We use the words “freedom” and “liberty” so often when discussing America, and rightly so. Unabashedly we can proclaim that we are a land of liberty. Just recently we celebrated those freedoms by observing Independence Day. I wonder, though, if we have used these terms so often that we’ve become unthinking about them. Along with the hot dogs, ice cream and fireworks, I’ve been contemplating what “liberty,” from an American perspective, actually means.
What is liberty? Is it the freedom to do whatever I please? What if it pleases me to rob my neighbors, or kill them? Then I’ve infringed on their liberties. How do we deal with liberty as a national aspiration?
Democracy is certainly founded on the principles of liberty. It replaces a dictatorship, whether it’s a king or some other potentially despotic ruler, with the voice of the people. But does democracy guarantee liberty for all? All people enjoy the idea of living in a society that enforces rules that give them rights. Too many people, however, still think that others should live as they do. Formulating laws that guarantee liberty to all is difficult in a pluralistic society. This is the central problem in modern democracies: the tension between majority rule and the protection of minority and individual rights.
In order to preserve a community, what kinds of limitations on liberty can we make on the individual? There is a limit to the legitimate interference of the collective majority against an individual. If we can agree that each person has an “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then I think we can also agree on one very simple premise: the only reason a government can exercise authority over the individual in a democracy, bent on preserving individual liberty, is to prevent harm to others. The individual should be granted sovereign authority over his or her own body and mind. (The only exceptions to this would be children, and people with mental disabilities of some kind. Their faculties are not fully developed, or have been compromised. They cannot be expected to make proper decisions about their lives.)
If we assume that the above principle is true, we can extrapolate three main components to liberty:
- freedom of thought and expression
- freedom to plan one’s own life pursuits
- freedom to unite in groups for any purpose not involving harm to others.
The Bill of Rights seems to guarantee these rights. As we have too often seen in our history, though, the devil is in the details.