Thursday, March 8, 2007

Progressive Liberty (#2) - Charles Fried

To get a sense of the relationship of individual liberty and government within the concept of progressive liberty, I recommend a book I've just picked up, Charles Fried’s 2007 book, “Modern Liberty: And the Limits of Government.” Fried explains:

“It is generally thought that we must have the state [i.e., government] for enforcement, legislation, and adjudication, and ... [therefore rights must be merely] creatures of the state. But it is entirely plausible to argue that we have the rights whether or not they are enforced, embodied in codes, or officially adjudicated…. Our rights in their broad outlines are the entailments of what we are: free and reasoning persons, capable of a conception of what is good and right…." Liberty, in other words, is pre-political, and nothing any government attempts to do may legitimately deny it to the people to whom it rightfully belongs. It was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence to claim these pre-political rights from the Crown, and of the Constitution to guarantee these rights.

Fried continues, "It is because our rights flow from who and what we are that we may form, re-form, or accept government in order to make our rights more certain and secure. So those who say that our rights depend on or are the creatures of states have it the wrong way around."

In this regard, Fried echoes the following statement from the Declaration of Independence: "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing to all the unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Finally, regarding the nature of government, Fried says, “The state is nothing but a web of relations between individuals as individuals, whose choices are coordinated according to what they understand is possible for them and what they may or may not do.... [That is,] if states are the greatest violators of liberty, they are also its greatest enablers and protectors. In any advanced condition of civilization there can be no effective degree of liberty without the state, because there can be no effective degree of liberty without law.”

On this last point, James Madison put it well in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Properly constituted with a limited mandate, as in the U.S. Constitution, government can be a force of progressive good while protecting and enforcing individual liberty.

By: Michael Anthony Lawrence