Liberty, A Lost Concept – Thinking Outside the Box




By: Dr. Charles Ormsby, December, 2003

“No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic.” — Frederic Bastiat, The Law, 1850

We thank God for Liberty. Bands play, soldiers march, and hands cover hearts. Our flag is a symbol of Liberty. Millions are flown, anthems are sung, pledges are made, and allegiances are sworn. We cherish our history of Liberty. Founding fathers are immortalized and shrines are built. We fight for Liberty. Politicians call us to arms when it is threatened. We offer our sons and daughters to protect it.

Liberty is almost universally heralded but rarely expounded. Liberty is praised but left conveniently abstract so it will not interfere with the practice of government. It is impolite to mention Liberty when the latest government program is unveiled, the necessity of a new regulation is asserted, or the latest tax increase is proposed. What does Liberty have to do with these? Not very much if Liberty has no core meaning, or no value beyond parades, and flags, and sentiment.

Maybe we should dust off Liberty and decide if we really believe in it. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that. If Liberty has lost its relevance and has no meaning, so be it. Let’s be honest and say so. Honor those that died for it and move on. In modern parlance, we should “Get over it!”

If, on the other hand, we bring it into focus, rediscover its real meaning, and find that Liberty has value, then we should apply the concepts of Liberty to our laws and to our political institutions. Do our laws and institutions further Liberty or undercut it? If the latter, we need to choose. Do we really believe in Liberty?

Maybe we don’t really crave Liberty (or even want it). We can’t know until we rediscover what it is. Let’s start from the beginning. What is Liberty? In a political context (which is all that is relevant here), Liberty pertains to the rights of man (no gender intended, here or later) to act as he chooses and to use and dispose of his property as he chooses, without interference from government, so long as in so doing he does not interfere with the equal rights of others to do likewise. Liberty is a simple but revolutionary concept. It is a concept that protects all individuals and limits the abuse of government power. It frees man and constrains the state.

Don’t expect governments to embrace “Liberty-The-Concept”, only “Liberty-The-Symbol.” “Liberty-The-Symbol” can be used to manipulate, to control, to gain allegiance. “Liberty-The-Concept” diminishes governments’ dominion over man. It gives back to mankind the deeds to their lives.

You may be unsure and wonder, “Should we embrace Liberty? Should man have the right to act as he chooses and to dispose of his property as he chooses as long as he does not interfere with the equal rights of others?” What is the alternative? If man doesn’t have these rights, who chooses what he can and cannot do? Why should others be able to decide for him if he can’t decide for himself? [Remember we are not discussing actions that infringe on the equal rights of others. Such infringements are the natural dominion of governments and law. Indeed they are the justification for the very existence of governments and law. As Bastiat wrote: “What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense… It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties”]

You may posit that a group (e.g., a majority) should have the power to decide. But if no individual has the right to decide, how does a group gain this right? Except by force or the threat of force, it can’t. When such force is exerted (or threatened) to defend individuals from the use of force initiated by others, it represents a legitimate extension of the rights of self-defense of the individual members of society. When it is exerted (or threatened) to deny man the right to act when such actions do not infringe the equal rights of others or to expropriate an individual’s property gained through consenting interactions with others, it represents a usurpation of power that has no legitimate basis.

If a man’s actions do not interfere with the equal rights of others, what legitimate interest do others have in forcefully restraining these actions? If their interest is not rightful, i.e., if their interest is to derive unearned value by constraining or compelling another man’s actions or to take his lawfully acquired property for their own benefit, isn’t this use of force nothing more than theft?

But what if the group infringes liberties to further a “public good”? What individual liberties are to be traded for this public good? What level of control or expropriation is to be permitted? Should it be concentrated on a few or thinly spread over many? What level of infringement will we accept? If the enslavement of a few eases the suffering of many do we permit it? If not today, then what about tomorrow? Do we sacrifice more rights for the benefit of children and their education or for healthcare and the elderly? Which rights do we give up first: The right to free association? To freedom from search and seizure? The right to self defense? The right to trade without interference? Freedom of the press? Freedom of assembly? Freedom of speech? Does the ballot box become merely a front for coercion, mob rule, and socially acceptable theft?

When we constrain by force one’s right to act, including the right to possess, use, and trade property, we have violated the most basic right of man. We have abridged a person’s right to protect, maintain and improve their life and the lives of their loved ones. Once we have accepted the premise that any group, including governments however constituted, can violate these basic liberties, there is no limit to the horrors that are possible. It starts with the principle that the good of the majority (or substitute any popular alternative: society, the children, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, …) takes precedence over the rights of any single individual. Once accepted, this principle inexorably corrodes the foundations of human relations. It may take decades, but eventually one class of society gains sufficient strength to subjugate another and civility loses its grip. The result: Slavery, Holocaust, Gulag, Killing Fields, Lao Gai. Throughout history Governments have committed more murders (not including wars) than all individual acts of murder combined. It only happens where Liberty is rejected as the model for human relations.

Liberty is an inconvenient notion if you have political power and want to advance a particular special interest. If you embrace Liberty, you need to use peaceful persuasion and voluntary trade to obtain desired goods and services. This requires thought and effort. The alternative is to discard Liberty so you can compel others to give up their property and services against their wishes. Our forefathers recommended the former. Our current practice is the latter. This is not a minor change. It is fundamental. It will ultimately determine whether our future is peaceful and prosperous, with a generous dose of goodwill .….. or not.

Parades, anthems, monuments and national holidays are nice, but I prefer the real thing.