There is a very famous quote by one of my favorite philosophers and theologians, G. K. Chesterton, that says, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and left untried.” I’ve adapted Chesterton’s astute observation to the concept of liberty and I find that it fits just as well … that liberty has not been tried and found wanting, but that it’s been found difficult and left untried.
The history of liberty has shown that people typically want liberty for themselves but find reasons why others cannot have it. We see this manifest itself most often by way of a ruling class taking advantage of their wealth and power and using force over those less fortunate thereby making a class of serfs. This general pattern can be seen again, again, and again in a variety of ways. One of the reasons why America was so novel at the time of its founding was because of this crazy idea that everyone has inherent rights and that no other person has the authority to limit or infringe on the rights of other people. In America today we tend to take this notion for granted, but in America’s baby years, people had a hard time wrapping their minds around this concept.
This is part of the reason why the inherent rights of slaves and women (and other groups) were not initially recognized by early America. While there were some people who wanted to see the Bill of Rights fully recognized for everyone – including slaves and women – the vast majority of Americans couldn’t get themselves to a point of acceptance.
One of the reasons why liberty for all was so difficult to grasp was because it had not been tried before. So many questions arose that seemed to lead to the inevitable decision that liberty for everyone was simply an unattainable utopian ideology that could exist pragmatically in the real world.
Here Are the Top Ten Reasons Given Against the Abolition of Slavery
The “haves” have always fallen back on the idea that limiting liberty for the people means making the job of the government (whatever the ruling class may be) much easier. In today’s terms this might look like, “it’s easier if the NSA monitors everyone regardless of any suspicion (or lack thereof) because we need to feel safe from the threat of terrorism,” or “it’s easier to pepper-spray this group of peacefully protesting students rather than wait it out, because we want to avoid potential violence from breaking out.” The irony of this sentiment is that NSA surveillance has not made us safer, and pepper-spraying peaceful protestors is itself an act of violence, and so the notion that one can “support” liberty by limiting is a categorical error.
Now this isn’t to say that we can use our liberty irresponsibly. Yelling “fire” in crowded theater when there is no fire is a form of fraud (deliberate deception) and as such is not part of our free speech. Democratic socialists today who use this as an excuse to use the law to limit liberty either don’t know or don’t care to acknowledge that liberty is inseparable from responsibility, and with our liberty comes the inescapable reality that we must be wise with the way we exercise it. The law cannot be used to limit to liberty – that is a violation of the proper role of government. As another great liberty philosopher, Frederick Bastiat once stated,
But America grew up, and Americans learned that the expansion of liberty was hugely responsible for our success and prosperity as a nation. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in his book, Democracy in America. Another interesting point that de Tocqueville noted was how important municipal governments played a roll in protecting liberty and prosperity stating,
de Tocqueville wrote his famous book in order to study the success of the American Experiment in liberty for all where France had failed. He made many warnings to Americans in order to help us keep our republic. The above quote is important because it shows that local governance is key to the success of liberty. The best way to promote the principles that have fueled America’s past successes (and future stability) is to be involved in local politics – vote in municipal elections, take these candidates seriously, and never act as though “your voice doesn’t matter.” Of course, the counter statement is also true; the best way to destroy the principles that have fueled America’s past success (and future stability) is to allow those who would limit liberty or allow our rights to hang on the whim of public opinion into public office.
City Council may seem like small potatoes, but if you love liberty, it’s the most important vote you can make. Liberty may be difficult, but that shouldn’t deter us from trying it.