A group in Midland recently invited me to speak and answer the question: “What is liberty?”
That’s a hard question, as it puts us at risk of offering a circular definition. While preparing for my talk, I asked my young daughter what “liberty” means. She immediately said, “It’s freedom.” True enough; I should have asked her to define “tautology.”
Liberty has evaded definition for a long time. Abraham Lincoln said in 1864: “The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”
Thomas Jefferson provided a good definition: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
Several ideas add dimension to the idea of liberty:
- Liberty is a life-or-death matter. The founders of the United States staked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on it. People are today still willing to risk everything to be free. The absence of liberty comes at a staggering cost; Communism’s death toll is an estimated 100 million lives.
- Liberty enhances the quality of life. The free enterprise system is credited with pulling one billion people out of extreme poverty in the last 20 years.
- Liberty starts with the individual, not the collective. Each of us is endowed with unalienable rights. Voluntary association, economic exchange and personal property — all hallmarks of liberty — assume the high value of the individual.
- Government is not the source of liberty. The Michigan Constitution says it well: “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security and protection.”
It is common to hear that a legislature passed a law that “creates” a new right. Beware. What the State gives, the State may take away. Fundamental rights are those rights that do not require an act of government to create them.
- Liberty is best enjoyed by a moral people. As Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” I do not wish to proselytize with this point, only to acknowledge that certain conditions increase our ability to enjoy freedom.
Liberty divorced from duty and responsibility will produce chaos. The words of “America the Beautiful” come to mind: “America, America, God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.”
- America and liberty are inseparable. Margaret Thatcher knew it: “No other nation has been built upon an idea — the idea of liberty.” As a people, we have lurched toward and away from that idea over the last 243 years, but we hold it up as a meaningful and worthy goal.