I feel like "less freedom" is incorrect, because freedom describes a state of not being restricted, which seems like an boolean rather than a spectrum.

Less freedom is ok, as freedom definitely a spectrum :)

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