“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
On July 4, we celebrate our independence from Great Britain. While it’s a fine thing to celebrate our liberation from the rule of a man whose claim to authority is inherited, it’s worthwhile to ponder what our freedom means. From what are we free? Power, government, rests upon force; is force. The only question is whether that force is lawfully and justly applied. As a nation, we believe that only government based upon the consent of the governed is lawful. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the government and he is us. And so, our greatest freedom is the freedom from one another. We have, or should have, our liberty.
The term Liberty has become a bit like motherhood and apple pie. We’re all in favor of it and even if some are not, they’re clever enough not to say so publicly. Certainly, I cannot imagine a politician coming out against liberty, even though government is the very antithesis of liberty; the force that says “thou shall not”. Liberty is seen as an unquestioned and unalloyed good.
I suspect most of us fall into the very human trap of assuming that everyone is basically like ourselves; or rather more than that–everyone is like the person we give ourselves credit for being. The face we present to ourselves in the mirror doesn’t show the scars of secret ugly thoughts, base fears, and the abject failures with which we have come to terms. And so, we believe people are good, just like us. Surely all such right-thinking people will use their liberty wisely and well.
Still, all too often bad things flow from liberty. People make mistakes. We don’t buckle up, we smoke, we drink, we think bad thoughts. Yet, who is qualified to rule us if we do not rule ourselves? Among the oldest remembered tales is the story of Adam and Eve, who alone of the animals were granted free will. No divine force struck the apple from their hands. Religious beliefs aside, the very durability of this tale tells us something of our nature. As P. J. O’Rourke once said, “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”
The alternative dream is the be ruled by the best and smartest among us. Wise philosopher kings will tell us how and what to do and take away consequences by removing our choices. I say that the wisest man on earth is not entitled to drive me to my own good or to his, for if I do not belong to myself, to whom do I belong? We also know from grim historical experience that we would be ruled in the end not by the wisest, but by the most motivated and most attracted to power. It’s not so much that power corrupts than that the corrupt are drawn to power. If we wish to be free ourselves we must not only tolerate but insist upon the frustrating and maddening freedoms of others. I insist upon the freedom of all so that I too can be free. Others must make their own choices and take their own consequences.
It’s worth remembering all of this when the next politician offers salvation. Lawmakers are excellent salesmen with only one product and for which you pay with your liberty. If utopia hasn’t arrived, it’s always just around the corner. You just need to buy a few more rules. And so, each failure becomes the excuse for the next restriction. Bailouts, anti-obesity laws, entitlement spending; these are all ways to take from most of us to protect some of us from themselves. I would rather make my own choices and my own mistakes and will not willingly grant to men a restraint on my will that God Himself does not compel. If it turns out I’m on the road to perdition, I will be the one behind the wheel. This is the common American faith. We believe in ourselves, in each other, and in our separate pursuits of happiness.