07 July 2008

On Liberty: Part 2- Liberty and Government

"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..."

On Liberty (a continuation; for the first part of this series, click here)

In my first post on this subject, I tried to evidence a few self-evident truths. Today, I proceed with the topic of liberty and government. While I will do my best to spare you the latin and history lessons I am entirely unqualified to teach, suffice it to say that people, of necessity, must interact with each other-- since the dawn of civilization people have lived together, communicated, loved, fought, traded, and helped one another. In these societal interactions, the question of liberty first emerges as, well, a question. If man were indeed an island, there would be no doubt that he could do just as he pleased (although the scope of his action in such a setting would be inherently limited). As civilized man is neither rock nor island, his liberty will quite naturally collide-- and often conflict--with the liberty of those around him. Thus enters government.

Jefferson tells us that governments are instituted among men as a means of securing god-given individual rights, the foremost among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and as property is often tacked on to that trio, I'll include it here as well). Indeed, the protection of liberty is the primary, if not the sole, function of government. That bears repeating.

The preservation of liberty is the primary, if not the sole, function of government.

In form, this means that governments should allow people the full exercise of their liberty, provided that it does not infringe on the liberty of others. This is easier said than done. I once received the sage advice that the most difficult decisions to make are ones where a good principle is in conflict with another good principle. In matters of government, liberty MUST be the supreme ideal, no matter if it is pitted against prosperity, equality, virtue, or any other good principle. Liberty must stand supreme.

In practice, this means that except in matters involving infringement on the liberty of others, matters of personal ethics and morality should not be dictated by extrinsic rewards or punishments. This includes monetary and criminal consequences. In essence, governments should follow the pattern established by God's interaction with man in regards to their liberty-- as He will not force us, neither should governments; as He spurns arbitrary punishment in favor of eternal natural law, so should governments.

4 comments:

Mr. Andrews said...

Rereading this, I sound like a stiff. Sorry.

the narrator said...

"matters of personal ethics and morality should not be dictated by extrinsic rewards or punishments."

i agree. see my comment on your previous post.

Bryant said...

Nice, Russ.

"If man were indeed an island, there would be no doubt that he could do just as he pleased (although the scope of his action in such a setting would be inherently limited)."

That's a good observation. The only limits to the man's liberty ("the scope of his action") in that case would be his ability. Introducing other people should change this, but too often doesn't. Strong people routinely act in a way that takes liberty from weaker people simply because they have the ability to do so.

As you point out, "thus enters government". It's too bad the government doesn't always seek to resolve that situation. If every government treated "the preservation of liberty" as its sole, I think the liberty of every individual would be preserved. However, it seems to me that even if it is treated as a "primary" function with something else as secondary, then some liberty will need to be sacrificed in order to serve that secondary function.

"...governments should allow people the full exercise of their liberty, provided that it does not infringe on the liberty of others. This is easier said than done."

I learned from a talk with Ronnie that this is even more complicated than when liberty conflicts with other good principles. Liberty also conflicts with liberty itself, and in order to preserve any rights, a hierarchy of rights needs to be established.

For instance, which takes precedence between the right to property and the right to an education? Between the right to privacy and the right to safety?

In order for a government to protect any liberties, it must decide what those liberties are and the order in which they should be considered.

Stephenie said...

Well written article.