>Liberty is one of those words that gets bandied about in political debates like some kind of trump card. People at every point along the political spectrum will try to frame their arguments so that they appear to be on the side of liberty. With everyone trying to lay claim to this concept I think it’s time to take a look at what the word actually means.
Merriam-Webster defines liberty as;
the quality or state of being free: the power to do as one pleases, freedom from arbitrary or despotic control, the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges, the power of choice
All good stuff right? But read it again, slowly, and you’ll start to see the beginnings of something possibly quite sinister and ego-centric.
When I read that definition I am struck by what liberty is not. There is no indication of social responsibility or other-centeredness. In fact liberty is an incredibly selfish concept. It’s the power to do as one pleases and enjoy privileges without any thought for the people around you. As a result many people have used the concept of liberty to refuse any submission to authority, including the police or to justify a lack of self control in matters that would benefit the whole of society. I’ve even heard of cases where people have argued constitutional liberty as a defence against a speeding ticket, like it’s somehow a right to drive as fast as you wish without any regard to public safety.
Last week I talked about Immanuel Kant. He saw an overly liberated population as a potential fatal flaw in republican democracy.
In Kant’s time liberty was a rallying cry for people trying to gain that freedom from arbitrary or despotic control. Today the despots are gone but the concept lives on as justification for all kinds of selfishness. Patrick Henry’s cry to “Give me liberty, or give me death.” is no longer a sacrificial life affirming statement but has become a demand for personal fulfillment. The bottom line is that personal fulfillment is not a right.
In a world obsessed with liberty one of the great lies ever told is that if you try hard you will get what you want and be happy. It stands to reason then that if you don’t get what you want it’s your own fault due to laziness. To quote my friend Casey, “that’s just Bat-Shit crazy!”
The fact of the matter is that sometimes no matter how hard you try you will sometimes fail. Failure is not evidence of laziness or of some grand conspiracy to deny you the “right” to happiness. Failure does however compromise your liberty because it can prevent one from doing as one pleases.
So; if personal fulfillment is not a right and failure compromises liberty it stands to reason that liberty is not a right either. Instead the much more noble cause is to promote equality and to choose to release your hold on personal freedoms in the name of communal advancement.
Put another way;
The cure of anarchy is government under which all men agree to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself. Thomas Hobbes.
Now that’s a concept of liberty that makes sense.