Is liberty cracked - or not all it's cracked up to be?
The Liberty Bell
Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land
We know that many people in the free countries of the United Kingdom and the United States are worried about their jobs, their bills and their retirement. So while we're happy to have freedom of speech, the liberty to say what we want may not seem as valuable as having enough money to pay our bills. Our property rights may not excite us either, until someone tries to steal something we own. In admitting this, we confess that we are suffering from a common failure of vision. You have probably guessed what it is.
Our three fundamental rights, which the great 18th century jurist William Blackstone named in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, are
Personal security, which includes the right to be safe in our homes and therefore the right to self-defenceDescribed at greater length in the British Constitution and the US Bill of Rights, these rights have a characteristic that can lead people to overlook their importance.
Our right to own, use and transfer property.
They name the rights and freedoms that belong to us, that are ours by birthright and that no government can touch, but they do not describe all the positive things that can occur as a result.
For example, freedom of speech does not describe the fact that modern science is impossible without this freedom. Unless people can say what they think, rather than what people want them to say and think, we can't have the animated discussion that gives rise to modern medical cures and inventions like - well - the internet. Rather than exploring, questioning, challenging, discovering, scientists are forced to toe whatever happens to be the latest party line.
Another example is the right to assemble, which gives us the vague idea we have the right to stand in Trafalgar Square with a placard and the immediate feeling we'd rather be elsewhere. But the right to peacefully assemble is also the right to associate with each other and form unions, guilds, trusts, charities, friendly societies, boy and girl scout troops, lobbying organisations for seniors and all the hundreds of thousands of communities that free people create. In places such as the USSR and the countries behind the Iron Country this right did not exist.
There was no one and nothing in private or in public but the government. Only the government could form and support organizations, funding them with money taken from the people which the government claimed was the money that the government had allowed the people to make. Why, aside from wanting to control the people and their wealth, did socialist governments act this way?
Because secretly or not so secretly the members of these governments despised us. They did not believe that you and I had any rights which they and the glorious socialist republic had not given us. They thought we should shut up and do what they in their greater wisdom thought was right. The result was an economic and personal disaster for hundreds of millions of people.
Earlier Brits and Americans didn't have to see this historical example to be wary of government. They didn't necessarily know what their rights and freedoms would mean for their peace, stability, prosperity and happiness, but they wanted them. They didn't want government telling them how to live, and they spent hundreds of rambunctious years limiting the power of the powerful.
But what, you say, if government is filled with wise, good, inspiring people and has the best interests of the people at heart and we are worried sick about our mortgages and bills? Shouldn't we update these freedoms so that we have rights to food and housing and a job and healthcare and even a new car - transportation surely being a vital right?
In fact, say some Americans, isn't this the Second Bill of Rights that Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised in his last inaugural address? Indeed, it is, and there is no one like a thoughtful aristocrat to come up with a plan for knowing and doing what is best for us whether we like it or not.
For some, FDR is a secular saint who saved their families, and whose social security programme has been a life rope. Fair enough. For others - for the forgotten man - he is the bossy, economically challenged, but great wartime president whose New Deal delayed the end of the Depression for years.
FDR saw economic facts two-dimensionally -
If people had needs - and of course, being people, they did - government had to provide. The idea that a free economy created by free people will bring people prosperity seems never to have occurred to him, perhaps because he never had to earn an living.
There are politicians today in both America and Britain who believe that if people need a house or a retirement plan or healthcare, government should provide it out of the money it takes from other people, preferably rich entrepreneurs, who are envisioned as a flock of golden geese, obligingly laying golden eggs. In its greater wisdom, government will decide how to organise the provision of all these rights, will tell everyone how to build their houses and what healthcare to buy and won't worry much about future funding while the geese are laying.
This plan has been a failure whenever it has been tried. Its fundamental flaw is its inaccurate and despicable vision of who we are.
We are not children without rights who need daddy and mummy to take care of us. We are adult men and women with memory and will, reason and imagination, courage and energy. And our combined energy and creativity and compassion, working privately and publicly in thousands and millions of ways, can achieve far more than any government.
It is true that "Government does some things which reduce our private rights and yet which increase the common good". Environmental laws, the defence of our country, the enforcement of just laws and a safety net for those too old, young or ill to care for themselves and with no one to care for them spring to mind.
But men and women who place their lives and responsibilities in the hands of government, who want government to be saviour, banker, mummy and daddy will be reduced to being children or slaves. Those who want government to do more for everyone may have benign reasons and care deeply for their fellow men and women, but they have had a failure of vision.
They cannot see the unique opportunities that our fundamental rights and liberties give us, and they cannot see what the new "rights" will take from us.