On Liberty And Liberation
APRIL 01, 1980 by BRUCE PORTER
Dr. Porter is a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs.
For at least half a century now the word liberty has been declining in popular usage and the word liberation has been advancing. Today in the United States the word liberty has all but disappeared from public discourse, while liberation has become a fashionable term, enthusiastically invoked in political oratory, in everyday conversation, and in respected works of scholarship.
This is not a mere case of linguistic drift. The decline of liberty and the rise of liberation reveal the extent to which doctrinal myths and political folly have come to dominate our age. Americans are forgetting the meaning of liberty in pursuit of a phantom liberation. Over two centuries ago at Buckinghamshire Edmund Burke observed that, “The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.” With mad abandon contemporary Americans are jettisoning many of their once-cherished freedoms and values as they seek an impossible form of liberation—from moral restraints, self- discipline, responsibility, work, necessity, competition, struggle, inequality, natural law, and the consequences of their own behavior. It is a senseless, tragic course which can lead only to subservience, dependency, and decadence. It is a delusion.
An imperative prerequisite to our survival as a free nation is that we recapture—in our hearts and minds, as well as in our politics—an understanding of the true nature of liberty. A love of liberty and a clear comprehension of the foundations upon which it rests will quickly dispel every attraction of the false ideologies of liberation.
Liberty is a divine gift, one of the most priceless of God’s bequests to man, and the natural, inalienable right of every person who enters the world. In simplest terms liberty may be defined as the freedom of the individual to shape his own destiny and to govern his own affairs. Of necessity this implies the freedom to choose one’s associations, loyalties, beliefs, opportunities, and economic relationships, as well as the freedom to exercise control over the fruits of one’s own labors.
Though liberty is God-given, mortal efforts are required to sustain and preserve it. Human institutions do not grant liberty, but they often usurp it. Individuals are born free, but they can willfully sell, abandon, or reject that birthright. For these reasons, liberty is never free. When not defended, it will not survive; when not exercised, it will atrophy.
Essentials of Liberty
Liberty can only endure when certain conditions are met. First, there must be an absence of coercive actions intended to impede the free exercise of will or to rob individuals of their labors and investments. Coercive force is justified only when it is imperative to the defense of liberty, i.e., when exerted to prevent a yet greater coercive act. Criminals and tyrants of every form stand ready to destroy human freedom, to rob the property of others, to impose their will upon whole societies. Their influence must be checked if liberty is to prosper.
A second necessary condition for the survival of liberty is that individuals possess and are free to acquire the positive means needed to pursue rational ends. These means include material resources, talent, initiative, knowledge, energy, discipline, and a love of progress and freedom. Liberty does not consist of undirected, impotent, and senseless expressions of the human will; rather, it thrives as the individual acquires power to act and to focus his efforts in meaningful directions. Liberty requires power—not power over others, but power to effect personal progress, to change one’s circumstances for the better.
Thirdly, the preservation of liberty requires that individuals manifest moral commitment and self-restraint in the choice and pursuit of their goals. Liberty means the absence of coercive restraints, but it does not mean the absence of all restraints. We cannot escape the consequences of our own behavior. The unrestrained pursuit of power means enslavement to ambition, the unrestrained pursuit of wealth means enslavement to avarice, the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure means enslavement to passions.
Without moral limits liberty degenerates into license and license turns inevitably toward destructive ends. The moral authority which sets limits on the scope of an individual’s actions must flow from within him, the product of conscience and reason; when imposed by a higher authority, however well-intentioned, moral laws are transformed into instruments of coercion and domination.
A Constitutional Structure
Keeping these conditions in mind, it is instructive to inquire into the kind of social structure which will foster liberty. In order to insure the first condition of liberty, a constitutional and legal framework must be erected and upheld, its principal end being to guard against all coercive challenges to personal liberty—whether from individuals, institutions, foreign armies, or from the state itself.
The threat to liberty of the state itself should be emphasized, for unless such a constitutional system is strictly self-limiting its administrative apparatus will grow in size and power until it comes to dominate the entire society according to its own vested interests. Consensus and consent are fundamental to the establishment and operation of a free government, but the goal sought is not so much “government of the people” for this can imply that majorities deserve coercive power—as a government of laws, administered as impersonally and fairly as possible.
By itself alone a constitutionally limited government will never suffice to insure the survival of human liberty. This is because government cannot bring about the second and third conditions of liberty discussed above—the power and means necessary for positive action and the moral limits within which liberty operates. Government can be an arbiter, but it can never be a provider. It can enforce protective laws, but it cannot produce virtuous people or act as a higher moral authority.
A cycle of futility results whenever the state attempts to provide the resources and human energy necessary for progress. Every resource a government provides to the individuals in a society must first be taken from those individuals. Because the process of injecting them back into the society will always incur a net loss, the result over time will be economic stagnation, declining initiative in society as a whole, depletion of real resources, debasement of currency, decline in productive capital, and the disintegration of social cohesiveness. The end of this cycle of futility is the dependency of the people on the government and the death of liberty. Liberty is certain to perish in any society which relies solely on government to create the conditions of liberty.
No matter how carefully structured and well-defined are the legal rights, checks, and balances of a constitutional system, this cycle of futility will at some point ensue unless the citizens of the commonwealth possess a strong spirit of independence and self- reliance, and the moral sensibilities to recognize true liberty when they see it. When the moral will and independence of the majority of a population decline, the checks and balances of any system will erode. No constitutional system can long endure if its legis lators are not devoted to higher principles, if its judiciary is corrupt, if its administrators do not place integrity above all other qualities.
The constitutional framework of liberty must rest upon a firm foundation: the love of independence in the hearts of a people, their moral commitment, and the vast human and material resources which they possess and independently control. The institutions which transmit this foundation from generation to generation are almost all private: families, churches, corporations, firms, associations, publishers, newspapers, and the like. (Schools can also play a key role if they are under the control of those who pay for them, rather than under the central government.) Standing independent from the state, these institutions are the foundations of a society’s liberty. If the state encroaches upon their domain and subsumes their functions, liberty declines. But so long as a people cherish the moral and material resources which give them the power to be independent and so long as the state is a strictly limited constitutional government of laws, liberty will prosper.
The increasingly difficult and unfortunate circumstances in which America finds itself today may be traced in large part to a general decline in liberty. Genuine freedom continues to diminish even as large numbers of Americans are seduced by the muddle- headed mythology of liberation, believing that it will somehow make them freer. Quite the opposite consequence will result, for the doctrine and practice of liberation constitute a direct assault on the conditions and structure of liberty.
In order to discern the destructive potential underlying the multitude of contemporary theories and programs advocating liberation, it suffices simply to ask: liberation from what? We learn to begin with that we are to be liberated from “artificial” self-restraints and moral limits—from the third condition of liberty discussed above.
Proponents of liberation preach that freedom is an unrestrained, limitless, spontaneous expression of the human will, ignoring the reality that meaningful progress can only be made when disciplined efforts are rationally directed. Liberty is not a bundle of whims and passions. In order to promote this doctrine it is necessary to attack all the traditional and independent sources of morality: religion, family, private property, private schools, local control of education, corporate independence, and so forth. In this manner liberation seeks to undermine the very foundation of liberty.
This is only the beginning. We are also to be liberated from work, want, necessity, and struggle. Thus, liberation ignores the second condition of liberty: that individuals must possess and acquire the positive instruments of action in order to be free. The assumption is that freedom—the power to act, choose, and progress—can somehow exist without effort and investment.
In the pursuit of this chimera goal of an effortless world of abundance for all, the advocates of liberation seek naturally to use the coercive power of the state in order to extract resources from others. In this manner liberation becomes a predatory doctrine which can only accomplish its ends by dismantling the constitutional checks of limited government and replacing it with an all-powerful bureaucracy devoted to central planning, income redistribution, economic dictatorship, and totalitarian control over individual lives. And thus perishes the first condition of liberty—the absence of coercive power.
Liberation is a delusion which cannot lead to real freedom because it is based on principles and values fundamentally contradictory to true liberty. The consequences of the decline of liberty and the rise of liberation in America have never been described more eloquently than by William Simon:
There has never been such freedom before in America to speak freely . . . to publish anything and everything, including the most scurrilous gossip; to take drugs and to prate to children about their alleged pleasures; to propagandize for bizarre sexual practices: to watch bloody and obscene entertainment. Conversely, compulsion rules the world of work. There has never been so little freedom in America to plan, to save, to invest, to build, to produce, to invent, to hire, to fire, to resist coercive unionization, to exchange goods and services, to risk, to profit, to grow.
. . . Americans are constitutionally free today to do almost everything that our cultural tradition has previously held to be immoral and obscene, while the police powers of the state are being invoked against almost every aspect of the productive process.
It is not difficult to discern the logical end of this trend: America will be liberated of its liberty.
Prior to the American revolution the world was imbued with the notion that liberty was dangerous and irresponsible, that its establishment could lead only to anarchy, indolence, and the breakdown of society. The birth of the American republic and the astonishing release of human energy and productivity which resulted shattered this myth forever. America was both free and stable; it possessed both liberty and order.
The liberty of America became the cherished ideal of oppressed peoples everywhere. Liberty suddenly acquired a respectable name. Never thereafter was it possible for the enemies of freedom to attack it frontally. The most bitter opponents of genuine liberty came to portray their policies, programs, and ideologies as pathways to freedom.
Instead of liberty, however, the favorite watchword became liberation. Under this banner march the tyrannies of our time, from Soviet Russia with its wars of national liberation to the kaleidoscope of coercive political programs in America which invoke the mirage of liberation. The twentieth century has been a century of liberation—of a war on freedom fought in the name of freedom.
The irony of America’s present course is that in the name of freedom from restraints, every source of independent power and morality is being undermined; in the name of freedom from work, want, and scarcity, the constitutional framework of liberty is being dismantled, attacked, and perverted past recognition. Beyond the irony stands the very real tragedy that in the name of freedom we are being led inexorably toward oppression and slavery.