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Liberty Defined

Some people define Liberty as the "freedom of choice". While feedom of choice is important to Liberty, it does not define it. You may say, if you don't have the freedom of choice, then how can you have Liberty? I ask, how can the freedom of choice be taken from you? In short, it can't.

A citizen of even the harshest totalitarian government can still exercise his freedom of choice. A gun can be held to his head and his obedience demanded, yet he still has the freedom to choose to say, "No!". The freedom of choice resides within an individual and cannot be taken away.

What, then, defines Liberty? Personal responsibility. You may have heard this term tossed around by politicians and pundits and bloggers, but what does it really mean? Why is it so important?

Liberty is the freedom to make your own choices and to accept responsibility for their consequences. There are two types of consequences, inherrent consequences, which are those that come from the choice itself such as being fired if a person chooses to stop going to work. Then there are artificial consequences. These are consequences that are not determined by the choice itself, but imposed by outside entities, such as the government. The government imposes artificial consequences on the use of marijauna in the form of fines and jail terms. Dispite these efforts, you can still choose to accept all of the consequences and use marijuana. Like the freedom of choice, your personal responsibility cannot be take from you.

If your freedom of choice and personal responsibility cannot be taken from you, then how can your Liberty be taken from you? It can't:

No one can take your Liberty from you, it can only be given up willingly.

That is the most important point of this essay. You may ask, why would anyone willingly give up their Liberty? Actually, it happens all the time, everyday, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It happens so often, we are not even conciously aware of it. For example, I may choose to work mandatory overtime because I am unwilling to accept the consequences of refusing and being unemployed. I am willingly giving up my Liberty due to the inherrent consequences of refusing. This is okay, because I am also free to exercise my Liberty and tell my boss where he can stick his mandatory overtime. This is how Liberty should work, a balancing of the positive and negative consequences inherrent in our choices. We must sometimes sacrifice Liberty in order to avoid negative consequences.

This type of sacrifice is done between private parties, e.g., an employee and employer, between spouses, parent and child, etc. A person's Liberty is infringed when artifical consequences are imposed on a particular choice. Namely, when that consequence would deter me from exercising a choice that is my right. For example, I will be forced to purchase health insurance and if I don't, I will be charged a fine. If I am willing to accept the inherrent consequences of not having health insurance, but unwilling to accept the artificial consequence of paying a fine and purchase health insurance, then my Liberty is being infringed.

If I was willing to accept all the consequences, including the fine, and steadfastly refused to purchase health insurance, then my Liberty is not being infringed. How can that be? you may ask. Think of it this way. The last line of the Declaration of Independence is, "And for the support of this declaration...we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." The Founding Father's knew that by signing the Declaration of Independence they could all hang for treason. They knew the consequences of their action and chose to sign anyway. Is that not the ultimate expression of Liberty?

So far, I've only discussed punitive forms of artifical consequences. There is another form which is far more insidious and difficult to detect. That is when the governement comes in and alleviates a person of the negative consequences of their action. A person may be unwilling to accept the consequences of not working, but the government comes in and alleviates the consquences with welfare and food stamps. A person may be unwilling to accept the consequences of paying back their student loans, so they want to government to forgive them. They may be unwilling to to accept responsibility for their health, so they allow the government to take responsibility for it. Essentially, this happens when a person is unwilling to accept personal responsibility for their choices and instead, allows the government to take the responsiblity for them.

This is the most destructive form of articifial consequence and is the start of the path to totalitarianism. The punitive consequences are easy to spot, the alleviating consequences are more obscure. The reason alleviating consequences are so destructive to Liberty is without personal responsibility for your choices, you can't be held accountable for those choices. If you aren't held accountable, then who is? The government has taken the responsibility from you, therefore it is accountable. The government has to pay your medical bills, and your grocery bills, welfare payments, housing subsidies, on and on. If the consequences of your choices are the responsibility of the government, the government will start imposing punitive consequences for making "the wrong choice".

Finally, from what I've written above, you may be thinking that my definition leads to anarchy. You can do whatever you want as long as you are willing to accept the consequences and any intervention by government is a violation of my right to do so. To address this, there is one additional principle to add to the definition of Liberty:

Liberty is the freedom to make your own choices and to accept responsibility for their consequences, so long as those consequences do not infringe, or have the resonable potential to infringe, on the rights of others.

This is why responsibility is so imporant to Liberty. It does not mean to simply take responsibility for a choice that was made. It includes having the personal responsibility to not make a choice that would infringe on the rights of others.

Do I have the right to murder someone, even if I'm willing to accept the consequences for doing so? No, you do not have the right to violate another person's right to life. Do I have the right to go for a drive in my car, even if I could get into an accident and kill someone? Yes, there is always the potential for negative consequences in any choice we make, but the example would not be a "reasonable potential". Do I have the right to drive 100 miles per hour through a neighborhood? No, such a choice does have the resonable potential for infringing on another's right, such as hitting another car or a person.

This last principle is, unfortunately, ambigious. You could ask a hundred people to define a reasonable potential consequence to an action and get a hundred different definitions. It is this ambiguity that makes government a necessary evil. Murderers, theives, and reckless drivers must be held accountable for their actions.