On Liberty, Part II
Friday, January 29, 2010 at 12:51PM
John W. Simmons

Democratic governments are created to protect the liberty of citizens.  Democratic citizens, though, need to be prepared to protect liberty from the government.  The problem is, though, that citizens forget what they mean by “liberty.”  They remember that liberty was a good thing, something that is worth fighting for, even dying for, but they can’t quite recall what it was all about.  Without even realizing it, they start using the word “liberty” when they mean other things: prosperity, safety, peace, and more.  “Liberty” becomes the rallying cry for all manner of wonderful things, but liberty itself gets lost in the shuffle.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

It really comes down to what our conception of liberty should be.  In the political context, there are two basic ways of thinking about liberty: positive and negative.  One has positive liberty to do something if they have the affirmative power to do it.  One has negative liberty to do something if no one is stopping them from doing it.  In other words, if you want to buy a house in a fancy neighborhood you can only do it if it’s legal for you to do so (negative liberty) and you have enough money to buy it (positive liberty).

In order for liberty to have any real effect, it’s clear that we must have both positive and negative liberty.  The key is, government cannot create liberty – either kind.  For the negative kind of liberty, that seems obvious: negative liberty is the lack of obstacle, the lack of intervention in our lives, so the less government does, the better.  Government’s duty, more than anything else, is to guard against encroachments on negative liberty.  Sometimes government acts proactively to protect our negative liberty, like when it puts up safeguards to make it difficult to take our liberty away (like the writ of habeas corpus or the public defender system).  Still, these actions protect our ability to act without intervention from government or other citizens.

Positive liberty cannot be created by the government either, at least not for everyone.  When the government tries to enforce positive liberty, it has to give the ability to act (usually money) to someone who doesn’t have it.  This brings with it all manner of problems, including the need to determine (often arbitrarily) who will get this benefit and who will not, who will be paying for it, how to make them pay for it, and how to keep the program going into the future.  Many, if not most, of the United States’ attempts at creating positive liberty for people have been mismanaged, causing new inequalities at new cutoff points, treating different citizens as though they are not equally valuable, and driving America into debts so deep that we will be paying for them for generations.

Government may not be able to create positive liberty, but it still has a responsibility to protect positive liberty.  It may be legal for you to buy that fancy house, but if the finances and private property you will use to purchase it are not protected, you will be out of luck!  When government sets fair, clear rules for operating in society and in the market, and when it protects you and your property from those who would threaten them with violence, fraud, or law, then government is protecting your ability to act.

This brings us to the moral of the story:  negative liberty begets positive liberty.  Trying to ensure positive liberty artificially, by creating it with government policy, leads to unforeseen injustices that also need to be corrected, and the whole thing can spin out of control very quickly.  However, protecting negative liberty, getting out of the way of the people, lets them create and prosper for themselves.  It moves society forward – in whichever direction society naturally decides is “forward” – without the arbitrary direction of mere politicians.  Best of all, when people don’t have government in the way, they can prosper, and prosperity is positive liberty. 

Ultimately, liberty is a concept with many facets, but when people say they want to be free, usually they just mean that they don’t want the state to stop them from doing what they want to, and the people will take care of the rest.  There are times when government must step in and provide means for citizens to avoid severe injustice, but those are the outlying cases, the extremes.  If we citizens want to prosper, and want each other to prosper, then we must focus the power of government on increasing our negative liberty, and protecting our positive liberty.  Then, we can move forward with vigor and hope, as only a free society can.

Article originally appeared on LastingLiberty.com (http://lastingliberty.com/).
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