By Nathan Barton
Most of us here in the Fifty States (and around the world) pretty much take for granted that “liberty” is a desirable thing. The problem comes in defining liberty and how much of it we (well, at least, other people) should have. Even Thomas Jefferson wrote of “an appropriate degree of liberty.”
What’s a mirror got to do with this? Read on, please.
Bing defines liberty as: “(1) the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views, and (2) the power or scope to act as one pleases.” (I suspect that many libertarians would strike the word “oppressive” from the fist definition.)
I submit that this definition is far from complete.
There are some poor souls who believe that there is such a thing as too much liberty, and that they personally should not have too much. And act that way, and assume that everyone else is in the same situation.
There are, of course, many others who believe that they should have maximum liberty but that no one else (except maybe a very select few) should have much at all.
But I think most people fall between these two extremes.
Both Mama Liberty and I strongly believe that an essential part of liberty is taking responsibility as individuals for our acts. Which is why she emphasized self-government so much (as do I, I hope). That is what, in my opinion, is what is missing in that definition above. Liberty is the “power or scope to act as one wishes,” with the understanding and willingness (and ability) to take responsibility for those acts.
But liberty demands more, I believe, than just responsibility. Self-responsibility. Here are some thoughts:
- Vigilance – observing or being aware of our environment
- Self-discipline or self-control
- Reason and logic
- Experience (and training)
Each of these character traits is, to some degree, important (even essential) to living as a free person, a self-governor. I am sure that there are others (and invite readers to share your ideas with all of us). But these come easily to mind, and have for millennia.
Consider this quote:
“Who then is free? The wise who can command his passions, who fears not want, nor death, nor chains, firmly resisting his appetites and despising the honors of the world, who relies wholly on himself, whose angular points of character have all been rounded off and polished.”
That was written by “Horace,” that is, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman living between 65 and 88 BC. Has anything really changed in more than 2,000 years?
The problem is, we cannot find many people willing to do these things necessary to be truly free. To work and develop the character traits essential for personal liberty.
Look around at your family, friends, and neighbors. Your local and state and federal political types. The people you see on the news. Can we truly say that these people are rational in their words and actions? Do they understand (and control) themselves? Or just others? Can we see real empathy in what they do, or is it just a fake? A veneer of concern and understanding of what their actions do to others?
In too many cases, the answer is no. Despite their protestations, they are not free. And they are doing everything possible to take away what freedom remains for others. They cannot be free themselves, and therefore cannot dare allow other people to have liberty.
But as we point the finger to these other people, we point back at ourselves. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves – each of us individually – do I have these traits? Am I myself able to live in liberty?
Liberty is a precious gift – and also demands much of us.