The concept of “liberty”, far subtler and richer than its current idolaters realize, can’t be explored in isolation from its partner, “society.” The idolatry with which the concept of liberty is now insulted, ironically, does far more to undermine it than defend or perpetuate it, because it divorces liberty from its partner, without which it cannot exist. For we have no freedom without life, without health, without opportunity, and it is only through a robust and well-functioning society that our lives and health are protected from mutual predation, and opportunity maximized through the creation of a context in which liberty is more than just “freedom from,” but is also “freedom to.”
Our Declaration of Independence refers to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (slightly modifying, in an act of historically acceptable plagiarism, John Locke’s earlier “life, liberty, and property”). There is no pursuit of happiness without health and opportunity; life is threatened and shortened by disease and destitution. There are thosewho insist that only negative, not positive, rights are guaranteed by our Constitution, “freedoms from” rather than “freedoms to.” Be that as it may, wisdom and compassion dictate something more, as does logic, for “freedom from” is intended as a means to “freedom to.” We guarantee freedoms from oppression in order to be free to pursue the goals that are available to its in its absence. “Freedom to” is always the ultimate purpose. When we have created the capacity to extend and augment it, then it is incumbent upon us to do so.
And what is it that we are free to do? To speak a language which is a product of collective genius, inherited from the many over the ages. To worship as we choose, either in discrete religions that are similarly products of our collective genius, created by the many over the ages, or in synthesis and distillations of existing religions and philosophies, which are, as well, products of our collective genius…. To think, express, believe, wonder, and act using the motifs and instruments that we have collectively produced, through media we have collectively invented and made available, to and with others, usually to some social end. Liberty is all about society.
Indeed, those liberties which don’t explicitly involve society (though they always implicitly do, in the forms of thought we utilize) require no protections, because they are invisible to others. One has always and everywhere been free to think what they please, as long as they keep it secret. It is only when it enters the public sphere, our shared universe, does liberty require protection. It is only when it involves a social act that liberty is a concept with any meaning.
Those who are advocates of social disintegration can argue, of course, that they’re not, that they only argue against “government,” which is not synonymous with “society.” They can argue that they understand that we belong to a society, and that our liberty is an expression of that fact, but that when we express the fact that we are a society with any focused intentionality, when we seek to actually act with a will as a society, when we try to empower our primary vehicle of collective decision-making, it is then that we have violated the sanctity of liberty, by infringing on it in precisely the way that our venerable forefathers so nobly opposed.
But our venerable forefathers never opposed government, per se. They opposed government that represented some and not others, that infringed upon liberties in order to extract wealth for the few at the expense of the many. Our government, whether state or federal, suffers no such defect. The franchise has never been broader, and is considerably broader than it was at the time of The American Revolution. We are more, rather than less, like the ideal our forefathers envisioned. And, while both our founding fathers and our current “patriots” share a bias in favor of the wealthy, the impulses on which our revolution was based were far more about the more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity than about the protection of privilege, an ideal which today is expressed in efforts that our pseudo-patriots most vehemently oppose.
With that endless irony that characterizes their movement, it is often those who have the most to gain from an improved distribution of opportunity that are opposing it most angrily, in a variation of Marx’s realization that the masses are opiatedby the religion of the powerful, and seduced into a false consciousness that serves the interests of the wealthy rather than of themselves or the public as a whole. (Disclaimer: I am not a Marxist, a theory which fails both politically and analytically by failing to understand the salience of individual over group or class interests. But Marx did get some things descriptively, if not analytically or prescriptively, right, to an extent that retains at least some value).
If we admit that society is an equal partner of liberty, and that even such events as our own Revolution and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution are collective acts of a society designed to express its collective will, than we admit that there is some role to having a vehicle for such collective action as a society, one through which we can express our collective will in defense of, and perhaps even to augment, our personal liberties. We are not always fighting the King of England, nor is our own democratically elected president, signing into law legislation passed by our own democratically elected Congress, a “tyrant.” He is an expression of the will of a majority of the people, and if, after the election, a majority does not support some of the choices he and our legislators make, then that is also in accord with our blueprint for representative democracy, which was never designed to be run by incessant plebiscite, to our great good fortune.
As many have noted, our founding fathers were extremely bright individuals, certainly far brighter than those who insultingly claim their mantle today. They understood the importance of establishing a strong central government (which was the purposeof the U.S. Constitution), and the importance of creating some separation of that government from the popular whims that would dominate it if it could. Liberty is not just an expression of society in the abstract; it is dependent on government in the daily reality of life. And how vibrant, robust, extensive, and egalitarian that liberty turns out to be, depends on how noble the will we chooseto exercise via that government. Alas, those who wear the tricorn hats today are mere tasseled jesters mocking those who wore them when they were first in vogue.