04 July 2008

On Freedom and Liberty

Today, the nation celebrates 232 years since it declared itself independent. What would become the United States envisioned itself as a place in which the statement “all men are created equal” would ring true. All citizens would be afforded “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (previous posts on those here, here, and here). Freedom would reign.

Over the course of time, there has been a somewhat problematic, sometimes halting, yet undeniably steady movement toward realization of that goal. These do not need to be reviewed. Acceptance that, along with being created equal, all men are imperfect. Therefore, while we must never forget the wrongs of the past, we also must not become prisoner to them. As we remember all of our past, we must also remain free to do right today.

The idea of freedom seems to be problematic these days. Connotatively, it may not mean to us what it meant to the Founding Fathers. Freedom is closely tied to another term at the core of America: liberty. Both can be exercised quite freely (for lack of a better term), as long as such exercise does not infringe upon the freedom, the liberty, of another. This seems to be quite simple.

Yet the infringement of freedom, of liberty, is quite commonplace today. The most obvious, and obnoxious, example tends to occur between individuals. We hear infringements in the cries of, “I’m offended!” by the self-declared “victim” of someone else’s speech. Where there is no intent to limit the liberty of another, the self-declared victim performs what in wrestling is known as a reversal. He quickly maneuvers from being the “victim” to a position where he is in control of his opponent. To see how this works out, all one has to do is look north of the border at Canada’s Human Rights Commissions. Instead of defending free speech – regardless of offense – some would impose silence. When the right to not be offended trumps free speech, the thought police easily march in.

On the other hand, it would not be right to suppose that anyone can say anything they wish at any time. For surely there would be instances of real infringement on the rights of others. Therefore, like many abstract concepts, balance must be achieved between what is personally desirable and consideration for the other person. This is freedom rightly exercised. This concept is sorely lacking in both the self-declared “victim” and the person who screams fire in a crowded theater.

Another problematic notion regarding freedom these days has to do with government. It seems that many folks these days think that the government is there as a sort of omniscient public and private servant. Government can and should solve all problems. This idea is reinforced through seemingly ceaseless messages from major media and politicians. “What will Washington do about (insert concern here such as the economy, health care, or education)?” The expectation is that the government must do something, even if the concern should not involve the government.

What most people do not understand is that a great extent of the power of government is coercive; government imposes itself upon the public. It taxes and regulated; it restricts and coerces. The way that the United States was designed, the government is not the granter of rights, the electorate allows its rights to be infringed upon in order to benefit the whole.

By asking the government to solve every major or minor problem, especially those which might be best classified as individual (as opposed to societal) is to beg the government to take freedom and liberty away from the individual.

One lesson I hope to remember on this 4th of July is that freedom requires we exercise it properly – sometimes quite selflessly. We must also hold our individual liberty close. If we give it away in seeking easy comfort and shelter from all worry or want, we will lose it. In order to gain independence, our forefathers had to fight a superior force and endure conditions most of us can hardly imagine. Vigilance is required so that we, or our descendants, do not eventually have to repeat their acts.

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