Monday, January 23, 2012

Liberty, Part I of Many

One of the difficulties that friends of liberty have had to work to overcome is the idea -- which I believe is a mistake -- that liberty is difficult to definitively define, understand, and communicate.  There seems to be a sense that liberty can refer to a great range of concepts, and that insisting on a right to liberty is no more meaningful than is insisting on a right to "goodness," for example.  While some of us have in mind the idea that I believe is set forth very clearly in the Monticello Statement, below, which I edited together by arranging Thomas Jefferson quotes, other people think that liberty is more or less a synonym for "ability" or "power," and that if a person does not have the resources to do something (to travel, to buy something, to get an education, or anything else), he is not free to do it.  Then, of course, there is former Senator Rick Santorum's well-meaning but grotesque brand of freedom and liberty, which specifically repudiates the idea that they involve the "right to be left alone" or to make choices "irrespective of the choice" -- the false "freedom" to obey him (and people who agree with him, but presumably not people who disagree with him).

So long as those definitions of "freedom" or "liberty" are seen as legitimate alternatives to the correct one, we will find it unnecessarily difficult to assert and successfully defend the Right to Liberty.  People will respond, "Whose idea of liberty?," or they may even suggest that it is too elusive to be insisted upon as a morally or legally binding right.  (In a limited sense, it is acknowledged as a legally binding right, but, of course, legislatures are not generally precluded from intruding upon this right.)  We will get nowhere.

My purpose in posting the following series of posts on liberty is to demonstrate that it is not such difficult idea to definitively and meaningfully define, and that there was substantial agreement on its meaning in the past, particularly within a century (in either direction) of the ordinance and establishment of the United States Constitution, even though this did not always result in the right to liberty being respected.

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