What is Liberty?

A major issue in American politics is the concept of liberty. We bicker over which party- Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian- is truly the party that supports liberty, whether certain policies would enhance or detract from individual liberty, and why America has gradually become a less free country. All of those arguments are good ones to have and are about important topics, but they often lack the proper grounding, which is a correct answer to the “what is liberty?” question.

That question, “what is liberty?” needs to be answered and understood by society before our other arguments can proceed. In fact, I think our inability to properly answer it is what is behind most of our arguments and misunderstandings. Were we as a society to develop a proper answer to it, I think we might be able to have more substantive policy debates and settle issues in a more complete way, rather than just continue to bicker and temporarily change direction with executive orders.

So, what’s my answer to the “what is liberty?” question? Liberty is, as Michael Knowles frequently says in his podcast, the right to do what you ought, the discipline to do good even when doing so is difficult. It is not the right to do whatever you want and chase after a hedonistic lifestyle. Liberty, it must be recognized, is not licentiousness, nor is it libertinism.

That difference is what differentiates liberty from libertinism. Libertinism is the idea that traditional sexual, religious, or moral norms don’t matter and that it is okay to live a lifestyle unbound by traditional morality. That is what was behind the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, is behind the push for gay marriage today, is responsible for the massive increase in out of wedlock births that Charles Murray describes in Coming Apart, is behind the push for drug legalization, and is generally responsible for American society degenerating into one that is amoral and focused on pleasure and immediate gratification rather than responsible living.

Unfortunately, both the Democrats and Libertarians would answer the “what is liberty?” question with an answer that describes libertinism rather than true liberty. They are far too focused on permitting individuals to follow whatever twisted pleasures and sickening depravities they might like rather than on good outcomes for both individuals and society.

Conservatives, traditional ones, at least, understand that libertinism is not liberty. That’s why they typically stand against drug legalization, have pushed back against a host of changes to social and public policy such as legalizing abortion or gay marriage, have fought against increases to the welfare state, and generally focus on families and productivity in the way described by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism rather than letting individuals chase after whatever irresponsible lifestyle choices or depraved proclivities they might think they prefer.

The fact is, as Hayek once said, responsibility is the necessary other side of liberty. A society or individual cannot truly be free if passions are the central focus rather than responsibility because being a slave to one’s passions is no better than being a slave to the state.

Take, for example, developments from our current lives. Are single mothers better off because they chased sexual pleasure rather than behaving responsibly? No. Nor are they free. Are drug addicts better off or freer because they’re addicted to heroin, constantly stoned, or always chasing after their next pain pill?

No of course not. They’re slaves to their passions. What about those who live lifestyles of sloth, are they free or better off? No. Welfare recipients and those that don’t work are often unhappy and unhealthy wards of the state. Finally, what about the obese, has their gluttonous nature made them free or happy? No. Like the drug addicts, they’re slaves to their passions and suffer accordingly.

And that’s where conservatives differ from libertarians and liberals. To a libertarian or progressive, it might not be a good thing that someone is addicted to heroin, obese, or a single parent, but it is a good thing that they have the “freedom” to do so; their shallow conception of the answer to “what is liberty?” shows their lack of understanding about why liberty is the right to do what you ought rather than what you want.

The Founding Fathers understood that. They set Americans free by establishing a constitutional republic, yet knew it would only last so long as Americans remained a morally upright people that focused on doing what they ought rather than what a desire for base pleasure pushed them toward.

Their recognition of the true nature of liberty is evident in quotations from the time. When someone asked what type of government the convention had established, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Similarly, Adams remarked that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The Founding Fathers had the proper answer to “what is liberty?” They knew it was the right to do what you ought rather than the ability to do what your sinful instincts might tell you to do.

Conservatives must relearn that narrative and start pushing for it. A lifestyle of liberty is not one that prioritizes pre-marital sex, drug use, sloth, gluttony, and a general shunning of religious or social mores. That is a libertine lifestyle.

A lifestyle of liberty is instead one that you would expect of a person with traditional values. Wait until marriage to have kids. Don’t use drugs or overeat. Exercise frequently. Save your money and invest it responsibly. Act with dignity and respect for others. Have good manners. Read widely and constantly learn. Doing so will help you live a better life and will also show you know the answer to “what is liberty?”

Not only is that a recipe for a healthier, happier life, it is also the basic recipe for success in America. As Ben Shapiro said, all success takes is making a few simple life choices. You might not become fabulously wealthy, but you will be able to live a happy life and support a family.

And that happiness is from what true freedom stems. It liberates you from your passions and from chance. We don’t need to be saints; no one can live a life free of sin. But we do need to have values to live fulfilling lives (the “happiness” portion of the Declaration of Independence comes from the Ancient Greek concept of happiness coming from fulfillment).

By saving, you’re relatively free from worrying about unemployment or an economic downturn. By waiting until marriage, you’re free from worry about out-of-wedlock births. By avoiding drug use, you’re free from being a slave to the next high.

That is, therefore, why liberty is the right to do what you ought. In societies without liberty, such as the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, people were not free to live as they thought they should. Their work was determined by the state, their ability to feed their families depended on ideological conformity rather than hard work, and traditional morals were thrown out by totalitarian, revolutionary officials. The result was that the lives of most people in those societies lacked fulfillment and they were deeply unhappy, as shown by the suicide epidemic in Soviet bloc nations like East Germany.

The US, however, did empower people to live the lives they ought to live (before America’s cultural revolution in the 60s, at least). Family life was prized and cherished, individual achievement was cheered, and society enforced semi-rigid moral beliefs that turned people toward morally upright lifestyles and away from chasing hedonistic living.

That is the sort of lifestyle conservatives should champion because it is the answer to “what is liberty?” It is the right to live the life you know you ought to live in the same manner that our forefathers did.

This story syndicated with permission from The Liberty Leader

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