October 7th, 2006



Speaking of liberty, President Abraham Lincoln once said that “the world has never had a good definition of [the term]. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not mean the same thing. With some, the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others [liberty] may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act.” (Address, 18 Apr. 1864)

In my political posts I often talk about some new piece of legislation or government act that is encroaching upon our liberties. Perhaps it is this repetitive statement that prompted a colleague of mine to ask me what my definition of liberty is. I would like to address my thoughts on liberty here. I will quote liberally from men far wiser than myself in an attempt to gain understanding and solidify opinion.

Definition of liberty

Liberty, then, is the sovereignty of the individual, and never shall man know liberty until each and every individual is acknowledged to be the only legitimate sovereign of his or her person, time, and property, each living and acting at his own cost.
Josiah Warren

Coming from an anarchist, this definition is quite interesting. While largely true, it is not perfectly applicable. If each citizen were granted unrestricted personal sovereignty, anarchy would ensue (thus explaining why Mr. Warren said it). Surely there must be some sort of policy or enforcement put in place so as to prevent Joe from using his sovereign liberty to injure or rob from John.

In his talk “The Proper Role of Government”, President Ezra Taft Benson explained why government exists and what liberties must be voluntarily entrusted to such an entity:

Since God created man with certain unalienable rights, and man, in turn, created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that man is superior to the creature which he created. Man is superior to government and should remain master over it, not the other way around. Even the non-believer can appreciate the logic of this relationship.

It stands to reason that the government itself has no innate power or privilege to do anything.

In order for man to prosper, he cannot afford to spend his time constantly guarding his family, his fields, and his property against attack and theft, so he joins together with his neighbors and hires a sheriff. At this precise moment, government is born. The individual citizens delegate to the sheriff their unquestionable right to protect themselves.

Echoing both Mr. Warren’s and Pres. Benson’s statements, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘liberty’ as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views”.

Thomas Jefferson further defined the term:

Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.

Here Jefferson concedes that there cannot be unrestrained liberty of each individual. Thus, ‘rightful liberty’ is the optimal situation for a group of people living together under the same flag. We each have our protected liberties, and they shall remain so protected under the magnifying glass of equal rights.

There are two main subsets of liberty: natural liberty and civil liberty. Attempting to distinguish between the two, 19th century theologian Robert Dabney said:

What then is man’s natural liberty? I answer: it is freedom to do whatever he has a moral right to do. Freedom to do whatever a man is physically able to do, is not a liberty of nature or law, but a natural license, a natural iniquity. What is civil liberty then? I reply still, it is (under a just government) freedom to do whatever a man has a moral right to do.

I have no moral right to kill somebody else, therefore such an action does not fall under the umbrella of liberty. However, I do have the moral right to take a soda on an airplane, call a friend without somebody eavesdropping, or speak out against my government. Therefore, such liberties should be protected and untouched by any piece of legislation or military force. The only problem with such a classification is the question as to who defines what is morally permissible. In our day of moral relativism, opinions may abound regarding the morality of any given issue. The gospel defines an absolute standard, but such a standard cannot be imposed on the masses involuntarily. Ultimately, it is the subjects of government who should decide:

Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it
Woodrow Wilson

As President Benson explains in the previously linked article, the citizens instill in the government certain powers and abilities, not the other way around. The government doesn’t give us liberty—it merely serves (in an ideal situation) to protect them. The scriptures agree:

We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life. (D&C 134:2)

Such a free exercise of conscience allows us to speak out against our government without fear of retribution or threat of being labled unpatriotic and anti-American. As George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Importance of liberty

Liberty is to the collective body, what health is to every individual body. Without health no pleasure can be tasted by man; without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.
—Thomas Jefferson

When liberty is secured, nations flourish. When liberty is restricted, nations flounder. One need only compare the lifestyles of an average person in both a capitalist and communist society. The stark contrast in job satisfaction, accumulated wealth, social status, and overall hapiness speaks volumes to the necessity of liberty in the life of each human being. Liberty directly influences the prosperity of the individual, and at large, the nation.

As President Reagan said in his “Tear Down This Wall” speech, we should all understand

the practical importance of liberty–that just as truth can flourish only when the journalist is given freedom of speech, so prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom.

Economic freedom, however, is only one part of true liberty. Liberty also involves political independence and free agency. These three, when harmoniously guaranteed to man, will allow individuals and their collective society to flourish and propser.

Future of liberty

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.
—Thomas Jefferson

One need only review the USA PATRIOT Act and the hot-off-the-press Military Commissions Act to understand where our liberties are going.

Elder Didier of the 70 has instructed us that “our most important need as defenders of liberty is to know what true liberty is, to teach it, to profess it, and to testify of it.” True liberty was defined by President Marion G. Romney:

Freedom thus obtained—that is, by obedience to the law of Christ—is freedom of the soul, the highest form of liberty. And the most glorious thing about it is that it is within the reach of every one of us, regardless of what people about us, or even nations, do. All we have to do is learn the law of Christ and obey it. To learn it and obey it is the primary purpose of every soul’s mortal life.

We therefore see that it is our duty to learn about true liberty by learning and obeying the law of Christ. Once learned, it “becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor” as Elder Didier suggests.

It is my sincere prayer that we can all “stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” and heed the following words of President J. Reuben Clark:

“We face a war to the death, a gigantic worldwide struggle. We must face it, enter it, take part in it. In fact, we are all taking part in the struggle, whether we will or not. Upon its final issue, liberty lives or dies.”
—President J. Reuben Clark, The Improvement Era, May 1944

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