Larry and/or Daisy may or may not withdraw from this discussion on either a permanent or temporary basis. I’m making my points regardless. It’s important for us to understand with our brains what we often only understand with our gut to be able to express ourselves as effectively as possible with those who don’t get it.
In today’s world, it’s virtually impossible to persuade somebody to change their political views through writing. It’s impossible to quickly digest or counter points, to read the other person’s expressions to gauge if what you’re saying is sinking in or not, to even know for certain if they’ve been read. However, you can alleviate misunderstandings if your “opponent” is acting in good faith. Larry and Daisy have given such an impression, so here I am.
Also, for those of us who already agree with me, by observing what each of us says in response to the other, we can more accurately dissect, rectify, and avoid the communication breakdown that results in the verbal ping-pong matches on Hannity’s America that almost never change anybody’s mind. So, on to the discussion.
Among Larry’s criticisms is that:
More significantly in terms of actual meaning, there was in the course of the discussion a lot of talk about “rights” and about “individual rights” and about how “the purpose of government is the protection of individual rights.” But again, just as in the case of “have to,” the extent of what is covered by the term “individual rights” is curiously restricted – restricted, that is, to those areas where libertarians feel they might be personally impacted. (Which, on second thought, means the restriction is not “curious” at all.)
Which, brings me to the discussion of rights and freedom (I’ve covered the “have to” part in sufficient detail already). Arguing about whether or not I believe certain freedoms are rights or not because “they might personally impact” me will get us nowhere, for there’s no way for me to prove he’s wrong, nor for him to prove that I am.
I’ll therefore describe the concept of “freedom” typical of the left and compare it to the “freedom” of the right. There’s overlap, but also a distinction between the two. I’ve adopted one over the other not because it’s better at protecting my stuff, but because it’s the definition that’s closest to consistent and therefore less likely to result in violence, oppression, and all that other nasty stuff all of us think we want to avoid.
First, there’s what we consider to be “freedom”. Neither side is right or wrong on this, and neither side explicitly considers the other to be in error. It’s a question of emphasis; the right and wrong part starts when we talk about rights.
When folks on the left hear the word “freedom”, subconsciously they add an important preposition: to. Freedom is implicitly the freedom to do something, the ability to do or have what you want. This aspect of freedom is power, often referred to as empowerment.
Power to the people.
Although power can be coercive, it need not be, and I’m not using this term because it to some it might have a negative connotation. Yes, if you want to eat some other dude’s Egg McMuffin, to exercise your freedom (power), if he won’t give it to you, you have to take it. In this case exercising your power necessitates force, and that’s the bad kind of power.
However, if you want to go for a jog on a public beach, you can do so without needing to resort to force or fraud. You put on your shoes, dodge the traffic on the LSD (the road in Chicago, not the drug), and go. Nothing bad about it. You have the power to run, so you run. You’re free, and nobody’s gonna argue with that.
To use my favorite logical construction: All forms of coercion are expressions of power, but not all expressions of power are forms of coercion.
Libertarians and most conservatives also add a preposition to the word freedom without even recognizing it. In our case, that short yet weighty word is from. Your freedom depends not on what you can or can’t do, it depends on whether or not somebody else can stop you. This freedom from is also known as liberty.*
Give me liberty, or give me death.
Like I’ve already said, this isn’t an either/or type of argument, it’s merely a difference of emphasis. If you ask if being able to distribute a newsletter is a type of freedom, even though it’s a power, conservatives will nod their heads. Likewise, if you ask liberals whether or not the inability of a government to jail people for criticizing it indicates whether or not it’s a free country, they will reply that it does. In their implicit definition of freedom, they’re both right.
Power + Liberty = Freedom
Some of the distinction is almost purely semantic. “The freedom of speech” incorporates both your power to use your vocal cords to say stuff and the fact that the government can’t stop you from doing it. Nevertheless, there is a difference, and the failure to distinguish between the freedom from and the freedom to leads to confusion and chaos.
Liberty is a negative right. By “negative” I mean that it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re able to do something (not that it’s bad). Instead, it derives from the inability of others to stop you.
On the other hand, power is positive in that it’s your ability to proactively do something. There are natural constraints on your power (no flying without proper equipment) as well as the power of others standing in your way (the guys with AK-47’s guarding the jewelry shops in Bulgaria). Regardless, it’s an outward, active, expression.
Power may or may not be over others, and it may or may not be used for decent ends, but it always has limits. Even the grandest Roman Emperor had some constraints on his power. No man can change the laws of physics, nor can he suspend the laws of economics or human nature. Under this standard, no man is, nor can any man ever be, truly free. Anyone who comes close must either be a saint who genuinely wants to do nothing that will interfere with the wishes of others, or he must be able to bend the wishes of others to his own will. Almost none of us are saints.
This is why a government dedicated to freedom should narrow its dedication to that of liberty. We can never be equal in power, but we can all still be free. Furthermore, a government dedicated to the preservation of the equality of liberty need only interfere with the power of its citizens when that power infringes on somebody else’s liberty. To maximize the equal distribution of power requires that it pick winners and losers and interfere with the minutiae of our lives ad infinitum.
My liberty need not interfere with yours, even if we have the same desires. If I can’t force you to do anything, you can’t force me to do anything, and neither of us can force anybody else to do anything, in a sense (I know not every sense) we’re equal. We may not have the same abilities, resources, or friends, but we neither of us holds dominion over the other.
A government dedicated to the preservation of liberty need only the power to enforce said liberty, its mandate has a limit. A government dedicated to the preservation of anyone’s power will never have enough of it.
When government sticks to the “just powers” of the preservation of liberty, the use of force by man upon man is effectively minimized(although it’s never entirely eliminated). Furthermore, for the government to have such powers, some degree of liberty must be limited (some sort of taxation, noise ordinances, etc.). Yet because liberty has its bounds, its enforcement does as well. If the government is actually dedicated to the preservation of liberty, not only does it stop individuals from interfering with the liberty of others, it’s bound to keep itself from doing the same.
Larry asks some very relevant questions in a comment, and I’ll address these shortly. If I have time, I’ll address his questions regarding rights, if not, just the question below, for I know I’ve left many a question unanswered. (What about poverty? Roads and bridges? What about the children?)
What if the government instead dedicates itself to empowerment?
* Rousseau defined “liberty” altogether differently, much more similar to “power” (but not quite). His definition was adopted by the French Revolution and others of the left. I consider this to be a corruption of its natural definition. However, even if I’m wrong about that, I have the power define terms for my own blog post, and I’m not depriving you of your liberty by defrauding you because I’m being clear about it.