Let’s have a chat about freedom and liberty. Are they the same thing? No, they aren’t.
A freedom is a right that everybody has, something that everybody wants. For example, we all want to be able to speak our minds, and in America we have enshrined in the Bill of Rights freedom of speech. We can say what we want, free from persecution, unless our speech directly and imminently threatens someone, like in the common example of shouting fire in a crowded theater.
Liberty, on the other hand, is a right everyone has, only it’s about what an individual wants. Each of us has their own wants and desires. For example, I might want to rob your house but you probably don’t want your house to be robbed. Liberty creates conflicts of desire.
Where freedoms and liberty come from and what we can legally do about them is somewhat counterintuitive.
The Declaration of Independence states clearly that we all have the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These rights are considered to be given, by God, at birth, to everyone. Most people take this to mean that these are rights that can never be taken away, which is true. These rights cannot be legally taken away. But, because they cannot be taken away they must be regulated by law. This is because one person’s liberty may conflict with another person’s liberty. It is one reason that we have laws. Disputes about people’s liberty happen all the time and limits to our behavior are established by law. The rights to life and the pursuit of happiness also lead to conflicts between citizens, and also must be limited by laws.
Freedoms, on the other hand, are not inalienable. They are granted, by government, in their governing documents, through laws, or by the courts. For example, the Bill of Rights was added to the constitution, after the fact, because people realized there were freedoms all Americans should have that, unlike liberty, were not God-given and had to be granted by government.
Freedoms cannot be limited except by strict judicial examination and interpretation of the Constitution or through other governmental means. Our constitutional rights and freedoms have limitations that are written into the constitution, or are limited by law, or through judicial rule. And, because they are granted by government and not given by God, they can be taken away by government. Granted, it is difficult to take away a constitutional freedom. It can only be done by amending the constitution or by the edict of a dictator. But it can be done.
The constitution has been amended only 27 times with the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, having been ratified in 1791. That there have only been 17 amendments since then shows how hard it is to amend the constitution. The United States has never had a dictator, elected or otherwise. Our rights have yet to be taken away by force.
The ninth amendment in the Bill of Rights states that there are other rights not specifically mentioned in the constitution. Those rights are determined through legislation and ultimately by the courts. Because of their non-constitutional status, these rights can be much easier to take away.
A common misconception about both freedoms and liberty is that they confer upon the individual carte blanche to do anything they want and be protected by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. This is not true. Both our freedoms and our liberty can, have, and will be limited and regulated by law and through the courts. It is often overlooked that along with each right we have a corresponding responsibility. It is an important part of being a citizen that we not only know our rights but also our responsibilities. All too often I hear angry citizens complaining that their rights are being trampled on without understanding that limitations on those rights are in force. They had not considered, consciously or otherwise, that they had responsibilities associated with those rights.
This is a significant issue in today’s America. There are individuals and organizations that present very serious threats to the survival of our democracy, based on false and/or skewed interpretations of our founding documents. Many Americans misinterpret the intentions of our founding fathers, through ignorance, by succumbing to propaganda, or on purpose. There is an assumption that they have rights that cannot be limited by anyone, especially government. The threats these forces present to the nation, to our unique philosophy of governance, both from outside and inside the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, are tangible and powerful. We are right to fear them. We are also right to believe in our power as citizens.
Some tell us that the power and strength of the American way of life lie in our capitalist, free-market economy, which has accumulated the vast wealth required to bend the world’s nations to our will. This is not true. America’s strength resides in her people, now and always. Perhaps our most important right, the right to vote, is still ours. We can use it to guide the path of American life, economically, socially, politically, and with equity of race, sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, etc. To do so we must be mindful of our differences and develop the skills of listening and humility. We must remember that our freedoms, which include the right to vote, can be taken away, if not through the vote, through the whim of a tyrant.
We can no longer take it for granted in America that we are free from evil in our government, that we are still protected by the checks and balances built into our constitution. We are no longer safe from military action against our citizens or false imprisonment or any of the other horrors of totalitarian rule. Think long and hard before you assume that those who promise prosperity and glory are saviors. Make certain they are not leading us off the cliff and into the abyss of total subservience. This audit of America takes time and active discernment. We have need to start right now. It is by no means easy. It takes eyes and ears and tongues, hearts and souls, and brains. We will not survive if we remain frogs in the slowly heating pot. I can see the steam rising. I don’t pray often, but I pray we can save our democracy.
We have precious little time.