Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, Part Two: Liberty

In a recent post I spoke on the Right to Life and how that Right implies the right to defend that life and the right to possession and carrying of the means of effective defense.

Today, I speak on the Right to Liberty.

To recap, from the Declaration of Independence, we have: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

Last time we discussed life.  This time we discuss Liberty.  Life is fairly straightforward.  There might be some controversy over where life ends and where it begins but for the majority of the time we are quite clear on what “life” means.  Liberty is a bit more complicated.  In general, ones right to life does not infringe on another person’s right to life.  There are exceptional circumstances:  in defending one’s own life one may end the life of another.  In those cases, however, it can be seen that the one who created the situation, the one who placed the other in the need to defend his or her self, willingly took upon himself a risk and the onus for his loss of life is on himself.  It is the same case as when someone engages in any dangerous activity.  If someone engages in free rock climbing and falls to his death it is not the cliff’s fault or responsibility but his own.  Some ask “but does he deserve to die for that.”  This is not a matter of deserving to die, but of freely taking choices knowing that that could be the outcome, and therefore freely taking the risk on oneself.

And choice is the key, which leads us to Liberty.  In the end, Liberty is about choices, real choices, not “do this or die” choices.  Being forced to do something or give up the right to life is not a choice to most people in most circumstances.  As one simple example, a person may choose what to eat.  They cannot usually choose if they eat or not in the long run.  Some few may chose to not eat to the point of death from starvation, but that is rare and we need not consider it for the general case.  We will consider that any choice that involves “do this or die” is not a free choice and, in fact, extend that to extreme pain.  Since people have been known to choose death in preference to extreme pain we can say that “do this or suffer” is likewise not free.

Liberty, then, is about free choice.  One can define Liberty as the sum total of choices available to a person.  The problem there arises when my choices may affect the choices available to someone else.  Liberty is about ones ability to make choices so long as they do not forcibly infringe on the same right in someone else.  The key word there is forcibly.  If one, say, likes to wear bright colors that clash someone else may not like that.  They may find it unpleasant when the discordant one walks into a restaurant, but it’s not a forcible infringement.  One can tolerate it or not as one chooses.  As Erik Frank Russel put in the mouth of one of his characters in And Then There Were None, “I can please myself whether or not I endure it.  That’s freedom ain’t it?”  They can wear what they wish.  You can like it or not as you wish.  Liberty on both sides.

Other cases also become apparent when one considers Liberty as being about free choice.  If one is able to arm oneself and defend one’s home against invaders, that is free choice.  That is Liberty.  If one needs to stand in guard every night because the invaders–whether robbers, rioters, or foreign invaders–are constantly present, that is not.  Again free choice is the key.  A society where you can defend your home at need is more free than one where one cannot.  However, a society where a person needs to spend most of his time in standing guard over his home is less free than one in which he can pursue other activities and only take an active guard at special need.  Again, free choice is the key.

The initiation of force to infringe upon another is contrary to the Right to Liberty.  But what happens when someone does forcibly infringe on the Liberty of another?  What then?  In that case, the use of force to end the infringement is justified.  One might attempt reason or persuasion to accomplish that end, but experience has shown that when one uses force to infringe on the Liberty of another, only force will persuade them to cease.

And so the principle of Liberty, while not sanctioning the initiation of force to restrict the Liberty of another, does sanction its use to defend ones own.

From whence comes this force?  Is there some special source from which the force to restore liberty must come?  One may look for such a source without finding it.  Some may claim that it comes from Government, from some body chosen in some manner, whether from Divine Right of Kings or The Will of the People, that is the sole repository of the right to use force.  Yet, again, experience has shown that such sources of force are, if left unchecked, more likely to be used to restrict than to preserve and restore Liberty.

No.  In the end, like with the Right to Life, the Right to Liberty, and the power to defend that Right, must come down to the individual.  Each individual must have sanction, the final Liberty, to defend his or her own Liberty.  The individual may delegate some of that power to a greater group to act as Guardians of that Liberty, in particular as a defense against encroachments on his or her liberty from other groups that he cannot defend against as an individual.  But in so doing, he runs the risk that the Guardians may, in turn use that power to infringe his own Liberty.  Against such chance he must retain both the power and the license to use that power to defend his Liberty against even the Guardian he and his fellows have chosen to protect it.

In Right to Life we had the conclusion that to deny the means of defense against those who would infringe it is to deny the right itself.  So it is with the Right to Liberty.  For Liberty we generally choose Guardians to secure and defend that Liberty.  And yet history has shown all too often that those Guardians themselves can become a threat to Liberty.  The body of the people in themselves, must then retain the power to defend their Liberty even against their chosen Guardians.  The balance of power must remain with the individuals so that even their chosen Guardians cannot with impunity infringe on their Liberty.  To deny the right to defend Liberty, by force if need be, is to deny the right to Liberty itself.

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