Why Liberty Matters or, the Pursuit of an Ideal is Better than the Pursuit of Nothing


DSC01965One of the more famous quotes from early in the American Revolution was Patrick Henry saying “Give me liberty or give me death!” The less quoted part of his conclusion in his speech, attempting to sway the Virginia house to commit to war against the Empire, was this:

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

“Give me liberty or give me death” seemed to be the rallying cry for the Virginia militia and eventually Continental Regulars. They were willing to die before having their liberty officially taken away from them. For them, the pursuit of the ideal of liberty was so important that it was worth giving one’s life in that pursuit.

Of course, as is true of anything, in pursuing any ideal there are imperfections. The most glaring imperfections in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War was the prohibition of voting to women, slavery, and the eventual genocide of the Native American people. In pursuing an ideal, that ideal is not always acted out perfectly, but in pursuing the ideal the hope exists that we will move closer and closer to liberty. Our nation has never achieved its mantra of “Liberty and Justice for all,” but it has worked toward that direction. In many instances, that direction came with the threat of life. The slaves who did all they could to escape north before the Civil War, to risk their lives for liberty. The men – both black and white – who fought against slavery in the Civil War thought that liberty was more important than living. And after this all, our nation still inhibited the liberty of our black brothers and sisters by segregating them away from the rest of the population, but even in this there were movers who put their own safety on the line (and gave up their lives) to reach equality in all things, including liberty.

Liberty is important because it goes to who we are as people. A dog is happy on a leash, he is happy in a fenced-in backyard, he is happy when an owner feeds him. A dog only becomes unhappy when abused. A dog, however, is a beast, and men are not dogs, but in many ways are far worse. A man who is kept on a leash, forced to live within a fence, supplied food and water, is a slave. Even if he is treated well, then he is only a well-treated slave. He is treated as lesser than the one who owns him and has no real freedom. Human beings, being rational, need the freedom to think and then act on these thoughts, this requires true liberty. When liberty is taken away, even for seemingly benevolent reasons, it opens the door for oppression to occur. Putting a whip in the master’s hand will allow him to protect you from any wolves that come after you, but it will also allow him to whip you for not obeying him. Liberty is important because it provides a check against human rights abuses by those in authority.

Even today, we struggle with liberty, but the difference between today and previous generations is that today we no longer pursue the ideal of liberty. We pursue the ideals of safety and tolerance, and those two couldn’t be further from liberty. In pursuing safety we happily give up our rights. Consider the latest NSA fiasco and how the NSA has now admitted that they actually do listen in on phone calls without warrants. This is done in the name of “national security” and “fighting terrorism” and so the public remains at ease. Our pursuit of tolerance has ruined liberty because we’ve somehow made “free from being offended” and “tolerance” synonymous. Thus, if a business owner refuses to participate in an activity he doesn’t agree with, that owner is sued and we try to make the government force him to act against his conscience. Why? Because it’s offensive to us that he would have a conscience different from our own.

On the issue of safety, one cannot pursue liberty, but then give precedence to safety. There is no compromise between the two, even if our President thinks one can be found. Either you pursue liberty and allow for safety within the pursuit of liberty (meaning that we can still listen in on phones and the like, but only with a warrant, only with just cause) or we allow for liberty within the pursuit of safety. The former is how strong nations develop, the latter is how tyrants form.

On the issue of tolerance, one cannot pursue liberty, but then give precedence to tolerance. I cannot say I support freedom of speech (which includes conscience) and then sue with any speech I disagree with. While it is true that we must protect citizens from the tyranny of other citizens, we must do so within reason. Forcing people to act against their religious beliefs does not protect liberty. The whole irony in the pursuit of tolerance is that it actually leads us to be quite intolerant of those we disagree with. “Tolerance” becomes a code word for, “Those who agree with me.” Traditionally, tolerance was saying, “I disagree with your position, but I’ll fight for your right to believe what you believe.” Now it means, “I disagree with your position and I’ll fight for the government to force you to act against that position.”

Tolerance has become a way for us to say, “It’s okay if you believe this way, but you better not act according to that belief.” That’s not liberty, that’s tyranny. If a Muslim wants to bow to Mecca five times a day and there are those who want to stop him, those who want the government to intervene, then a true lover of liberty would stand guard over the Muslim as he bows so as to protect him, even if he disagrees with Islam. If a Christian man doesn’t want to use his business to support a homosexual union, then a true lover of liberty would respect his decision and either boycott his business or start a competing business that catered to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Either way, he wouldn’t ask for government intervention to change how someone thinks and acts; again, that’s tyranny (just look at 1984). We used to believe that, “I disagree with you, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.” Now we want to silence our opponents, and this happens between both conservatives and liberals (think of how many people attempted to stop a mosque from being built near Ground Zero, even though the First Amendment protects all religions).

In giving up the ideal of liberty for the ideals of safety and tolerance we have put a time limit on this experiment called America. The America that once was, the one that was highly imperfect, but still pursuing liberty, will simply cease to exist. It only has a few more generations and, in truth, we may already be on the precipice of generations that are more willing to embrace tyranny. How long before the definition of “terrorist” is loosened and other people are included? The pursuit of safety and tolerance leaves open the door to persecution of those we disagree with, or who are labeled “intolerant.”

“But that would never happen here! We have laws that protect citizens from being persecuted by their government!” Yes, a government agency would never become corrupted to the point that it would target those who disagree with the policies of an administration so as to make their lives difficult. That would never happen in the United States, correct? I need not point to the Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany for examples of what happens when safety and tolerance (eradicating those who disagree with you) are put into place above liberty, I can point to our own history. I can point to the FBI targeting civil rights groups in the 1950s and 60s, or Congress targeting suspecting Communists in the 1950s, or the Executive branch forcing Japanese-Americans into internment camps during WWII, or Nixon wiretapping his political opponents, or the IRS targeting conservative non-profits. There are many other examples within our own history of our government abusing any power it receives  of the examples I listed, only one was actually illegal under the law (the IRS issue is still being investigated).

When you give your master a whip to protect you from those you fear, you inevitably allow the master to whip you. When you allow the oppression of those you disagree with, it doesn’t take long before you disagree with the establishment on something else and you find yourself oppressed. This is not fear speaking, this is a voice from history. We were always told that those who didn’t study history were doomed to repeat it; but the study of history is not enough, we must understand it. We must realize that when liberty is no longer the ideal for a people group, the citizens become slaves, they face oppression, and it eventually results in the collapse of that society. That is the direction for America as it stands, but it is not too late to change our pursuit.

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