How to Know When You Have Liberty
Column by Paul Bonneau.
Exclusive to STR
There seems to be a lot of confusion on this point. Many people believe they are living in a state of liberty, while others don’t think so. How can you know for sure? I have devised a simple test that, I believe, can be used to determine when you have liberty.
I am here following the distinction that some use, between freedom and liberty: freedom is being free in your own mind--even a prisoner in a gulag can be free. Liberty is the external condition of being able to do what you want, within the usual constraints of nature--a prisoner in a gulag does not have liberty.
Now, it is possible to have liberty, no matter what political worldview you subscribe to. A communist can have liberty, if he lives in a place that allows him to be a communist, just as he wants to be. This is so for any other political persuasion; liberals can have liberty, and conservatives can too. Some people may not realize this. Anyone can have liberty; whether they are free is another question altogether, that I won’t address here.
Let’s start this investigation with an analogy. Imagine you live in a large city. Every morning you get up, get in your car, and travel along your favorite road, Liberal Way. You travel on Liberal Way because you are a liberal (just assume this for the moment). This road has all the things you need. There are other roads, like Conservative Boulevard, and Progressive Avenue, and even a gravel road called Communist Lane, but you are not interested in going there, although you may have tried it once when you were younger.
Now, you do have to drive through some ugly, blighted areas, but you are sure they are that way because of what happens over on Conservative Boulevard. Likewise, conservatives think the blight they drive through on Conservative Boulevard is because of what happens in Liberal Way. You both wish the rest of the city was more like your own preferred road, so the blight would go away and you could be proud of your entire city. And, you try to make that happen through political means.
One day you get the notion to drive outside the city. You start going but are soon stopped by a fence with a sign, “NO EXIT PERMITTED.” You sadly turn around and go home. You then go back to your old routine, but this event keeps gnawing away at the back of your mind. For some reason you can’t quite fathom, the city loses its friendly feeling. The familiar sights along Liberal Way start to seem a bit “off"; nothing is quite as it appears. You start to feel as if you are in a prison.
Do you have liberty? At first it seemed so, because Liberal Way had everything you needed--except for one thing you hadn’t noticed before: you can’t get out. You can switch to Conservative Boulevard, or Communist Lane, or any other road in the city, but there is no way out of the city. You begin to feel trapped.
No, you don’t have liberty. You previously thought you did, when you thought about it at all. The newspapers you read occasionally told you that you lived in a free city. But now it dawns on you that that was a lie.
And it’s even worse. You realize that if you got over the fence, you’d just be in another city, differing from yours only in cultural details. There would still be another fence. There is no “outside.” (This is for the “love it or leave it” crew, who seem to think that is some kind of answer.)
So, we realize that liberty is not only about getting the stuff and doing the things we like to do on our own favorite road, nor is it the ability to go on some other road. Liberty is the absence of the fence. It is the ability to get outside, even if we don’t want to!
So, we’ve discovered our true test of liberty. The people trying to get outside are called “anarchists.” They are no longer happy with any of the roads in town; they want out. The way you can tell when you have liberty, is when those who want out, can get outside. In other words, it is when anarchists are left alone. That is the test.
You don’t have to approve of anarchism. You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to have liberty. But unless anarchists can live the anarchist life, paying no taxes they personally didn’t sign up for, conforming to no regulation they personally didn’t agree to, then you have no liberty--regardless of your own opinions on need for taxes and regulation. You are instead, in a prison.
This should be no surprise to you. Everybody knows that tolerance is the supreme civic virtue. (That’s "tolerance" in the old sense of the word, not including any connotation of approval.) To tolerate an anarchist, you have to let him be. Right now, there is no tolerance for anarchists. They are not permitted to live as anarchists anywhere. There is a cost to this lack of tolerance, though, and that cost is living in a prison. If you are like many people today, you are just now discovering that cost.
For those who inevitably suggest that anarchists move to Somalia, that won’t work--everyone in the United States remains in a prison. Liberty used to be the unique identifier for America; it is America more than any other place that brought the notion of liberty into this world. It is our job as Americans to make room for anarchists here, some place in America. We all need to tolerate them. No one can do it as well as Americans can; and it’s the only way out of our prison, the only way possible for every one of us to have liberty.