‘The Yellow Bird’ and the limits of liberty

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

canaryEnglish journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once wrote a parable about liberty titled “The Yellow Bird.” In this parable, a Russian scholar, Professor Ivanhov, is visiting a friend in the English countryside. The professor had just published a much-praised book, The Psychology of Liberty. In short, he’s a zealous advocate of individual liberty and the elimination of all restraints on human conduct.

The guest cottage in which he stayed houses a small yellow canary in a beautiful cage. The canary seemed very happy to be where it was. Its song resonated throughout the cottage. But being the champion of freedom he is, Professor Ivanhov is convinced the little creature would be much happier and more fulfilled out in the world. So he liberates the canary from its cage and out the window the bird flies.

But it doesn’t fly for long. The wild birds of the woods were not as discriminating as the professor regarding liberty and soon ravaged the little creature to nothing but feathers and bones.

The next day, Professor Ivanhov set his sights on liberating the poor goldfish swimming contentedly around their bowl. With a crash of glass, the goldfish were set free.

On his third day at the cottage, Professor Ivanhov, contemplating the arching “round prison” of the sky, ultimately blows up the guest cottage with him in it culminating the end of a life lived in absolute liberty.

In light of this tragic experience, the professor’s English host poses the question – what is liberty? He replies, “First and foremost, surely, it’s the power of a thing to be itself. In some ways the yellow bird was free in the cage. It was free to be alone. It was free to sing. In the forest its feathers would be torn to pieces and its voice choked forever. Then I began to think that being oneself, which is liberty, is itself limitation. We are limited by our brains and bodies; and if we break out, we cease to be ourselves, and, perhaps, to be anything.”

The Russian individualist could not abide the necessary conditions of human existence. All things are governed, of necessity, because of a world created with a purpose. In this world even individual liberty requires governing.

Public policy think tanks such as the Sutherland Institute make it our business to think about governing in a free society. We ask fundamental questions such as why government even exists. Specifically, what is the purpose and nature of our American form of government?

Amidst Utah’s valleys we often speak of our inspired constitutional forefathers. Well, here is their inspiration: The whole point of our American form of government is to sustain a moral and purposeful life. Indeed, only a moral people will consent to be governed and only a purposeful life requires governing. Our founding documents are affirmations of a moral and purposeful life.

It is a fairy tale to believe that the Framers saw government as a tool to protect a purposeless life. Again, contrary to popular myth, they did not give their lives to protect us in wrongdoing, injustice, carnality, or abstract individualism. That our laws may do so by default in this day and age of moral relativism is far from establishing the reality that it was intended to do so back then. The fact is that government cannot long protect purposeless and disconnected lives in the abstract and survive for very long. It can only legitimately protect and defend what is real.

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

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