Freedom Requires Restraint

Freedom as License versus Freedom as Ability.

Freedom is a metaphysical condition (free-will).  It simply means “ability to act”.  Liberty is a legal condition.  It means one can exercise one’s freedom in certain areas and in certain ways without obstruction.  The two are often confused in popular discourse, as well as in the ramblings of professional opinioneers.

There are two aspects of freedom/liberty, which are sometimes in conflict.  There is “negative liberty”, freedom from constraint by State, Church, Society, or Family.  Then there is “positive liberty”, freedom to do the right thing.  For example, I may have the liberty to quit my job, move across the country and fine a new one, but if I have not the means I do not have the freedom to do so.  The first, “negative liberty” is prized by classical (Manchester) liberals, laissez-faire businessmen, and Libertarians. (Who fail to note that their economic system was only possible when enabled by favoring legislation from the State, so it was not really “free-enterprise”.)  The second, “positive liberty” is the one spoken of in the New Testament. (“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”  – Galatians 5:1 KJV.  Here again, various translations sometimes use freedom and sometimes use liberty.)  Positive liberty cannot be ordered or coerced.  It must come from inside the person. It may be enabled by State, Church, Society, or Family, but can only originate from within.

Adam Smith and Edmund Burke combined both of these concepts, Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty, in their writings, but their successors have usually favored “negative” over the “positive”.

Interestingly, Liberty does not require a democratic system of government, but it does demand the Rule of Law.  Liberty-under-Law is integral to those “rights of Englishmen”, the violation of  which were one cause of the American Revolutionary War.

Without Law, there can be no Liberty, only Rule of Force, and Rule by Whim of the powerful. If Might makes right, and he average person is at the mercy of the bully and violent terrorist, and must submit to the mob as it surges from one illicit passion to another.  (As a a side note, those domestic terrorists who assaulted police officers at the Capitol on January 6 and tried to overthrow the Constitutional government of the United States were exercising their freedom (free agency), but they sought to deny liberty to their fellow citizens.)

No one is at Liberty to break the Law without consequences, but they have the Freedom to try.  Which brings us to the question of what sort of “restraint” is necessary?  Is it to be internal or external?  Do we govern ourselves, or must we be governed by others?  And if by others, which others?  The State, Church, Society, Family?  One?  Or all?

Manners. customs, traditions are all restraints on freedom.  They are established by others, slowly, over time, by our predecessors sent to us, as we have an obligation to transmit them to future generations. But they do no good unless internalized.  A criminal may know it is wrong to steal pennies from the cup of a blind man, but will do so if not in feat of being caught.  Moreover, too much restraint and society becomes stagnant as the individual struggles against a heavy load of norms and mores imposed by society.  Too little restraint and we have a fearful anarchy, a war of all against all, which soon devolves into tyranny as one thug manages to overpower the others and unite them into a criminal gang which rules all others. (Thus were the “Noble Houses” of Medieval times established.)

Many people will also confuse freedom and liberty with rights.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence about so-called natural rights, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (a trinity he cribbed from John Locke who wrote of the rights to life, liberty, and property.)  Bur rights are codified in Law, else we are gassing about lofty and inconsequential ideas.  From the Code of Hammurabi through Leviticus to the Twelve Tablets of the Roman Republic to our own Bill of Rights, rights are specific and defined (albeit sometimes rather loosely.)  In most cases, rights are a restriction under Law of the power of a State over its Citizens/subjects. Let it be here noted that under the Soviet Constitution, citizens had more rights than under the US Constitution.  But not being enforced by the Rule of Law, it did them no good.

It is the Conservative/Liberal Affirmation, unlike the demands of the Manchester liberals (“laissez-faire” capitalists – see above), which sets the Law above the State. But for this to happen, the idea must be firmly implanted in the minds of men and the customs of society.  But why should anyone trust that the Law should be above the State, that the Rule of Law will prevail against the machinations of fanatical or corrupt officials?  It becomes necessary to have a quasi-independent Judiciary and a force of Law Officers whose mission is to bring before the bar of justice both rich and poor, powerful as well as weak.  That this is often more ideal than actuality does not take away from the power of the idea over the minds of the citizenry. It is most predominant throughout the English speaking world, part of our legacy from the Sceptered Isle. It is less common in other parts of the world where the police force is a gendarmerie, a militarized force which often live in barracks and whose task is to maintain order and the rule of the upper classes, like an occupying army.  When the Rule of Law is established, and the people trust in it, they are also found to be secure in their Liberty, and even in the exercise of their freedom.

A core element of Liberty is the freedom to be a jerk.  That is, to behave in a non-violent manner disapproved of by the majority in a society.  Toleration, not approval, of the eccentric, the curmudgeon, the oddball out of step with everyone else is one of the marks of a free society, of a people living in Liberty under Law.  To let the harmless deviant alone, without reaching out to reform, to convert, or perhaps even to admonish him for his folly is a liberal world.

Which brings us, at last, to a consideration and comparison of the American Revolutionary war and other Revolutions.

As noted above, the American Revolution was fought to restore those immemorial rights of Englishmen which the colonists felt George III (descendent of autocratic and thick-headed German princes) had usurped.  Those immemorial rights had but recently derived from the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, although “urban legend” pushed them back to the Magna Charta. The Revolutions both sought to maintain Law and the Rule of Law against arbitrary and capricious governance, and against attempts to change “the way things are done”.

Both French and Russian Revolutions did not seek to preserve very much of what had been before, but to truly overthrow, and “revolutionize” all society which was seen as too corrupt for mere reform. Both were the result of a society and State crumbling under extreme duress (the French from an economic crisis, the Russian from the pressure of WW1 and the utter incompetence of Nicholas II.)  Both proposed that the populace should become cogs in a machine, adhering to a theoretical model of humanity which existed only on paper and never in reality.  Both attempted to force everyone into Utopia, and simply made a Hell for all their people for many years. Both tried to coerce positive liberty, and both failed.

Brigham Young, early leader of the LDS who led the Saints a long way to find religious liberty once said that “True independence and freedom can only exist in doing what’s right.” No better phrase, I believe, can more accurately depict the true meaning of liberty than this. When something is placed before you, you have the freedom to accept or reject it.  Always choose the right.  And your Liberty will be secure.

My grandson wrote an essay for a project, and asked me to critique it, which led to this post. Thanks for the inspiration, Grandson.