Maybe Liberty Isn’t About Me

Miriam Hoffman, Assistant Editor

I look at writing as a form of conversation, and I believe the best conversations ask questions. I put forth many questions in this piece because I feel they are worth thinking about, not because I think I have all the right answers. Important principles are worth thinking about from a variety of angles, and my hope is that these words stimulate meaningful thought. 

Liberty. Freedom. Autonomy. We talk about these concepts a lot, but do we truly know the implications? Do we truly want them? And, if we do, why? What happens if we fight for liberty, but for the wrong reasons? From my perspective, I see both a selfish and a compassionate motive for liberty. Selfishness may dominate the narrative, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option.

Selfish liberty says, “I want to do what I want, and so I will do what I want, regardless of the consequences to others.” 

Compassionate liberty says, “I want the most possible room for individuals to do the most good that they can. I want there to be freedom to discern which rights to exercise at what point and for what purpose seems best.”

The less liberty we have as individuals, the more concentrated decision-making becomes. It is usually argued that if the decision-makers are sincerely compassionate, we have a generally good outcome for all. This could be true, but seems too simple. 

As the group gets larger (a sparsely-populated county as compared to the large nation in which it is located), solutions become less effective for every scenario. A policy that makes sense in the county may not make any sense in a larger jurisdiction. Different areas require different solutions. 

It’s illegal to own a cow in most towns, but not in a rural area. It would be absurd to say that because cows cause problems in cities they should be illegal everywhere. Is it perhaps the same case with other, albeit more complex, policies? 

Mistakes would be made, yes, because that’s unavoidable. No human system is perfect, because humans aren’t perfect. But, at least the mistakes are decentralized in a more free society.

It’s risky, giving individuals rights. “But what about all those selfish people?” we ask. “Why should his or her right to be stupid take precedence over my right to be safe?” This is a reasonable question, no doubt. There does seem to be a reasonable level of regulation that must be in place for a civil society; I am by no means advocating anarchy. 

But, to what degree do we attempt to control indirect results of actions? What about actions that could be negative, but also have potential to be positive? Driving under the influence is obviously negative; it’s nigh on impossible to argue that there is any good reason to do so, or that it ever produces a positive result for anyone, even the driver himself. 

What about if an action is only negative for the person taking it? Wearing a seat belt, for example, doesn’t make anyone else safer except for the wearer. Should the government regulate how well we treat ourselves? Is the purpose to be protected from ourselves, or from one another, or both?

If we force people to be compassionate or charitable, do we achieve greater good for humankind? Or do we create a false sense of security, an unrealistically high opinion of humanity’s innate goodness? Do we create unforeseen and suppressed consequences of bitterness and underlying hatred? 

Do we become resentful when we are forced to take an action that, were we given the choice, we may have taken voluntarily with goodwill? Or would we have made an even better choice for our fellow citizens if we were motivated by a healthy sense of free market competition?

Life is easier when we are just told what to do; that doesn’t mean it’s better. Real thinking is messy, uncomfortable, and wrought with uncertainty. I’d venture that most people who say they want freedom don’t actually want the depth of responsibility that comes with true liberty; they simply don’t like being told what to do by someone they disagree with. 

But, they have no problem following the crowd, just like a sheep, if the crowd happens to be on their bandwagon. They may have no greater sense of true liberty than their opposition who appears to trade freedom for security.

Perhaps the true fight for liberty comes not from a place of selfish ambition, but of compassion and the belief that freedom empowers others. Perhaps liberty is not about the rights that I can exercise for me, but the autonomy to determine when to exercise rights for the good of others. 

Perhaps it’s found in a twist of the famous inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy over half a century ago: ask not what your rights can do for you, but what your responsibility can do for others.