Civilizing Society

Liberty Requires Responsibility

By Connor Boyack

Liberty is one of the most used—but least understood—terms in modern political discourse. If you doubt this assertion, try asking random people on the street what it means. Most of the responses will likely be superficial and vague. Free speech, limited government, low taxes, gun rights, private property—these and a host of other common replies are not necessarily incorrect, though only capture a small part of what liberty truly is.

This general ignorance suggests a compelling need for educational initiatives, activism projects, and related efforts to thrust into the mainstream a concise and correct definition of liberty. French economist Frédéric Bastiat defined it as “the restricting of the law only to... punishing injustice.” Alternatively, Thomas Jefferson said it is “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

Whatever words are used to define it, liberty needs to be clearly understood before it will ever be respected and protected by a critical mass of people. Unfortunately, even some of liberty’s most prominent proponents either do not understand it or do not correctly teach it. While we in the liberty movement have excelled at talking about liberty in terms of what the government should not do, we have not done so well at discussing what we should do.

This circumstance was perfectly paraphrased by Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning where he wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” Who in the liberty movement talks about personal responsibility? Where are our advocates, institutions, and rallies to encourage responsibility? Focusing only on freedom means that we’re fighting half of the battles, and are thus more likely to lose the war.

Failing to talk about liberty in terms of personal responsibility is like trying to cut through tyranny with half of a pair of scissors. Put differently, it’s like trying to win a soccer game by fielding only offensive players. While opposing the government’s illegitimate interventions is an important and necessary part of the war to reclaim our liberty, we will not win without also practicing and encouraging personal responsibility.

Imagine a libertarian utopia—a world in which the state was reduced to near or complete non-existence. Would this utopia succeed without responsible individuals taking care of themselves, their family members, and those within their sphere of influence? If with a simple snap of the fingers the government’s invasive influence were removed from our lives, would it be long before a majority of individuals—either unwilling or unable to take care of themselves—succeeded in dragging the rest of us into the same state of affairs in which we now find ourselves?

The exponential rise of the welfare state, the police state, and the nanny state in recent decades has occurred only because individuals have, in the aggregate, avoided the responsibility to take care of and to control themselves. As conservative columnist Walter Williams notes, “Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.” Breaking society’s reliance on such illegitimate and immoral laws requires civilizing society. In other words, to promote liberty as the antidote to society’s problems, we must prescribe and administer the medicine: personal responsibility.

Some bristle at the priority of personal responsibility, wondering if liberty in fact becomes held hostage to responsibility as a result. Do individuals only enjoy liberty when they have first achieved some arbitrary societal standard of sufficient personal responsibility? Must we implicitly consent to a government which infringes on our rights until and unless we all are living our lives as we should?

The answer is found in understanding the nature of the relationship between liberty and responsibility. The one implies the other, and each are co-dependent states. Liberty is not fully contingent upon responsibility, nor is the reverse true. Rather, each influences the other—as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.

“He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country,” wrote Samuel Adams, “who tries most to promote its virtue.” Adams was right, and his comments clarify why so many in the liberty movement are not as effective as they otherwise might be. To achieve lasting change, our efforts to promote liberty must run parallel to similarly organized, articulated, and passionate efforts to promote personal responsibility.

 

Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute, a public policy think tank in Utah. He is the author of Latter-day Liberty: A Gospel Approach to Government and Politics and Latter-day Responsibility: Choosing Liberty Through Personal Accountability.