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Liberty Under "Right Law"

The meaning of the word liberty has become so distorted in today’s society that most Americans have difficulty comprehending what liberty actually means. Everyone wants his "rights," but few people realize what their rights (i.e., liberties), are. Thomas Jefferson gave us a clue to what these rights are and their source when in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Our rights come from and are defined by God, not by man.

Consider this sign displayed prominently outside a pornography shop

    ... Please do not harass us. It is our Constitutional right to do business.

The pornographers are hiding behind a man-made law while loudly proclaiming that they’re doing something that is their "right", it is supposedly their right to do whatever they please, and we who publicly oppose them are infringing upon their "rights". But why are we opposed to pornography? Can’t we live side by side with the pornographers in peace? No! Because pornography is a proven prelude to rape, murder, and child abuse, and forbidden by God's law. And because of society's continued tolerance—and encouragement, society will suffer the restriction of liberties to all. Any attempt to achieve individual liberty outside God’s law results in the loss of true Liberty.

A movement today for the cause of "Liberty" is the Anarchists movement. Anarchists have a similar stance as do God's followers on the basic principles of individual liberty, the individual being free from governmental control. In this they agree except for one important point, Anarchists support Liberty void of any authority, including God's. God's followers realize that liberty comes from God's law. And that liberty will be lost if the laws of moral behavior are not understood and the freedom to commit moral infractions is not curtailed. Anarchists miss the point, that an immoral society has an overwhelming tendency to become a burden to all, thus robing each of their Liberty. Who really believes that transgression to God's moral laws has no costs to society and it's individuals? Immoral behavior should not go unchecked and unpunished and society must not look the other way as other members of the human family dump their "fruits" of immoral behavior on the door steps of others. Anarchy really means restricted liberty, caused by the self-imposition of bad behavior, with a society that is lacking in power to protect and maintain complete Liberty.

"Nothing, has been more amply demonstrated during the past three thousand years than this: that the great majority of men do not esteem, or understand, or even desire personal liberty. What they value is the semblance of liberty accompanied by indulgence." by Freeman Tilden.

The Ideology of Liberty Under God "Right Law"

To many, government under God's moral laws is ideal, although many others have been conditioned by humanist teachings that religion and politics don’t mix. In one sense they do not, for religion is essentially a voluntary exercise, whilst politics is concerned with enforceable rules of conduct within society. Yet it cannot be denied that politics should be guided, not by self interest, but by higher principles. So it could be said perhaps that politics and religion share a common loyalty to higher values of right conduct.

"I find that it has been the opinion of the wisest men that Law is not a product of human thought, nor is it any enactment of peoples, but something eternal which rules the whole universe by its wisdom. Reason has always existed, derived from the Nature of the universe, urging men to right conduct and diverting them from wrong-doing; and this Reason did not first become Law when it was written down, but when it first came into existence; and it came into existence simultaneously with the Divine Mind.", "There is in fact a true law - namely, right reason - which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands it summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. To invalidate this law by human legislation is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict its operation; and to annul it wholly is impossible." the Roman philosopher Cicero

This guiding principle of government - that authority is justified only on moral grounds - may appear somewhat alien today. But it achieved almost universal acceptance within a comparatively short time after Cicero and remained a commonplace of political philosophy throughout time, becoming a part of the common heritage of political ideas.

These concepts would later inspire in the new United States of America the idea of codifying the essential procedures, safeguards and liberties gradually assembled over the centuries into one single written constitution. Though this ideal of right law may be difficult to define, it has nonetheless been possible to limit government from practicing the grosser extremes of injustice; this is achieved through the constitution, the function of which is to set out the specific terms of "limited powers" to which government should be subject.

"The modern constitutional state at the time of its origins was justified and to a large extent legitimatized in terms of natural law theory. While the ancient idea of a divinely inspired, immutable, eternal natural law had been secularized by the seventeenth century it still provided a source of permanence in an ever unstable world." John Locke

John Locke used natural law to support the natural rights of the individual, thus limiting the powers of government. The written constitution of the United States of America, which followed Locke's philosophy embodied such traditional natural rights in detailed provisions. Despite their growing commitment to be "a government of the people, by the people" the Framers of the United States Constitution were under no delusions, they knew that a democracy of itself could not be relied upon to guarantee good laws. In an attempt to preserve discipline and integrity in government the Framers provided a clear and concise Constitution which included carefully worded limitations safeguarding access to the Constitution and creating a system in which the several branches of government would also limit each other's access through a series of checks and balances. Thus protecting the Constitution's principles of Liberty from tyrannical demagogues and democratic mobs.

"If in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional power be in any particular [manner] wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way in which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation, for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed." George Washington, farewell address

But even this was not enough. Many of the Framers felt that Liberty should be more specifically defined and protected. Among them was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who argued that the Constitution as it stood directly after its adoption would "put Civil Liberty and happiness of the people at the mercy of Rulers who may possess the great unguarded powers given." He demanded such amendments "as will give security to the just rights of human nature, and better secure from injury the discordant interests of the different parts of this Union." The result was the first ten Amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights which set specific bounds on the range and extent of law.

The significance of the Bill of Rights, as with similar constitutional limitations on government, lies in the recognition of a higher law endowing mankind with certain fundamental rights and liberties to which even government officials must defer.

Following the industrial revolution and the growing complexity of regulatory laws, legislators and political philosophers gradually abandoned any attempt to focus on "the guiding star of natural law", concentrating instead on "the ordinary questions of the day". Throughout our history we have pursued the alternative path, that of self-interest, where people, groups and leaders seek to improve their own lives at the expense of others, supporting governments and laws which promote that objective. This resulted in the return of America to slavery under imperialism, the riches and poverty of the class system, social strife and war, and the revenges of socialism, the whole continuing saga symbolized in the polarization of Right and Left, each side competeing for a particular class or social interest.

Let Us Try Liberty

The time has come when we should once again take up the search for the fundamental principles of Liberty Under God "Right Law". The traditional concept of a universal guiding principle, a "right law" to which legislators and legislation are subservient. Either our laws permit us, to continue injuring and exploiting one another so that some may gain undue advantage while others face increasing restrictions through the removal of their rights; or we attempt to avoid, and our laws identify and prevent, those actions which are harmful or injurious to others so that we can all live with maximum liberty.

One is the path of self-interest;
the other is the path of general-interest.

For two thousand years people have chosen the path of self-interest, during which time that path has been explored through the full range of slavery, imperialism, exploitation, civil wars, and the revolution of socialism.  When we begin to seek fair rules by which we can live together and collaborate productively without exploiting one another, we will find that the true nature of "right law", of general-interest, is and always has been clear and straightforward, awaiting only human recognition and acceptance.

It exists inside every one of us, for we all know what is right and wrong in social and moral conduct - if we ever bother to ask ourselves. It exists as the fundamental basis of English common law; and it has been expressed by political thinkers, writers and philosophers for thousands of years. This is the Eternal Law of right social and moral conduct: that each should pursue his or her own advancement, but in ways which respect the right of others to do likewise; that each should seek his or her own growth, but in ways which do not diminish others.

If we then seek to apply this principle of general-interest in government, we will find that the guiding policy is clear and simple: the purpose of government and law is the identification and prevention of exploitation, harm or injury between people. This guiding principle has been expressed in many forms through the centuries; it is expressed clearly and concisely in the words of Thomas Jefferson.

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicity. ---Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address.

Thomas Jefferson was not inventing a new idea. He was taking his place in a long line of political theorists and idealists from early Greeks, through Cicero and Locke; he shared the same principles with his colleagues as Framers of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and he was handing on a continuing tradition of fundamental rightness with which we are all, in our consciences, familiar.

Most people object in principle to any excess of regulation and administrative rules. We dislike meddlesome government; we find unnecessary regulation and rules tiresome and annoying; we abhor oppressive government. Yet few would object to being told they may not do something, if it can be clearly shown that their action is in some way harmful or detrimental to others. And when a person is suffering injury at the hands of another, we would all accept that person's right to remedy and protection in law.

"Each man should be free to develop his own personality to the full; the only restrictions upon this freedom should be those which are necessary to enable everyone else to do the same." Lord Denning

This view of law as the prevention of injury between people reflects the fundamental limitation of social and moral freedom. We cannot all have absolute freedom in our social relationships with one another. If one person is totally free to do whatever he likes, he is by definition free to limit or indeed eliminate the freedom of another. The best we can do is to maximize liberty for all, and this we achieve when we all accept certain limitations on our individual freedoms so that we do not infringe the freedom of others.

A land of liberty is not a land in which we all have absolute freedom to do exactly as we please. That would be a land of anarchy, since everyone would be free to limit, or eliminate the freedom of anyone else. A land of liberty is a land in which we are all subject to some restraint in those actions which are harmful or detrimental to others, so that we can all enjoy maximum liberty. Without the rule of law people would be free to injure one another in the widest possible sense, each attempting to enhance his or her own personal desires and possessions through the dispossession of others.

When government as judge identifies those actions which are harmful or detrimental to others, then prevents such actions by law and its enforcement, government is limiting individual social and moral freedom; but in so doing it creates the conditions in which liberty is maximized. The Principle of "freedom up to, but not beyond the point where freedom infringes another freedom" is the Eternal Law of social and moral conduct, this fundamental Principle of Liberty is instinctively familiar to us all.

The Principle of Liberty requires in our personal relationships, in business and commerce, and in our use of natural resources, that we respect others as if they were ourselves, that we respect others as we would have others respect us. It will be recognized at once by anyone familiar with the Sermon on the Mount.

Only in Liberty will the flower of Civilization unfold. And Liberty, true and full Liberty, will be achieved only when all of the people understand, accept, and support with full knowledge and conviction the Principle that in the enjoyment of liberty each must respect, never infringe the liberty of others.

With the guidance of this Principle we would share resources equitably and use them wisely, we would trade fairly, we would respect the property, privacy and peace of one another. We would eventually learn to live in peace, respecting and not infringing the liberties of others. And we would prosper: for collaboration is an infinitely more creative, more powerful force than confrontation.

Can the complexities of life over which government must legislate really be guided solely by this one simple principle of Liberty? Yes indeed. And the results, though often surprising, will always provide workable solutions. A productive and benevolant society, stable money, honest trade, a clean and respected environment, towns and cities that work and are a pleasure to live in, maximum liberty... these and many other benefits accrue when we base our political system on the principle of Liberty.

Next topic: The Law by Bastiat

Main index: The ideology of Liberty

More indepth study: Liberty Audio Programs

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