Law School Prof. Butler Shaffer makes an interesting distinction between freedom and liberty. Liberty, he says, is what the state (meaning overweaning government) decides to grant you in terms of personal freedom. Freedom, he says, is your individual ability to do what you want with your time, believe what you want, think what you want. Freedom is in your core being and cannot be taken away, even by most totalitarian governments, although they may try.
In other words, freedom is your free agency, given to you by the very act of being born. Liberty is a governmental structure that hopefully allows you freedom of life, liberty and property (but almost never does).
You may remember the climactic scene in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien is torturing Winston Smith. O’Brien’s goal is not just destroying Winston’s personal liberty of movement and property, it is to destroy his freedom of thought. This is the nightmarish reality of thought police and a true totalitarian government, that we would lose our freedom to believe and think our own thoughts. This is Satan’s plan: we are all saved because we cannot choose anything on our own. If you are a Star Trek fan, this is the horror that Picard is exposed to when assimilated into the Borg: that he would no longer have the right to his own thoughts, ideas and emotions. The collective is the ultimate terror because it destroys what our very souls strive for, individual, personal freedom.
Most human beings have lived without governmental liberty. The sad history of the world is one government after another reigning with “blood and horror on the Earth.”
A serf toiling away in a field in 1000 AD Europe had very little liberty. He was a vassal of his overlord, couldn’t vote and didn’t have any true freedom of speech or assembly. But he did have freedom to think his own thoughts, and he was given by his Creator the right to moral agency. Within his confined world, he had the freedom to make choices, choose good and bad.
The unique thing about the American experiment is it codified a new structure that provided personal freedom AND liberty from government. Many involved in writing the Constitution thought the Bill of Rights was not even necessary because the only things that government could do were enumerated right there in the document. The expectation was that every other right was left to the states and the people. But as government grew and new overlords assumed power over the governed, they of course began to limit liberty and to bind us with flaxen cords of the state.
Now, on a local level we are burdened with police who set up speed traps and give us tickets when we drive 5 mph over the speed limit. We have traffic cameras that have gotten rid of due process. We are assumed guilty until we prove ourselves innocent. We are burdened with property taxes to support teachers and administrators who never are paid enough, who always want to raise taxes so they can have longer vacations and higher pensions. And if we opt out of the corrupt and failing school system, we still must pay the taxes.
On a state and federal level, we are burdened with regulations that prevent us from performing in consensual trade with others. We are supporting massive bureaucracies of men and women who do nothing but scheme up new ways to decrease our liberty. We pay taxes so men and women wearing blue gloves and representing the state can sexually assault us at the airport. Do any of them realize who pays their salaries?
We have gone from a foreign policy centered on defending our country to one where we engage in foreign wars around the world in an aggressive attempt to maintain an empire. Because of the supposed threats to our country, we have authorized the government to spy on its own citizens.
Meanwhile, the chattering classes say the only solution to the massive debt is for government to take even more of our money. Nothing can be cut — the state must expand boundlessly.
Are we in the process of ending that great experiment of both freedom and liberty? Well, yes and no. The state grows endlessly, and no real solution to its abuses is considered by those in power. We must continue to allow people to be molested at airports. We must continue to allow the police to harass you when you are doing no harm. We must continue to allow government to grow and liberty to recede. But on the other hand, there are pockets of society where we have more liberty than ever. Technological growth is causing unfettered liberty of information and movement, which is helping bring down the tyrants. There is arguably more freedom of expression now worldwide than at any other time in the history of the world.
But the greatest reason for optimism is exactly what Prof. Shaffer points out: they cannot take away our freedom to think and believe what we want. As Mormons, we know this is the greatest gift God ever gave us. And no matter how bad it gets the O’Briens of the world cannot take it away.