What is Liberty, Anyway?

Note: This article was initially published in the April 2011 edition of Tea Party Review.

If I had to choose one word that defines the foundation, motivation and objective of the Tea Party movement, it would be this: liberty. It is the one word that stands out in speeches, book titles and public pronouncements related to this grass-roots movement of everyday Americans.

Ask any number of Tea Party participants what liberty means to them, however, and you’re likely to get more than one answer. Liberty to a self-described libertarian may not be liberty as defined by a social conservative.

Outside of the conservative/libertarian ideological spectrum, even so-called “progressives” believe they have the answer to the question of liberty, viewing it, as they do mankind in general, primarily from a material perspective.

It is critical going forward that we arrive at some common understanding of what liberty means to us. Ultimately, it will not be specific policies or programs that benefit America, but our consistent adherence to the principle of liberty as the wellspring from which our ideas come.

How we perceive liberty will shape and guide every decision we make in our exercise of self-governance, to include holding our elected officials accountable. So this is one thing we’ve got to get right.

What is liberty, anyway? Let’s look at how the dictionary defines the word:

  • The condition of being free from restriction or control.
  • The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing.
  • The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor.
  • Freedom from unjust or undue governmental control.
  • A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference: the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.

At first glance, the dictionary definition doesn’t present anything to which anyone would object. Every human being on the planet wants to be free to live as they choose. But there’s more:

  • A breach or overstepping of propriety or social convention. Often used in the plural.
  • A statement, attitude, or action not warranted by conditions or actualities: a historical novel that takes liberties with chronology.
  • An unwarranted risk; a chance: took foolish liberties on the ski slopes.

Now we’ve introduced the concept of social order, in that one can take too much liberty and overstep their bounds in the process. Therefore, liberty isn’t necessarily license to do whatever we wish without regard for “propriety or social convention.”

The Book of 1 Corinthians in the Bible sums up this concept well:

"Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. ~ 1 Corinthians 10:23

A different translation of this verse is more direct:

“We are free to do all things, but there are things which it is not wise to do. We are free to do all things, but not all things are for the common good.”

The founders understood that liberty without virtue was anarchy, which is why they were opposed to pure democracy, and why we became a constitutional republic:

"Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few." ~ John Adams

Fisher Ames, a representative from Massachusetts in the first U.S. Congress, wrote, "The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness [excessive license] which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe to be liberty."

John Adams, who declared the U.S. Constitution to be “wholly inadequate” to any population other than “a moral and religious people,” spoke and wrote eloquently on the non-severable nature of liberty and virtue:

Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.

The preservation of liberty depends on our ability to be responsible for ourselves and our fellow citizens. When we abdicate those responsibilities, we create a moral vacuum into which government flows and ultimately usurps our liberty. Government becomes our parent, our provider, our faith, our village. In effect, it replaces family, charity, church and community as our sources of strength and provision.

What, then, are the tenets of liberty that will help us build the foundation we need for action? I offer the following:

  • Life, liberty and opportunity are inseparable – The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were ordered and joined with deliberation and forethought. There is no liberty without life and the pursuit of happiness is impossible without liberty. We should never try to separate them in our pursuit of policy solutions.
  • Liberty's objective is not equality but opportunity – It is wrong to compromise liberty for equality of outcome, not because we are insensitive to the needs of others but because achieving such a goal would transfer power from the individual to the state, which poses the greatest threat to liberty.
  • Liberty means responsibility for ourselves and others - I am passionate about how essential personal responsibility is to the preservation of liberty. Those moments when we don't practice our liberty responsibly give ammunition to those who would deprive us of it. Playwright and satirist George Bernard Shaw said "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

Defend the rights of others. Take ownership of our decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. Stay informed and never stop learning. Love one another. These are the indispensable labors to which each of us is called so that liberty may live.