“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Thus begins the United States Constitution, one of the most influential documents in the world. Many school children throughout the nation are made to memorize the Preamble at some point in their education. And while it does not specifically establish any government power and is not particularly useful in judging legal cases, it is an excellent starting point for examining the philosophical foundations on which our country is founded. Most importantly, I want to take a look at how we might get a sense of the role liberty plays in the guiding principles of our society.
The word “liberty” is in fact explicitly present in the Preamble. This document exists to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Lovely; I guess that answers my question. Looking at that statement alone, it would be easy to say that we should probably shove the government into a tiny corner and allow people to live their lives in anarchy, forever blessed with total liberty. But let’s take a closer look. The Preamble also states that the Constitution exists to provide for the common defense. We can have a (volunteer) army to do this; no liberty is violated. Oh, unless we are stealing people’s hard-earned money in order to finance this defense with taxes. Furthermore, what if in insuring domestic tranquility we see the need to inhibit some peoples’ rights in order to protect the rest (i.e. prisons)? And general welfare? That sounds a lot like free handouts and forced compliance with basic standards of living. Finally, back to the beginning of the Preamble, what does it even mean by “more perfect Union?” If we want to maximize liberty, it seems that holding autonomous political subunits (states) under the umbrella of federal union is the wrong way to go. Either the Preamble was written by a bunch of liberty-haters or the notion of “liberty” promoted by avid fans of small government is seriously overrated.
So how do we define liberty? The obvious answer would be that liberty means having rights that are not infringed upon. However, as Zak Slayback points out in an excellent piece, there are two types of rights: negative and positive. To summarize, negative rights are those that are respected by others not interfering (i.e. my right to free speech is upheld when other people do not censor me). Positive rights involve some sort of obligation on the party of another (i.e. right to universal healthcare means that people are forced to provide/buy it). This goes along the lines of what Rousseau meant when he stated that individuals could be “forced to be free.” These two categories are a simplified model, but they act to show why there is disagreement on what liberty is. Those that oppose positive rights would be correct to point out that such rights could infringe on the liberty of others’ negative rights.
With all of this definitional conflict, it might be best to turn to Wittgenstein for help. In this very interesting paper, Wittgenstein’s philosophy on language and ambiguity is applied to the concept of liberty. Just as the famous duckrabbit could either been interpreted as a duck or a rabbit, liberty could be seen as extending to solely negative rights OR a combination of negative and positive rights depending on the context of a situation. Rather than arguing about a unified definition of liberty, which in itself is a man-made (and even language-specific) construct, we would probably be better off evaluating infringements of rights on a case-by-case basis, asking ourselves how best to respond while considering different aspects of liberty.
Of course, in our society, the government is the ultimate arbiter of liberty. The Preamble, it seems, sets out some guiding principle for how the government should accomplish this. It appears that it encourages more than simply protecting rights, based on the slightly tongue-in-cheek analysis I did above. To many Americans, this seems like a reasonable system. The people elect the government, if in an imperfect process, which is then beholden to the people and must therefore act to protect their liberty. In socialist democracies, the government typically takes a more active role in these rights, allowing for such things as rights to education or healthcare access. Yes, these systems are not perfect, but they acknowledge that liberty is not an absolute concept. There are trade-offs to liberty when a country decides to take action for the “common good,” with some citizens being forced to do things they don’t want to do, but this is almost always a result of a national consensus that the change is worth it. I am fine paying for public education with taxes if it means I live in a society of smarter, more competent people (this raises questions about the effectiveness of our education system, but I digress). A well-governed state would most likely do its utmost to protect negative rights, while making rational decisions about positive rights.
A good example of balancing different aspects of liberty presents itself in a recent study that has been making the rounds on social media. It found that that America is more of an oligarchy based on economic elites than a majoritarian electoral democracy. How are rights at play here? While the elites certainly have a right to their wealth and power (a negative right), the authors of the Preamble would probably agree that citizens have a right to an equal political voice. Limiting the political sway of big money would be a violation of their right to spend money as they choose, but would be a protection of the rights of millions of less affluent Americans. What is more important? It would be logically consistent with libertarian philosophy to say that the elite should spend their money as they choose no matter what the consequences, but when considering the other aspects of “liberty” in this situation, it seems to me that limits on the power of the elite would be more consistent with the ideology expressed in the Preamble.
But what if we got rid of the government altogether? That way, there would be no government for elites to influence. In addition, there would be no government to impose restrictions in order to protect positive rights. I think it is important to ask whether this would be the most “free” society: would liberty be protected in a system of anarchy? While I would be the first to acknowledge that beautiful order often arises from chaotic systems, such as the free market, I would say “no.” In such a system, there would be almost no chance of positive rights even being considered. Such a system fails to account for other aspects of liberty. I would venture to say, rather, that one of the most incredible things about humans is their ability to come together and create a society with a functional government. When they do so, they agree to give up some of their unhindered natural liberty.
Therefore, it is the duty of the government to balance different definitions of liberty in considering public policy. This is a difficult task, but it appears to be what is most in line with the mandate of the Preamble of our Constitution. Humans are more than purely economic beings, and ensuring for the well-being of a populace entails more than entrusting it to the cold, efficient logic of the free market. The idea of “liberty” is multi-faceted, and should be treated as such, and an ideal to which reality could not hope to conform.