Why Is Liberty Good?

Carved into his memorial in Washington, D.C., are these words of Thomas Jefferson: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” Turning then to slavery, he said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Obviously, his trembling was justified. He should have taken his own anxiety more seriously.

Jefferson’s statement located the value of liberty within a larger context of meaning to which humans are morally accountable. In historical context, Jefferson’s view implied the then widely accepted idea that man is imago dei, that is, made in the image of God; hence the ultimate value of persons and the significance of human liberty as a reflection of divine liberty.

Jefferson’s own views on God were, to be sure, a bit ambiguous. And, many people in our era would not follow him even as far as he went in the direction of theism. But we need not follow him there to learn something from the way he framed the issue.

Jefferson’s formulation reminds us that liberty is not self-justifying and, moreover, that just because something is done “freely,” i.e., without coercion, does not mean it is ipso facto good. He reminds us that liberty can be defended only if its value is derived from a greater good, and that liberty cannot be an end in itself. It needs a basis, and its use needs moral limits.

If we cannot follow Jefferson all the way to his sources, we can and indeed must recognize that human liberty is good because humans are valuable. Human beings are the pivotal dimension of a complex natural reality whose interdependent threads comprise a physical and moral ecology that is not manmade. The natural moral order is, rather, an independent fact to which humans are accountable.

Among other things, this is why the Founding generation affirmed that there is something like a natural moral law, and natural rights deriving from it. Humans are significant in a way that deserves respect. If they are nothing more than material accidents in a morally indifferent universe, then neither their dignity nor their liberty matters much.

Everyone can now agree that slavery was an immoral institution that belied the Founders’ commitment to liberty—as Jefferson candidly acknowledged. But there are plenty of new threats to human liberty and human dignity, many of them undreamed-of in earlier eras. As in earlier eras, most threats stem from government: either a failure to enforce the rule of law that protects people’s lives, liberty, and property, or an unhealthy growth in government power over society and the economy.

To combat these threats, we must have a place to stand. That’s why our policy work at Independent often indirectly reflects a natural law tradition of human liberty and worth. This tradition combines the insights of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian wisdom, leading to the work of Augustine, Cicero, Seneca, Aquinas, Montesquieu, Locke, Bastiat, Madison, Smith, Tocqueville, Acton, C.S. Lewis, and many others.

In other words, there are good reasons to defend liberty, and when you do it you’re in good company!

[This piece first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of The Independent. To receive this quarterly newsletter by mail, become an Independent Institute member today!]

Graham H. Walker is President of the Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy.
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