The Liberty We Must Have
Tibor R. Machan
It is becoming more and more fashionable among political thinkers and even politicians to disparage the kind of individual liberty championed in the American political tradition. Several scholars—e. g., Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago—have argued that what really matters most is something called positive liberty. This is the notion that people have liberty only when others provide them with the resources that enable them to do what they would like to or should do. And there is a use of the idea “liberty” or “freedom” along these lines—you are free to fly to Paris only if you get funds to pay for the trip. But it used to be understood, maybe still is normally, that to get this kind of freedom or liberty one needs to earn the funds to pay instead of take it from other people by way, of say, taxation. But that is now challenged by the idea that what we lack but need or want is something we are entitled to from others and governments exist to serve us by obtaining it all from these others and they have no say in the matter.
This is the thinking of collectivists, people who believe we all belong to one large group and everyone must pull together to make everyone get what he or she needs or wants. Never mind consent! Individuals are a fiction, anyway, the story continues. Individual rights are nothing but periodic grants of the group to some members if there is public benefit from it. Even freedom of the press is defended this way by many political thinkers—people have it only because it advances the public interest! Indeed, by this view one’s rights come from the government instead of, as the American Founders held, the government serves us by securing the rights we have by virtue of our human nature.
Some thing is seriously amiss here. Notice, for example, that when people are convicted of a crime and are then incarcerated, it is not positive liberty that they lose but the (negative) liberty of not having others interfere with their lives. Why? Because such negative liberty is most important. It is only if one’s negative liberty—freedom from interference—is intact that one can embark upon survival and flourishing, including by means of free interaction with others (in, say, commerce, education, and other social affairs).
Now and then people may be in dire straits and come to rely on help from others and this is usually forthcoming from motives of generosity, compassion, kindness but not from some idea that they are entitled to support. That would place us all into involuntary servitude to the needy. And, normally, when such help of the needy is forthcoming, those who extend it are given thanks. But when others do not interfere with us, do not murder, assault or steal from us, no thinks are due! That’s because we have the right to live and be free and this freedom is not some gift from other people we need to be grateful for.
With the replacement of the American sense of individual liberty by the one imported from a very different (and, by the way, reactionary) tradition—namely, socialism and, now, communitarianism—there is, of course, more and more talk of forced public service. Politicians are advocating required community works and even the military draft is being mentioned as in need of reestablishment. That is the result of the idea that as individuals we do not exist and we are all just part of some larger entity—the state, nation, community, humanity—and must be made to pull together as such.
Of course, all this is proposed by, you guessed it, individuals, ones who take themselves to be special, not like the rest of us! Such ambitious folks would gladly take over the governance of the lives of other people and send everyone to do the job they believe must be done, never mind our puny individual agendas.
I can only hope that this ruse is in time grasped by more and more folks and the idea of the genuine freedom of the individual recovers its prominence in political thought.