by R. Lee Wrights
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action, according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
- Thomas Jefferson
The ability of our third president to convey the strongest possible message in the fewest possible words never ceases to amaze me. Mr. Jefferson makes it easy for anyone to understand the principles of freedom. The realization that every man had the right to “unobstructed action,” directed by nothing other than his own inclinations as long as the actions he chose did not violate “the equal rights of others,” was known as The Enlightenment. A revolution was built upon the foundation of widespread, in fact nationwide, enlightenment.
This new-found enlightenment opened people’s minds to the endless possibilities that were a byproduct of the myriad of choices offered to a truly free man. For the first time in history government was to be formed and administered by the people themselves. Each individual equally represented and recognized as the only true source of governmental power. A man that has no say in his legislature is no longer free, for he has become a subject to tyrants.
“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
So, people had to learn how to be free; or more precisely, how to deal with the responsibility of being free by accepting the consequences of individual “unobstructed action.” Remember, these people had never been free in the sense we think of it today. They were used to the King’s (government’s) intrusions and had learned to wear the chains of subtle servitude without raising even more than a whimper of resistance. Being free created a whole new world that centered around the rights of the individual rather than the pleasure of a despot. It was so new it was exciting, a true wonderment to behold. But still, the people had to learn how to be free.
I know it may seem funny, but think about it. How do you exercise rights that no one on the face of God’s green earth had ever recognized as even being in existence? For the first time people were able to speak their minds freely, and assemble in public with other individuals of like mind. Never before had individuals had such opportunities to profit from the fruit of their own labor and reap the bountiful harvest afforded by the fertile fields of Freedom. This new enlightenment offered new challenges as man embarked upon his maiden voyage onto the boisterous Sea of Liberty.
Like any other lesson that is taught by experience of life, learning to embrace freedom was and is an ongoing process. Unobstructed action was/is not the hard part, of course. It is easy for individuals to understand that it is okay for them to live as they please. It is not so easy; however, to define the limits prescribed by the equal rights of others. This is where people have, and always have had, the most trouble with freedom. Deciding where your rights end and another’s begin becomes a matter of debate. A debate that can reach such magnitude that it has been known to spark global warfare. Sadly, the true problem is often not a violation of rights so much as it is an unwillingness by one or all parties involved to allow the other parties equal freedom. Maybe it is not so much that people needed or need to learn how to be free; but rather, they needed and need to learn how to let others be free.
“Since there is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that ‘the public interest’ supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.”
No enlightenment is complete without the recognition of individual rights being superior to all other concerns, and, that they are the very cornerstone of a foundation of freedom. In other words, and at the risk of over-simplification, two individuals with the same vested interests do not have twice as many rights as any single individual. Groups of individuals cannot and do not possess rights collectively that supersede the rights of the individuals themselves. In fact, America was founded on the principle that government could not possess, or take on itself, any right that was not possessed by the individual citizenry.
Still, it is hard for human beings not to get cocky when they are with a group of their friends. Wherever there is a self-righteous mob, be it formed in the street or convened on Capitol Hill, there is a plot to rape Lady Liberty. When you hear the murmur of “collective rights” you will know that a thief is among you that seeks to steal her virtue, and you will know that fragile freedom is in peril. When it is decided that individual rights must be sacrificed for the good of the group, freedom begins to wane and it becomes only a matter of time until we suffer from the sickness of slavery.
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Understanding freedom is easy when we apply its principles to ourselves. But, without the patience and tolerance required to allow the application of freedom’s principles to others, we plunge ourselves into a cesspool of servitude. Our unwillingness to allow others to be free compromises any claim we have on freedom ourselves. The recognition of the superiority of individual rights in all human contracts allows all of mankind to share in the riches of those precious ideological gems, Liberty and Freedom. When the rights of the individual are forsaken, freedom becomes nothing more than a handful of counterfeit bills and the diamond of liberty is reduced to a lump of coal.
“Liberty is a harsh mistress. You cannot pick and choose what you like and dislike about her. Liberty will not change her principles for you, no matter how much you claim to love her. She will stand fast in her demands for total acceptance. If you can’t receive her, she will recognize you as a false lover and leave you. And when you hear that door slam, it will take every tear in your eye, every ounce of blood in your veins, and all the nerve in your heart to win her back.”
- Bill Masters
Originally published in Liberty For All June 15, 2002.
R. Lee Wrights is a writer and political activist living in North Carolina. He is the co-founder and editor of the free speech online magazine Liberty For All. Contact Lee at LFAeditor@aol.com.