>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.


  1. >I received this comment via email and thought I'd post it here for all to see.Hey LaurenThanks. I did check out that page. I think you may have somewhat overstated your case and maybe focused too much on the first definition, but I agree that liberty is a double edged sword. On the one hand, total liberty is not practical, on the other hand, slavery is not so much fun either. South of the Canadian border, many of us have a disliking for Kings and Queens, LOL, but we have developed an elite nonetheless. Not all that unlike Royalty. And then we have our idols, mostly fluff, glitz, puff, you know, the movie stars etc. I don't see what people get from it, myself. I think that balance is the key to a lot of stuff. Liberty allows us to choose to help those less fortunate. It allows us to pursue our dreams, but there is a limit of course, to what we are free to do, both practically and morally/ethically. And there is a practical limit as to what degree of selfishness the rest of society will tolerate. We don't like to witness destitution, beggars in the streets, the poor, the wretched, uneducated, sickly children in rags, but we create the conditions that guarantee they will be there.

  2. >Nobody likes to witness desitution. It's how you respond to it that makes the difference. Do you turn your back or cross to the other side of the street, or do you get involved? That's one of the messages of the Good Semaritan.

  3. >More from my anonymous email friend -True, and in my opinion there is a place for society to step in, as a body, to work on society's social problems. They can call it "big government" or "socialism" or whatever derogatory term they want to use; I call it being socially responsible. and my response I also meant to point out that I used only the first definition on purpose. Most rabid libertarians I have encountered do the same, if I over stated the point its only becuase I am writing in response to those over state in the other direction.

  4. >You demonstrate a desire for equal outcomes. There is no way to guarantee such outcomes without bringing all society down to the lowest level. That experiment was tried in the Soviet Union and didn't really work out so well. In a system of Liberty, we all get an equal start, and can make our own pathway through life. We have the opportunity to use whatever we make to help others. Under the sytem you suggest, we will all need help. You are making a leap regarding liberty and in reality "capitalism" that such things equal "corporate greed" which are simply not true. That is why 85% of Americans are employed by small businesses and those Americans donatemore to charities than the rest of the world 10 times over. Take away that liberty and you starve the world. If you want to take away liberty in Canada, that's fine, but remember that freedom of Religion is a liberty and once you lose it, you will never get it back!

  5. >You missed the point completely. I never said that there was a way to guarantee equality. Nor did I say that everyone should receive help under every circumstance. What I did say, and what I intend to expand upon in future posting is that a liberty obsessed society, especially one that focuses on personal fulfillment is selfish. I'm not picking on the United States, although your assumption that I am is telling, Canada is just as bad and I'm sure most of the "west" would fit the description as well. Citizens of the United States give a lot to charity, true but you can't just throw money at a problem and hope it goes away. Poverty and suffering have very little to do with money. As for your comment about freedom of Religion; for someone who claims to know history, you need to re-read the book of Acts and most of the history of the reformation. Freedom of religion is a modern concept, most of the New Testament was written from prison cells and large portions of the Old Testament written while people were in exile. As recently as 300 years ago I would have been killed because I was re-baptized as a adult. The church thrives under persecution, a little of it good for the soul. If the apostle Paul heard you talk about losing your freedom of religion I'm sure he'd be stunned.Lauren

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