"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.