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On Liberty, Part I

"Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books... Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, “I’m free – to think and to speak.  My ancestors couldn’t.  I can.  And my children will.” 

- Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

America’s Great Experiment, our great democracy, our whole society, from the first colonist who stepped onto a ship to look for a better life outside Europe, to the first patriots who died to rid us of the English King, to the Great Emancipator who wrested our embattled lands from the horrors of slavery, from the brave ones who marched abroad to win an end to tyrants, to the brave ones who marched at home to win an end to injustice and inequality – all of it has been in pursuit of this one powerful thing: liberty.  Sure, there are other things – important things – that Americans have fought and sweated for all these years.  Things like equality, the rule of law, prosperity, love, religion, pride, honor, achievement, and science – even baseball.  But at the heart of everything American, you can find a deep love for liberty.  Why?  What is it about liberty that makes it so much of who we are as a nation?

Liberty is bigger than just an idea.  It’s almost tangible.  It’s a truth. The truth that all people should be allowed to determine the course of their own lives, that no one has the right to make others subservient. The truth that every man’s thoughts are his own, his to express as he wants to anyone who will listen, his to believe what he chooses.  The truth that the individual must be protected, or the collective will be oppressed.  The love of liberty runs through every part of our culture – usually without anyone realizing it.  That is, until somebody tries to take it away.  The uproar and fury that rises up when the liberty of the American people is threatened has toppled nations – and many a politician, too.

And yet, we take it for granted.  When expanding empires attack our harbors, when terrorists destroy our buildings, when our enemies attack our friends, we know how to fight.  And when we fight, woe to those who would harm us.  But when, with best intentions, our own leaders chip away at the liberty we love, we acquiesce.  We say to ourselves, “This cause is worth losing a little freedom!  Just a little!  After all, won’t we all be a little safer?  A little richer? A little more happy?” I only hope that we don’t wake up one day and wonder where all of our liberty has gone.

Of course, the alternative, anarchy, is unacceptable.  As much as our society is founded upon liberty, we are also founded upon the notion that government is necessary to protect our liberty, to protect each man’s rights against his neighbor.  Endless liberty, unlimited freedom, and anarchy lead a society to just as much oppression as a tyrant – only this way people are oppressed by their neighbors, not the state.  We need to curtail liberty to protect liberty.  That much is clear.  The only question, then, is, “how much?”

How much liberty must we give up to ensure that we may live in a free society?  What causes are important enough to sacrifice liberty?  Some of the answers are easy:  we want the state to protect us from crime, fraud, and foreign threats, and we’re willing to give up some freedom to ensure that security.  We happily allow the state to settle our disputes for us, in the courts and by setting rules about property and public safety, and we give up our rights to vigilante justice in the process. 

Most of the time, however, the problems of our society are less clear.  After all, there are a great many causes that compete with liberty for our attention, wealth, and power.  Some want to ensure that no one has to live in poverty.  Some want to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare.  Some want to ensure that everyone lives a moral life.  Some want to ensure that science flourishes.  Some want to ensure that no one can ever attack us.  The problem is that every one of these goals is wonderful!  Every one is a worthy cause.  But each one requires us to give up a little liberty, if the state is to accomplish it. 

Among all the great ideals and causes that swirl around the world of politics, we must never forget that liberty is the greatest.  In the political context, liberty alone is the value that allows each of us to pursue the ends we deem best.  Liberty alone allows two men who disagree to pursue incompatible goals without subjecting one another to the coercive power of the state.  Liberty alone allows us to live without a state that picks winners and losers, enforcing advantages and disadvantages based on the arbitrary determinations of men who are no more special than those they rule. If you want a man to avoid poverty, protect his freedom to produce, work, and earn without obstacle, fraud, or arbitrary or uncertain rules.  If you want a man to be equal, treat him equally by protecting his liberty from the neighbors who might oppress him.    If you want a man to have healthcare, protect the liberty of those who would provide it to him, and give him the liberty to choose what’s best for him.  If you want a man to live morally, then give him the liberty to choose what he believes, and protect the freedom of others to try to show him a better way.  If you want a man to make discoveries, give him the liberty to research and to reap the benefits of his efforts.  If you want a man to be safe, fight for him, and never forget that it is liberty that you fight to preserve, not just his life.

There will be other times to discuss how and why (and if) liberty works more efficiently in ordering society and moving nations forward.  There can and will be millions of pages written about when and where to temper the liberties we have for the sake of other causes.  For now, though, I think this is enough: that when we protect the liberty of each person, then every man or woman has a chance to change their situation if they don’t like it.  Circumstances can seem insurmountable sometimes, and disasters and evil can be discouraging to the point of breaking, but when the state does not say, “you must always be in this situation we have determined for you,” then every person has a chance to try to make things better.  With no one in the way, everybody has a shot at finding a better way.  And that audacious thought shows us this final truth: that liberty begets hope.