‘The Cause of Freedom’

The following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations:

At the 2013 Sutherland Institute annual dinner on April 9, we will release two new publications: a booklet titled The Sutherland Idea: The Cause of Freedom and a book titled Exceptional Utah: Leading America in Faith, Family and Freedom. This week and next I’d like to share some thoughts from those new publications. This week I’ll focus on the booklet, The Cause of Freedom.

To say that freedom, or a free society, requires us to become our better selves is axiomatic. It’s self-evident. No reasonable person would say that a free society would long endure becoming our worst selves. This point is particularly true as we discuss “social issues” such as abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, illicit drug use or gambling. In fact, a central argument in opposition to those issues is that they represent bad behavior. Killing babies on demand is bad behavior. And bad behavior can become a devastating problem for a free society.

In fact, an aggregate of bad behavior will doom a free society. But a free society relies on personal autonomy, personal liberty, free agency – however you describe it – in the balance between encouraging our better selves and discouraging our worst selves. Every time someone acts poorly, we don’t rush to pass a new law to prohibit bad behavior, mostly because our private cultures of family, faith and community effectively remind us to not act poorly. But sometimes we do pass laws to discourage bad behavior, especially as our private cultures begin to wear down and need some reinforcement. Sometimes the bad behavior is so bad, such an effrontery to civil society, it serves to tip the “moral ecology” of freedom out of balance. In those cases, a free society is justified in using law as a sure reminder that freedom requires us to become our better selves.

We’ve witnessed an increasing confusion between liberty and freedom. Liberty is personal liberty and personal liberty is a component of freedom. But liberty and freedom are not synonymous. Here is an excerpt from the new Sutherland booklet:

In the context of a free society, liberty is afforded individuals and freedom is communal. Liberty explains a preference to buy oranges, and freedom explains why it’s wrong to purchase human beings. Liberty is making any choice. Freedom is making the right choice. As a practice, liberty is selfishly utilitarian and freedom is sacrificially deferential. Liberty is substantially about personal autonomy and freedom is substantially about social and political order. Liberty is measured by unlimited choice – generally, any imposition on personal choice violates our liberty. Freedom is measured by quality of life – generally, any threat to peace, prosperity and happiness violates our freedom.

In defense of liberty, idealists view self-interest as guiding every human relationship, using government to referee injuries. In defense of freedom, idealists view happiness as the end of every human relationship, using government as a just and integral instrument toward that end.

Most importantly, for its staunchest defenders, liberty is both means and end. For freedom, the end is human happiness, and the means to achieve it are many.

There will always be a public debate about the roles of law and government in a free society – and if and when both are used to help us become our better selves. That’s a given. Unfortunate, and increasingly disturbing, is the idea that law and government are independent and separate from this essential task.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.