We get terms confused: rights, liberty, responsibility… and in getting them confused we often misuse or misapply them. We call things rights because we have a need, or a want, for them, or a liberty because we don’t want to concern ourselves with others. We call things responsibilities only when it serves our self-interest. There’s an objective way to identify rights and liberties.
When we discuss rights, it’s usually in the political or civil sense. But rights exist apart from government. Civil governance exists only because our having rights pre-empt the need for governance. In modern parlance, we complain when our rights are ‘taken,’ but can they be ‘taken’ and what does that look like?
Our rights are inherent in our humanity, given to us by God. Our liberty is the time, space, and ability to exercise our rights. Rights cannot be ‘taken’ in the sense of being removed from us, but they can be ‘taken’ in the sense we have no liberty to exercise them with impunity. Identifying rights violations are obvious; it’s when your (physical) person or property are victimized through aggression—physical force. But loss of liberty is different.
Rights and responsibilities are closely related. They are distinct, and yet inseparable (but responsibilities are not obligations). Asserting the right to live is simple; you must do the things necessary to keep yourself alive. Liberty is using the time, space, and your abilities to make that happen.
Jordan Peterson & Pinocchio
Jordan Peterson illustrates this as an archetypal truth using the story of Pinocchio. I won’t go into detail here (I encourage watching it though), and instead will draw out the main lesson. Unless you take responsibility for yourself, then you will inevitably be someone’s marionette. I teach my kids, “if you don’t learn to control yourself, then someone else will control you.” Now, Dr. Peterson points out in the archetypal story that “Pleasure Island” offers a place of great temptation which causes its visitors to cede voluntarily their life in exchange for a temporal pleasure. And the ring-leader then can assume control over their lives.
Taking responsibility often entails enlisting help from relationships of various kinds. No one can do everything themselves. It’s good to come together in a community for mutual help. But coming together does not translate to relinquishing liberty. Making any sort of admission you need help, is not a signal to others to assume your responsibilities for you. When you ask me for help, you are
1) asking permission to enter into a voluntary relationship and
2) giving me permission to aid you in your liberty; that is, contributing my space, time, and abilities to assist you in your responsibilities.
Just like assuming one’s property as yours is theft, assuming one’s responsibilities as yours is equally immoral.
How does liberty disappear?
Your liberty disappears when you’re not taking responsibility for yourself in exercising your rights. Either, you unwittingly give it away, or someone comes along and assumes responsibility for you.
I’ll use education for my example, but I see this being universally true.
Education—You have a right to educate yourself; you’re responsible to make that happen; you are at liberty to do so. But suppose the state passes a compulsory education law; now they have to define education. Will your definition of ‘education’ pass the test? They’ve not only assumed the responsibility of ensuring you are educated, but they determine what education is. To do this, they must impose on your liberty by making a law. By creating a law that forces you to an education by their definition, they’ve just taken your right. Resist, and you haven’t ceded your right. If you don’t resist, then you cede that right. It’s not removed from you, but you only get that right back if you stop complying.
Brittany Hunter at FEE.org wrote how the censorship of Alex Jones raises a greater concern than free speech. Our individual responsibility to educate ourselves and voluntarily disassociate from that which is absurd, false, and propagandizing is what’s really at stake. Facebook isn’t responsible for alerting you to “fake news.” YouTube isn’t responsible for shielding you from absurd conspiracy theorists. Twitter isn’t responsible for making sure your snowflake sensibilities aren’t triggered. You’re responsible to inculcate in yourself a what you believe about the world. And though you might be wrong, relegating that responsibility to someone else, means losing your liberty to exercise your right over what you believe to be true. Before you know it, you’re being told what to believe.
Don’t assume someone else’s responsibility
It’s easy to look at someone’s life and assume we could live their life better than they are. You may see someone for an hour a week and think you’ve got their problems pegged and a solution ready for them. And when they don’t take your suggestion, it’s easy to take offense. Using aggressive or manipulative means to force their compliance, is authoritarian.
Though your intentions may be good, you do not own their life, nor are you a mediator for their soul. Assuming someone’s responsibility means delimiting their liberty, and in that you are violating their God-given rights. This is an act of injustice. Good intentions are not an adequate reason for assuming that which does not belong to you.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult.
C. S. Lewis, from his 1948 book God in the Dock: Essays on Theology
What about those who have legitimate authority?
Do people who hold legitimate authority over you have an inherent power to assume your responsibilities? No matter where authority is, it is always limited. Unlimited authority is a contradiction. It presumes that people with such authority cannot be corrupted or behave unjustly. Authority figures can and do error. They can and do become corrupt. No one is immune to this phenomenon because corruption results from sin and no one is sinless.
When authority figures assume responsibility outside the limits of their jurisdiction, thus taking liberty and violating rights, they are monopolizing power under them. Monopolizing power in the hands of sinners is the source of the greatest atrocities against mankind. Resisting this monopolization is not the result of a low view of authority. It’s quite the opposite. Recognizing the limitations of legitimate authority and acting in liberty to keep that authority within its limits, is the highest view of authority one can have.
But aren’t authority figures supposed to hold us accountable?
Sure. Absolutely! But holding one accountable is not the same as assuming one’s responsibility. Pastor Jeff Crippen writes about common misconceptions and abuses of accountability culture. When someone holds you accountable, they aren’t doing your job for you! They aren’t making you fulfill your responsibilities in their way. This overly simplistic view of accountability is malignant. Holding one accountable means counseling and encouraging in relationship, not assuming their responsibilities.
Liberty is ‘taken’ by those who assume our responsibilities. Though the trick is that to lose your liberty, you must voluntary (even if manipulated) cede your liberty. Resisting the loss of your own responsibilities, is a responsible thing to do. You maintain your liberty by doing so. Likewise, you restore your own liberty, by taking back responsibilities others have assumed.