By Josh Sager
In politics and in debates over social issues, we often encounter the word “liberty”, or “individual rights” in reference to arguments over what society should regulate and what it has no right to decide on. With such a commonly used argument, one would think that there would be a reasonably high level of consistency in the definitions of the concepts used in the arguments. Unfortunately, there are two fundamental flaws to the invocation of “liberty” in an argument that often cause different points of view to be difficult to reconcile. “Liberty” often has a different definition based upon the political system or even personal political party affiliation within a single political system.
What is “Liberty”?
The first flaw in invoking liberty in an argument is that there is no set definition as to what liberty actually consists of when put into practice. Some people believe that liberty is the ability to have absolute control over your own actions, as well as their corresponding consequences, and no responsibility for the actions of others. Other people hold that liberty is the freedom to live in a society with the guarantee of vital services and rights. In addition to these two definitions of “liberty” we encounter dozens of different definitional permutations that people of various viewpoints hold to be true; as nobody can accurately quantify the meaning of the term “liberty” many arguments that are based upon personal liberties are not easy to reconcile when they are made from different viewpoints
“We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word, we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty means for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the products of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things called by the same name liberty.”
Examples of where the different definitions of liberty can create difficult situation are common in our society; one example of different definition of liberty clashing is the debate over “home-schooling” or “un-schooling”. Parent who do not wish to enroll their children in public or private schools demand the “liberty” to make choices for their children and their family. Those who are against non-traditional education seek to “liberate” children from the untenable situation where they are not receiving a proper education, often with severe future consequences. One side defines liberty as the ability to control one’s own actions regardless of others in society’s views while the other side defines liberty as the ability of children to receive a good education regardless of their family background; either position is arguable under the definition of “liberty” that is presented to the other, but at the same time, the concept of “liberty” means two completely different things.
The second, and most significant, flaw inherent to invoking liberty in an argument is that people of differing opinions often disagree upon where one person’s personal liberty ends and the rights of others begin. Giving a type of liberty to one party has been shown to, at times, infringe upon the “liberties” of other parties. Due to the tradeoff inherent in granting liberty to one side, society must decide which group’s liberty should be protected at the expense of the other.
“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”
Virtually every argument that invokes “liberty” has some degree of exchange involved in it. The classic example of a societal choice in America that restricts “liberty” to some but give it to others is segregation. In the segregation fight, the federal government interceded on the behalf of African Americans in order to remove not only state sponsored segregation but also private segregation practices (lunch counters, busses, etc.). While only a small, bigoted, fringe of the population would disagree with the removal of the Jim Crow laws, there are those who argue that businesses should have remained free to segregate. Those who hold this view believe that in order to increase liberty for African Americans, the federal government infringed upon the “liberty” of the individual to control their own property. While I, like a majority of Americans, disagrees with this argument, it is still a valid argument because technically the business owners were restricted from controlling their own operations.
In the divide demonstrated by the segregation example, we see the fundamental questions that are involved in the concept of “Liberty”. If liberty has no one meaning, then how can it be used to justify a position during an argument? If either action or inaction can change the balance of “liberty” between two parties, then what is the proper action for society/government? Does the government step in to redress imbalances and if it does, which version of “liberty” is the government to protect? The different answers of these questions are part of the fundamental differences between the various political ideologies.
Political Ideology and “Liberty”
At the core of each dominant political ideology is a different version of the concept of “liberty” that leads to wildly different results when it comes to governing. In the following section, I describe the views definitions of “liberty” as well as the policy outcomes caused by this definition inherent to each of many purist political ideologies. The purist views are not universally held by member of each ideology, as many citizens are moderate or conflicted in their views, but they act as a generalized picture of what the party as a whole believes.
Left Wing: Progressive (“Liberal”) Ideology
The progressive economic ideology is characterized by a strong social contract that allows for high levels of equality of opportunity and a strong social safety net. The promotion of equality and high levels of public services are performed by a large federal government and funded through high levels of taxation. Countries with strong progressive movements, the best examples of which are the Scandinavian countries, often have nationalized health care, a high quality of public education, and higher levels of social spending than other countries of similar demographics and GDP. Progressivism may sometimes be denigrated as “tax and spend” by its detractors (and this characterization is somewhat true) but in many cases, the government produces results more efficiently and less expensively than decentralized private providers.
Progressive societies focus upon the advancement of the lower tiers of society, paid for primarily by those who can afford to pay a little more. In a progressive society, tax codes tax the rich at a higher percentage than the poor under the belief that they can afford to give back to society more.
“Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.”
--Franklin D. Roosevelt--
The progressive social ideology is one where individual social rights are respected but there is a great focus upon the social good. Progressives are likely to support individual freedoms that do not have negative social externalities (such as abortion, gay marriage, the right to free speech, etc.) but often support restrictions on actions that do have negative externalities (gun ownership, pollution, abuses of workers, etc.). Progressive ideals are intended to maximize the social good, while paying less attention to the individual good, thus any action that produces negative social outcomes is more likely to be regulated or prohibited than in other ideologies.
“In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people.”
--Franklin D. Roosevelt--
As conceptualized by F.D.R. in the above quote, progressive ideals are based around the concept that everybody has the right to control their private lives but any action that affects society as a whole is the business of society. Personal “liberty” in progressivism is the ability to live in society with some degree of certainty as to the provision of basic service (food, housing, work, education) at the expense of paying into the system if you succeed; personal rights are protected for the individual, but any action that affects society is potentially regulated by society. Liberty to a progressive is not a disconnection from social obligations and taxes but rather an ideal that lives in-between the balance of personal rights and social responsibilities. Taxes are higher in progressive countries because the government does more to benefit the population in terms of services it provides. As certain services are guaranteed to everybody and certain taxes are expected of everybody, there is no opt out for goods and services in a progressive society; essentially, if you don’t wish to use the public education system or government-run health care option, you are free to purchase a private good, but you will still pay into the system as though you were benefitting from the public services.
At its extreme, the left wing progressive ideology becomes one of several varieties of socialism or communism. In an ideal socialist system, society takes precedent over the individual but everybody is considered to be equal in society and entitled to a certain set of goods as a member of society; all private property is considered public, and people are expected to work together to achieve the maximum social good. The “elites” in society (capitalists, investors, executives, landlords, etc.) are seen as the oppressive influence that keeps control over the working class through money. By removing all private goods, the socialist attempts to remove the control of the rich over the worker and thus increase the freedom of the individual. As there is no private property in a socialist system, there is no corresponding “liberty” defined in relation to economic choices.
“The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.”
As a far more extreme version of progressivism, individual rights are heavily constrained if they act in detriment to the general social welfare. Individual “liberty” is seen as the right to live and work in equality with all others in society, without the oppressive influence of the elite. All in society have the same rights and responsibilities, thus the socialist sees society as “liberated” from the socioeconomic stratification and the imbalances of power inherent to other political systems.
Right Wing: Regressive (”Conservative”) Ideology
The regressive economic ideology is characterized by a weak social contract and a high level of individual rights with a correspondingly low level of social rights. The guiding principle of the regressive ideology is that in the absence of government, worthy individuals prosper and can buy the goods that they need without having to pick up after the free riders. Many right wing regressives refer to their ideology as “ruggedly individualistic” in that the individual is not seen as an extension of society; everybody is an individual and has very little support from society while on the other hand has few social responsibilities. Regressive economic policies focus upon deregulating markets and allowing the free market to rule the economic landscape. Virtually every social service and public good is privatized under the ideal that private citizens can purchase the goods that they choose to and not those that they feel that they don’t need; those who fail to purchase a necessary good (Food, shelter, medical care, etc.) from a private source have little to no recourse if they need a good and cannot afford it. The only public services that the regressive government provides to the population are national defense and law enforcement, as those are the only ones that they believe
“Government "help" to business is just as disastrous as government persecution... the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.”
Regressive social policy is as individualistic as it economic ideology in theory, but in practice, religion and social prejudice often overshadows the concepts of individual freedom. An issue such as gun control illustrates the regressive right wing ideology on social issues in its purest form: The individual right to bear arms reigns supreme and society has no right to regulate what individuals purchase with their own resources. Each person is an individual and thus, while they are not prohibited from owning a gun, they are responsible for their actions with said gun if they use it to infringe upon another’ personal rights. While the gun control example gives the regressive ideal for social issues, some specific issues such as gay marriage, abortion and racial/gender equality have caused the American right wing to sway significantly from the purist view of individual rights.
“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”
As articulated by Ayn Rand, a right wing regressive thinker, the regressive ideals of “liberty” are based almost entirely around personal rights and responsibilities, disconnected from social responsibility and support. “Liberty” to a regressive is to have virtually no tax burden or regulation by a government authority either in social or economic arenas, while at the same time having little to no support from society in return. To a right wing regressive, a liberated society is one where individuals operate without outside intervention by the government and are not held responsible for the actions and safety of others in society.
At its most extreme, the regressive right wing becomes classified as Anarcho-libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. For Anarcho-libertarians, the state is seen as universally oppressive and is shrunk to the point of non-existence. “Liberty” is seen as the freedom from all external interference from aggregations of power and the promotion of absolute personal control over one’s life; taxes are seen as theft to a believer of this ideology. Anarcho-libertarians believe that individual interactions are able to sustain society and that centralized control is unnecessary, thus they consider all taxes, regulations and laws to by tyrannical. While there has yet to be a modern country that has functioned under an Anarcho-libertarian ideology, the end results of Anarcho-libertarianism can be seen in countries without law or government, such as Somalia. While Somalia was rendered lawless through war and a social collapse rather than a concerted ideology, it illustrates a society that exists as an Anarcho-libertarian model; there are no social programs or services other than community organizations and volunteer charities while at the same time there are no taxes levied onto the population.
“It is curious that people tend to regard government as a quasi-divine, selfless, Santa Claus organization. Government was constructed neither for ability nor for the exercise of loving care; government was built for the use of force and for necessarily demagogic appeals for votes. If individuals do not know their own interests in many cases, they are free to turn to private experts for guidance. It is absurd to say that they will be served better by a coercive, demagogic apparatus.”
--Murray N. Rothbard--
As individual rights are seen as absolute in an Anarcho-libertarian system, believers in this ideology define “liberty” entirely under its negative definition. Negative liberty is the freedom from restriction by the state (as opposed to positive liberty, which is freedom relating to having access to certain resources), thus the Anarcho-libertarian “state” does little to redress inequality in its population. The protections of personal liberty between individuals are left entirely up to the market and voluntary relationships formed between individuals; for example, if a business wants to segregate its customers by race or gender, they have that rights and the customers have the right not to attend that particular business.
Authoritarianism: Theocratic, Corporatist and Fascist Ideology
“Liberty” in an authoritarian system of government, whether it is fascist, corporatist or theocratic in its centralized power structure, is entirely defined by the faction in power. In an autocracy, those in power define word so as to control the population. The most famous example of the use of language to limit a population is that of the George Orwell book “1984”, where an autocracy uses “doublespeak” and redefinition of words to control the population (This book is the genesis of terms such as “doublespeak” and “Big Brother”). If the autocracy defines “liberty” as doing everything that the leaders dictate, then that is the party ideology; in this, “liberty” is both more defined than in other political models, as it has a defined meaning, yet meaningless because it’s definition is not natural, rather dictated by edict.
If those in charge of our society - politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television - can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.
The method of defining the term “liberty” in an autocracy is dependent upon the type of autocracy that is defining the term. In fascism or corporatism, the autocratic leadership determines the party line on what “liberty” is defined as and hands down this definition to the people. Often, “liberty” is defined in a way that supports the dominant power structure and thus precludes any rebellion on the part of the people in order to obtain true “liberty” (whatever that actually is). In a theocracy, rather than the ruling party, the religious texts, dogma, or leaders determine the meaning of “liberty”. “Liberty” is defined within the laws of the religion rather than any secular authority. There are numerous examples of how religion attempts to define “liberty” in society but the two best modern examples are Islamic Sharia law and Christian religious fundamentalism. In Islamic Sharia, “liberty” is defined under interpretation of the Koran, and used to justify the restriction of women and homosexuals; “liberty” is not considered universal but rather dependent upon the characteristics of the individual. Regardless of the religion that is dominant in the theocracy, the pattern remains that “liberty” is defined in-between the constraints of the religious edicts present in the religion.
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
Jefferson’s quote directly addresses the threat to “liberty” (or his definition thereof) that religion poses. According to him, religion infiltrates government and then restricts the liberties of the non-believers to conform to the ideals of the believers; it is this phenomenon that has been seen in all current religious law based societies as well as some secular societies. In the USA, homosexuals wish for the “liberty” to marry as heterosexuals do, but religious Christians seek to restrict the “liberty” of the homosexuals because they define liberty within the conformity of their religious beliefs.
Due to the inability of people to agree upon the fundamental definition of the concept of “liberty” many political arguments are born. Different political ideologies see the “liberty” of one side as infringing upon that of another and thus a debate begins over which “liberty” is more vital. The “sheep/wolf” analogy that President Lincoln used in his quote is perfect in the context of this argument in that the “liberties” of each side are dependent upon the lack of “liberties” of the other side: Does the wolf have the “liberty” to prey on the weaker sheep or the sheep the “liberty” to live unmolested by the wolf? Do corporations have the right to make massive profits while polluting the world or do the citizens of the world have the “liberty” of a clean environment? Do the rich citizens of the USA have the “liberty” to keep all of the money that they earn or do they have the responsibility to give back to society in order to increase the “liberty” and opportunity of the poor? It is these fundamental questions of liberty that define our political parties and drive the political debates of our country.