We discuss liberty in America like we discuss chocolate. It’s as if we all are referring to the same thing, the same concept, when, in truth, no one knows what the other means. We say we love liberty, but what is liberty?
Is liberty a state of perfect liberty where there are no restraints, no laws, no customs and everyone is free to do what they want? Thomas Hobbes and John Locke would contend that in such a state there is no liberty. The irony being that in a state of perfect liberty… there is no liberty. Everyone, while free of custom and law, must live in a state of constant fear that at any moment they may become a victim to the arbitrary will of another. It’s kill or be killed. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the “Wild West” of the United States after the Civil War.
This is the kind of liberty for which many today seem to long. They want no customs, no restraints, no laws, no moral expectations. They’d rather their own conscience be the final judge of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, any outside or objective source of law, restraint or power is seen as tyrannical and destructive to their liberty. When they say liberty they mean liberty to do whatever they want unhindered by anything. This is where rights take center stage and liberty becomes the supporting character. Everyone has a right to whatever their heart desires and no person, institution or religion should say otherwise.
And yet, ask proponents of this kind of liberty if they’d rather just live with no government at all and I doubt you’ll find that many of them want actual anarchy. No, in fact, you may find that many are heavily in favor of an immense amount of government in realms of health, education, the environment and the like. The juxtaposition of wanting complete liberty while also contending for a powerful government seemingly never becoming an issue.
Yet there are many who are heavy proponents of government restraints, laws, and customs on human behavior within no real limitations. In other words, there are some who believe liberty is simply the ability to vote and be involved in politics while still agreeing that government should mandate morality, religion and the like. Liberty, then, exists in a fence, figuratively. And the size of that fence can be arbitrarily decided by whoever created the fence. Those inside are subject to the will and whim of another because those in the fence cannot be trusted to use their liberty wisely or for the best.
So, what is liberty?
Is it running barefoot on an open field, the wind blowing through your hair and the sun shining on your face? Is it the ability to be whoever you want to be, regardless of science, facts, and nature? Is it the right to have a say in how your government functions? Is it the ability to live free of stress, worry, or fear? Is it freedom from consequence of actions? Freedom from responsibility? Is the necessity and subsequent pressure, to work and provide food, clothing, and housing a chain… or a blessing? I think many conflate liberty with the elusive emotion they’re really searching for: happiness. Liberty does not guarantee happiness…only the pursuit of it.
Liberty is not an emotion or a feeling. It is merely a state of being. It is the state of being that allows one to take responsibility for one’s own life without the fear of an arbitrary power over them. Rights can get in the way of this, because the presumption of rights is that we’re owed something we don’t have and don’t have to work for and take responsibility for. Do we have a right to happiness?
Liberty is not rights. It never was rights. The idea of rights is beautiful because it gives weight and meaning to liberty. The American founders and the liberal philosophers before them maintained that certain rights must be available for liberty to exist. Rights can exist without liberty but liberty cannot exist without rights.
Liberty guarantees rights…but rights do not guarantee liberty.
There’s a reason the front page of my blog says, “Appreciate rights, but cherish liberty”.
Friends, it’s possible to possess certain rights but no liberty. However, it’s impossible to have true liberty without also possessing rights. You can have “rights” and still be a slave; but you cannot have liberty while being a slave.
Rights demand an arbitrary government. Liberty demands a limited one. Rights mean government can do anything but… liberty means government cannot anything do but…
What is liberty?
According to Locke and the American founders, liberty is the ability to live free of the fear of an arbitrary power over you.
Not freedom from responsibility or consequence but rather, freedom to have your own responsibility and consequence.
I’ve said this before but I think it’s incredibly important in light of my recent articles and in light of the past two years.
So I ask. Are we free? Do we live in a state of true liberty, or a state of rights?
Do we not live under the fear of an arbitrary power above us today? When might the government shut down the economy again? We’re subject to their arbitrary will. When might they mandate vaccines or anything they deem “necessary”? The point is not what they mandate, the point is, that they can.
Is this liberty?
Say you live as a slave on a plantation where your master is gone 90% of the time, but in that time, you can do whatever you want. However, you always know, that at any moment, this master could come home and do whatever he wants to you. Is this liberty?
Think of your thoughts today? Do you believe you are that “slave” or that you are the “master”? Does your “employee” act like he is the master? Are you free of the fear of the arbitrary will of another above you?
But, what if your master’s powers over you were constrained, confined and defined… and you had a say in that description?
The founders knew that for liberty to thrive, it must be built on a proper understanding of human nature, one that acknowledged the need for laws to restrain the wicked hearts of men, and the need for a Constitution to restrain the wicked hearts of the men making and enforcing those laws.
I mention rights because sometimes rights can be liberty’s mortal enemy. What if a significant portion of the population suddenly decided they all had a right to internet, a cell-phone, food, water, air, housing, healthcare, eduction…? These rights would then be demanded of government (destroying the very concept of rights as liberties we possess prior to government) and forced upon everyone, no matter if these rights lay waste to the liberties of those who ultimately provide these services. They are now subject to the arbitrary will of others. A Constitution, a job description, is no friend of a society who wants endless and arbitrary rights.
A Constitution is only a friend to a society who wants liberty.
The Liberty Belle