Why must freedom be first?

Author:Machan, Tibor R.

I. Introduction

Champions of the fully free society uphold the sovereignty of each adult individual in social life. They distinguish themselves in the political arena in most Western countries from both the Left and the Right because, on the one hand, the Left is inclined to impose restrictions on individuals pertaining primarily to their economic or material actions, while the Right imposes on individuals when it comes to their spiritual or mental actions. Both Left and Right enlist government for the purpose of regimenting certain aspects of the individual's life, whereas the champion of the fully free system sanctions only those laws or rules that aim at keeping everyone's sovereignty: at protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and property.

For example, many American conservatives endorse the war on drugs and a closer unity between government and church, by means of bans on recreational drug use, prostitution, gambling, pornography, and other vices. It is mostly concerning the crafting of people's souls that the Right enlists the government's coercive powers, although since body and soul aren't ever sharply divided, this pursuit often involves regulating people's economic activities as well (e.g., when Sunday blue laws prohibit commerce in liquor). (1)

Members of the Left, in turn, want heavy government regulation of the economy through minimum-wage laws, antitrust crusades, and so on. (2) They want progressive taxation and government efforts to equalize and redistribute wealth, Here, too, a sharp division between the economic and the spiritual is impossible, so the Left is often involved in regimenting people's talking and thinking (e.g., when it supports government bans on hate speech or racial discrimination in commerce).

In their particular areas of philosophical focus, the Left and Right both endorse government intrusion. The novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand noted this tendency decades ago, suggesting that metaphysics significantly influences public policy. (The Right's idealism and the Left's materialism tend to dictate what is to be controlled.)

In non-Western countries and cultures, these distinctions aren't as germane. In such societies, the libertarian view of individual rights as the bedrock of justice seems almost irrelevant, given the prevalence of groupism: tribalism, ethnic or religious solidarity, nationalism, and the like.

II. The Champion of the Fully Free Society

The champion of the fully free society sees the function of the legal system and authorities as, first and foremost, to protect individual rights. In that respect, the libertarian is more loyal to the (original) vision of the American republic and to the philosophical grandfather of that polity, the English political theorist John Locke, than are any other current political movements. Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, conservatives, liberals and communitarians; Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or other religious fundamentalists; and the rest all seek to impose ways of private conduct, some claiming that there does not even exist a sphere of legitimate privacy in human life.

In contrast, following the lead of Locke, the American Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Champions of the free system believe that they flesh out the vision of this document more accurately, consistently, and completely than do Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Communitarians or any other political faction in society. Why? Because if we really do have these rights, then the legal system should protect us against all efforts by criminals, foreign aggressors, or the legal authorities themselves to violate those rights or to impose on us their ideas of how we ought to live. If the individual is not sovereign--does not have the right to decide how best to live his or her life--how can any others possibly have that right over him or her? Paternalistic intervention, even for the sake of improving some aspect of our lives, is thus inconsistent with the rights to life and liberty. Such interventions include, for example, bans on drug abuse and smoking in private places or regulation of employment. Regimenting the lives, actions, and goals of sovereign individuals is intolerable and reprehensible, regardless of good intentions, for it is the right and moral responsibility of individuals to decide these things for themselves. This is a necessary precondition of morality, and it is what having an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness comes down to. A proper legal order has as its primary function the protection of these rights.

Take the particularly controversial case of the position that no one has the authority to prevent you from committing or seeking assisted suicide. Many find suicide objectionable because they think we either belong to God or to some group. Thus, we aren't authorized to decide what happens to us.

Champions of liberty hold that one's right to life means having full authority over one's life, making it unacceptable to prohibit one from inviting another to assist in one's suicide. On this view, the right to life means that oneself, not other people, should make decisions about one's life, including whether to delegate to someone else, who is willing, the authority to help end it.

III. Rights

Rights are principles identified in the field of political theory that spell out protective "borders" around us. In order to cross those borders, those outside must secure permission from those inside.

Consider the right to private property, as we normally understand it. If it is your car, somebody else who wants to use it must ask your permission. You are the one who is to make that decision. You have the moral (and legal) authority to refuse or grant permission. If you wish to sell it, that, too, is up to you and whoever is willing to meet your price.

Similarly, since it is your life, somebody who wants to do something to it must gain your permission, as when you authorize a physician to perform a risky operation or a cabby to drive you to the airport.

If you want to smoke, drink, take drugs, climb mountains, or go skiing, provided no one's rights are violated by such actions, you need no one's permission. It is fundamental to a free society that individuals are sovereign, not the legal authorities and not even the majority of the people.

  1. The Sovereign Individual

    "Sovereign" means you rule yourself, that you are the author of your actions and your conduct, not someone else. It is autonomy in a political context. In a society of sovereign individuals, no one has the right to one's life but oneself: not the family, society, nation, race, ethnic group, or humanity. That's so even if you misgovern yourself or waste your life away. Others may offer advice, write editorials, send one letters, try to start a dialogue--in short, they may approach an individual in peaceful ways. But they have no authority to take over the governance of one's life.

    Even democracy, the will of the majority, does not trump individual sovereignty. Why should it? After all, the majority is composed of individuals and is not some separate, superior body; and if another individual has no authority to intrude on one's life, neither does a collection. Democracy is mainly a method of selecting administrators of various tasks, including governance, as well as a method of reaching decisions if all those affected have agreed to its use, as in the Rotary Club or Lions Club.

    One must authorize or delegate authority to legal administrators to do certain things and thus to act by consent of the governed. Absent this authority, officials may not intrude on one's life or conduct. Such is the right to liberty.

  2. Political Freedom

    One is free in the political sense if one can take various actions without interference by other people. (There are other senses of "freedom," but they are not relevant here.) If one wants to pursue a life of productivity, creativity, art, science, or education, he may embark on those pursuits, and no one may prohibit him from doing so unless his actions intrude on them. If one needs others to help in these pursuits, their consent is required. And if one chooses not to embark upon such pursuits but, instead, chooses to be idle, lazy, imprudent, or neglectful toward oneself and one's best interests, including making contributions to one's community, that is also something one...

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