James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jackboots and Chains

Some words on the surface mean the same thing, and on the deepest level still mean the same thing, but on a mid-deep level there are nuances in usage. People can see the distinction, yet perhaps it's hard to define.

Take morality and ethics. I heard of a philosophy professor, in his Ethics 101 class, ask his students what was the difference between morality and ethics. The students talked for an hour, and at the end, the professor said, "There is no difference!" Yet I think people grasp that "ethics" is concerned about people doing the right thing in specific jobs and public positions, whereas "morality" is concerned with people doing the right thing as individuals. If a boss tells an employee that she will get a promotion if she sleeps with him, the boss is unethical. If a man cheats on his spouse, that's immoral. If the boss and the man are the same, he's being unethical and immoral. Even so, both words relate to doing the right thing, and are often interchangeable.

"Liberty" and "freedom" seem to function similarly. The words are often interchangeable - more than even morality and ethics. But the Bush Administration's behavior over the past seven years has prompted many pundits and activists to complain about their "liberties" being attacked, even though they hadn't previously been all that interested in "freedom." Some have been progressives opposed to economic freedom, whereas others have been conservatives who don't believe individuals should be free to do immoral things.

What, then, do they mean about their liberties being under attack from the Patriot Act, Real ID, Military Commissions Act, Protect America Act, signing statements, etc? Taking a step back, why do some of them (on the Right, generally) even believe there was more liberty during the late Middle Ages than today?

It seems to me that people tend to use "liberty" when they talk about excessive government power, and "freedom" when they talk about too many laws. In any case, from now on I'll try to make the distinction when I use these words.

Let's say in one country people are generally free to do what they want, with trade and personal relations largely unregulated. At the same time, the government can spy on you, and the police can detain you without cause, and more and more power is taken away from local authorities and the national legislature, and into the hands of the Executive. There are going to be people who actually want more laws and regulations, but will oppose this transition into a police state. The country loses its "liberty" when it gives way to arbitrary power, even though, most of the time, people are "free" to do what they want. "Liberty" means a government bound by the rule of law, freed from the jackboots.

In another country, there are laws for everything, and everything, in turn, is taxed. Over time, there are more and more laws and taxes, so that individual initiative itself seems to be a crime. Each additional law is like another chain binding the people - under the law, they're not actually free to do very much. At the same time, the police require arrest warrants to detain people, they have a right to a jury trial, and a proper separation of powers is maintained between the local and the national, and between the legislative and executive. This is a country that is losing its (economic, social, personal) freedom even while civil liberties remain protected.

That would be the difference between liberty and freedom

What tends to happen, of course, is that countries that lose their freedom through legislation (such as, the UK and USA) will eventually lose their liberty as well. That's because the jackboots have an easier time kicking you if you're already chained. The question is, can the trend be reversed? Can a country's people regain their liberty (from arbitrary power) if they regain their freedom (of action) first? Or regain their freedom if they regain their liberty first?

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