The Richmond Register

July 5, 2013

Freedom: An overused word with enduring principles

By Jim Waters
Special to the Register

RICHMOND — It wasn’t the famous Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln’s most memorable line, but this fable from an 1864 presidential speech Lincoln gave in Baltimore serves as a rebuke for those who loosely employ terms like “liberty” and “freedom.”

“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 as the destroyer of liberty… Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

Today, the once-powerful words “freedom” and “liberty” get exploited with cheap impunity as a tool of ideological politics and commercial advertising.

And while there is a difference in the terms (freedom usually means to be free from something while liberty entails being free to do something), both generally referring to the state of being free. And both are thrown around like rag dolls.

Detroit manufactures trucks with the promise that upon purchasing the vehicle, drivers will experience the rush of “freedom.” Hollywood produces movies where stock characters use their good looks to battle enemies who would encroach upon our “liberty.”

Processed food items sold from Paducah to Pikeville counties boasts of ingredients “free” of fat or preservatives, and myriad city halls across Kentucky force restaurants to be “free” from cigarette smoke.

Certain politicians and bureaucrats want you to believe that wiretaps, drone strikes and a rapidly expanding welfare-warfare state are now necessary for a “free” society to exist. 

Some misguided souls even claim that true “freedom” from government overreach requires one to live a cave dweller–like existence with no human cooperation, and where re-entering civil society requires forfeiting all liberties.

However, true freedom has nothing to do with fat-free yogurt or smoke-free taverns. Nor does it doom us to a caveman’s existence, barred from human interaction.

Rather, freedom is what allows Kentuckians to cooperate and trade with whomever they wish. It allows us to:

• Be customers of establishments of our own choosing, without requiring permission from competitors

• Work for an employer without being forced to cater to unions or guilds

• Help our neighbors and voluntarily give to whatever churches and charities we deem most worthy, not those pre-approved by government and special interests

• Enjoy the kind of economic institutions resulting in an explosion of the middle class and never-before-seen growth in standards of living.

True liberty has made Kentucky part of one of the greatest nations in history.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

“Rightful liberty,” then, is the absence of aggression against one’s person and property. To claim we have rights or liberties beyond this simple one is to enter a world of logical contradiction.

After all, how can I possibly have the right to food or an education without first forcing another to work the fields and prepare a meal, or arresting a teacher and demanding a history lesson? These benefits must instead be secured by mutual cooperation and trade in the marketplace.

True freedom is shared by all people, derived from the principle that all men are created equal, a concept often misunderstood as the guarantee of a prosperous life, but instead is simply – and beautifully – the assurance of full opportunity to seize one.

It’s this sort of freedom that protects our person and property from the greedy fist of both the thug in the alley and the professional politician in the halls of government.

Enough of the overhyped catchphrases and political rhetoric so often associated with “freedom” and “liberty!”

Let us instead focus on the enduring ideas behind those words – principles that have made Kentucky, and our country, so extraordinary.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.