Questioning ‘Liberty’

Talk of liberty always spikes when Republicans are out of office. Then, it should have come as no surprise that I heard a presentation on the meaning of liberty by Marlene McMillan, “America’s expert on the principles of liberty,” at a Republican convention in Fort Worth last month. (If anyone is interested in my reasons for attending, I might write about that later.)

By far, my favorite speech of hers was at the Bedford city council meeting last year in which she spoke against the city’s daytime curfew ordinance.

McMillan offers a $377 online seminar on the concept of liberty centered around Biblical teachings, which consists of a handful of streaming videos and pre-recorded phone calls. Last month’s presentation was her second I had attended. The first came last year at an Educators of Liberty event in Fort Worth after the April 15 tax day rallies. Both presentations were about the same. The audience received a card with the trees of liberty and tyranny printed on one side and her definition of liberty on the other.

McMillan’s definition of liberty is “the opportunity to make a choice to assume responsibility and accept the consequences.” There are number of things that I like about her definition.

First, by using “opportunity,” she is seemingly implying that liberty does not guarantee success, only the pursuit of success.

Second, choices are a good thing. Choices are maximized in a decentralized decision-making process, so she seems to acknowledge a move away from authoritarian tendencies.

Third, responsibility and consequences are part of the fabric of liberty that makes it so beneficial. Allowing people to experience the reward (or failure) of their labor gives an automatic feedback for future decisions. Liberty and responsibility go hand-in-hand as each requires the other to have any true meaning.

However, as appealing as these concepts are to liberty, they are just a few of the consequences of liberty, but not liberty itself. She is applying a package deal to the concept of liberty, as Ayn Rand would say.

Defining ‘Capacity’

I think what McMillan is defining in the notion of capacity. The operative words in her definition are “the opportunity to make a choice.” For example, Merriam-Webster defines “capacity” as “the facility or power to produce, perform, or deploy.”

Let’s look at it. Under one scenario, say that a flower nursery only sold yellow flowers. That would certainly limit the opportunity for some customers who want red roses. If the flower shop was not open on Thursdays, they are limiting the liberty of customers and employees, according to McMillan’s definition. In fact, almost any act limits someone else’s “opportunity to make a choice to assume responsibility and accept the consequences.” If two parties make an exclusive contract, they have limited the opportunity for other to do business with them. In fact, every action I take comes at the exclusion of all other actions within that moment in time. Making any “choice to assume responsibility and accept the consequences” could conceivably be an act of tyranny because that choice could exclude others from making that same decision at that moment in time. So truly, liberty is tyranny, according to McMillan.

In addition, one could characterize charity as anti-liberty by this definition. Charity allows people to escape the full consequences of their actions and not assume responsibility.

Defining ‘Liberty’

So what is a clear, coherent definition of this solemn word? Dating back to John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government,” philosophers have called liberty the existence of being removed from the violence of others. Locke said, “For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others.”

Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) calls freedom “the absence of government coercion.” (Note: McMillan dislikes the connotation of the word “freedom,” but for this discussion I have used the words interchangeably.) Murray Rothbard said liberty is “the absence of coercion” in his book “The Ethics of Liberty.” F.A. Hayek agreed with Rothbard, but the two disagreed on the meaning of coercion.

French pamphleteer Frederic Bastiat asked, “In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so?”

I think it is important to use “coercion” rather than “violence” because there are many substitutues for violence that people can use, such as fraud and theft. I think of coercion as “an act by an individual against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which the human being has rightful control, such as his or her body or property.” This would very clearly include such decietful acts as fraud and theft.

I asked McMillan by e-mail about my interpretation of liberty. She said:

The problem with defining a word by what it does not include, rather than what it does include, is that in the end you still do not know what it is. You only know what it is not. Because we get more of what we talk about as well as more of what we focus upon, a definition that only includes the negative is flawed in premise and therefore is flawed in result.

But “the absence of coercion” is not defining liberty by what it is not. It is stating what condition must not be present for liberty to exist, namely coercion. Saying that “liberty is not coercion” would be defining liberty by what it is not. The definition of black in the color spectrum is the absence of any color. Only color has an existence of its own. A vacuum is the absence of matter. I accept that the same is true of liberty.

I think Bastiat would back me up on this. He said that justice is identified by a lack of injustice. “Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.”

McMillan appears pretty successful delivering her message and is a great orator and presenter. Ultimately, however, her message is flawed in such a way as to eschew the violence of the state, a territorially monopolistic and individually non-consensual political organization. It is great that people are talking about liberty — what it means and how they can act upon it in their lives. Yet, in an age when pro-war, pro-torture, pro-empire politicians (like Sarah Palin) call themselves pro-liberty, then it is worth examing what they mean so as to avoid being manipulated by false rhetoric.

Image credit: katerkate, with Creative Commons license