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Friday, March 11, 2005

What is Liberty?

If a man exists totally on his own, way out on the prairie, then he is in a natural state of freedom. This is the image that the Conservative movement was built upon – that a man is naturally free and all imposition upon him by society is inherently evil. However, let’s be clear about what that naturally free man would be like.
Everything he wears, he would have to have made himself. This means that he is likely clad in ill-fitted skins, stitched together with sinew. He can’t afford to build a house, because he is dependent on migratory herds for meat. Perhaps he fishes in the larger rivers that are his constant boundaries because he cannot exist for long without water. He might be able to use an animal bladder for a sort of canteen so he can make the long treks between rivers more comfortably.
When it rains, he gets wet. When it snows, he shivers. He is little better than an animal, taking what he can for his survival and wasting a good deal of his bounty because he simply cannot carry it all. He is free – if freedom means being enslaved to your physical needs every day of your life.
Compare this to the man who lives in a village. He bakes bread, and it tastes a lot better than anyone else’s in the village. Pretty soon, all he does is bake bread. However, it’s a primitive economy built on barter, so he ends up with countless things he doesn’t need just to make sure that he has what he does need. When he talks to his friends, he finds that this is just the way of the world apparently because everyone lives like this.
The village thrives and eventually they elect a mayor to help keep order and make a few decisions about what to do about the neighboring village. In order for the mayor to live, everyone agrees to give him a percentage of what they make. The baker now takes the mayor a loaf of bread every day, whether he needs it or not, because that’s the amount he is supposed to pay. Since the mayor doesn’t like bread, it piles up in his house.
One day he is looking at the stacks of bread, and he decides that he would rather have less bread and more chairs. However, the carpenter already has more than enough bread. The mayor thinks and thinks and since he is a wise man, he eventually invents money. Now, rather than wasting time coming to an agreement about how many loaves of bread are worth one chair, everyone can simply peg their product to the currency. Commerce thrives and the people are happy.
Now the mayor tells the baker, “I hate your bread. Give me three coins every day (the cost of a loaf of bread) and we’ll call it even.” The baker agrees and now has an extra loaf of bread to sell, which means that he pays his tax for free. Since it doesn’t take the baker his entire existence to make enough bread to buy his necessities, he suddenly finds that he has “free time”. Since no one tells him what he has to do with this time, he has truly invented a time when he is totally free of all demands.
All demands except for those agreed upon by the villagers. Despite his ability to start fires, the baker cannot go around setting fires in other people’s homes. His freedom is limited, but he is free to find places to start fires that will not get him into trouble. He may even use his riches to buy a barrel and light fire after fire after fire because he has the money, the time, and the desire to do it without harming anyone else.
The great mistake of Conservative philosophy is that they see freedom as being enshrined in the individual. Freedom is actually a social construct and the more money a man can accumulate the more true freedom he has. This is a simple, irrefutable fact. Because freedom is derived from society, anyone partaking of it must agree to the social contract – which is basically the rule of law.
It is the liberal concept of equality before the law that allows society to function. It is not absolute equality, but the fact that no man (or woman) is allowed to accumulate enough power and/or money so as to be beyond the reach of the law. Putting one man beyond the law – exempting one man from justice – puts that man as the master of society with everyone else functioning as his slave. Society is nothing more but a collection of mindless minions dancing on strings to maintain his privilege.
No one should be above the law. Political friends should not be a ticket to a free ride. Accumulated wealth or popularity should not be a free ride. The law should apply to everyone. Anything else is not a function of a just system.

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