When you hear the word “liberty”, what does that mean to you? Below are dictionary definitions of the word liberty.
1. Freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
2. Freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.
3. Freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.
When we put the word liberty in context of unalienable rights as well as civil society there other important distinctions. Thomas Jefferson defined rightful liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” Liberty is an unalienable right possessed by every individual, as a matter of their existence, to freely choose and freely pursue whatever they desire in life while recognizing that every other individual also possesses the very same rights. Rightful liberty distinguishes itself from wrongful liberty or licentious actions. From an individual perspective, wrongful liberty is the antithesis of rightful liberty because wrongful liberty — in a Jeffersonian context — is obstructed action according to the will of others within limits drawn around us by the superior rights of others.
Liberty explicitly requires the recognition of every man’s equal rights. When another person, entity, or thing imposes restrictions upon your liberty your rights become inferior to the rights of others. I’ve itemized a few examples of how one person violates the equal rights of another:
1) Restrict a person’s liberty to associate with persons of their own choosing.
2) Require or force a person to follow a specific set of religious beliefs or prohibit them from religious activity.
3) Lay claim to or take the property of another.
4) Require a person to labor for your benefit.
When individuals choose to form civil society it is done for the sole purpose to better secure their unalienable rights. Our government wasn’t formed under the premises that one person could force another to act against his own will, to allow one person to take the property of another, or violate any unalienable rights. I freely choose to labor to sustain and improve my life and the life of my family. What I produce as a result of my physical and/or intellectual labor is my property.
Rightful liberty means no person has a rightful claim to another person’s labor, nor does any person has a rightful claim to another person’s property. Otherwise, rightful liberty becomes wrongful liberty as one person has superior rights over another. When this happens between two people this is generally defined as slavery. That is, if I can force or require one person to labor and take the product of their labor then the person is a slave.
Let’s put this into practice. John doesn’t work and remains home all day. John expects Bob will go to work and use his labor to produce. What Bob produces is rightfully his. However, John lays claim to what Bob produces. John claims Bob should work to feed him, to pay for his medical care, and to ensure he has a cell phone. Assume John has the power to compel Bob to participate under these conditions. John has exercised wrongful liberty as he has violated the unalienable rights of Bob. In this scenario, John has superior rights over Bob and Bob has inferior rights to John.
This is precisely why labor and property rights are inextricably linked. Every person has the rightful expectation that they are free to labor as they choose. Every person has the rightful expectation of absolute property rights. And, nobody has an unalienable right to another person’s property or labor.
As I stated early, people enter into civil society for the sole purpose of better securing their unalienable rights. As Madison said in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Madison is explaining in a state of nature, if all men recognized the unalienable rights of all others there were be no need for government. But in a state of nature some men violate the rightful liberty of others as I’ve described. Because men are not angels and man does indeed violate the unalienable rights of others, in a state of nature we cannot have rightful liberty as some men will obstruct the action of other men. The identical sentiment is echoed in the Declaration of Independence when Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Before government is even instituted every man has these rights. The founders and framers also recognized throughout the history of mankind some men desire to rule over others. Those rulers exercise wrongful liberty to secure superior rights over other men. Jefferson continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.
Jefferson clearly and unequivocally states the purpose of government is to secure these rights. Nothing more and nothing less. Moreover, that government is instituted by the people, therefore any powers government rightfully claims are from the consent of the governed. Lastly, that because it is the people that instituted government in the first place, the people always retain the right and authority to ALTER or ABOLISH it.
As Madison stated, men are not angels. Therefore, when creating a government how do you empower them and constrain them at the same time. Madison went on to say, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The Constitution not only defines the style and framework of government, it also defines the specific powers delegated to the federal government. This is referred to as the Rule of Law — where those in government are oath and duty bound to comply with the limits placed upon them in the Constitution. When government acts outside its constitutional authority then government is exercising arbitrary power. In context of liberty, government is exercising wrongful liberty because it is “unobstructed action according to the will of the government without limits or within limits drawn around them by the inferior rights of others.”
In this case government acts unobstructed according to their own will without limits or the limits drawn around them by the inferior rights of others. Therefore, the rights of the people that instituted government in the first place are now inferior to the superior rights of government. Recall, the example of John and Bob. Instead of John compelling Bob to labor for him, John turns to the government. John prefers to use the force and power of government against another person. John uses government to compel Bob to work for him. The government then takes Bob’s property and gives it to John. From Bob’s perspective is there any distinction? Of course not. In either case Bob’s unalienable rights have been violated. This is what Frederic Bastiat called legal plunder.
The term used by the founding generation for this behavior was licentious. The dictionary definition is:
1. Unrestrained by law or general morality; lawless; immoral.
2. Going beyond customary or proper bounds or limits; disregarding rules.
In modern society too many people do not understand the proper role of government or simply do not care about it. Instead, people view government as a means to an end. That end may be to use government to take what rightfully belongs to others and give it to those that have no rightful claim to it. That end may be the restriction or elimination of liberty in every manner of daily life; what light bulb you use, what car you drive, how much you drive, what energy you use, what food your produce or consume, etc.
We are at a crossroads, a precipice if you will. People need to decide whether they want to live as autonomous, self-directed individuals exercising their rightful liberty with equal rights for all. Or, do people want to live under rulers where the privileged few subjugate people under wrongful liberty. People need to decide whether government is fulfilling its intended goal of better securing unalienable rights. People need to decide whether this is a government worth preserving or a government that needs to be altered or abolished.
Note, the idea for the article came from comments I read from an unnamed source. The last two sentences in bold are from those comments. Though I cannot provide direct attribution for that, I do want to acknowledge that some unnamed source deserves credit for those two sentences.