Overturning Locke: Liberty

Last time, we looked at the first of Locke’s three desiderata of consensual government: The preservation of the people’s lives.  Next is liberty.

This is the hardest part to get across to students, because we Americans still love the word “liberty” — and, crucially, we think we know what it means.  But we don’t.  Try it sometime.  Ask your friends and acquaintances what “liberty” means.  I asked thousands of college kids in my career, and the answer always came back the same: “Doing your own thing,” variously elaborated.

That’s not liberty, it’s license, but as I pointed out in that piece, even to “educated” people, “license” is a laminated plastic thing you use to buy beer.  Even if they did know the definition, it’d be meaningless to them.  A century of Progressive “education” has produced a binary mental world in which, somehow, both terms are empty.  If you don’t believe me about the “liberty” thing, try that — ask your Left-leaning friends and neighbors to describe this “fascism” that they’re against.  Let’s say we give Donald Trump unlimited dictatorial power.  What’s the first thing he’d do with it?  The second?  The third?

They don’t know.  They have never known.  The main reason they’re so shrill in shrieking “Orange Man Bad!” is that the fervor of their hatred is the only thing keeping them from that realization.  See what I mean?  It’s a testimony to the genius of our indoctrinators that “wow just wow I can’t even” is accepted as a cogent, even devastating, political argument, but here we are.  They are against “fascism,” but don’t know what it is, even in the gassy incoherent sense they themselves use it.  But as they’re equally incapable of defining what “social justice” could possibly be, the only thing they’re for, when it comes right down to it, is….

….the world exactly as it is right now.

That sounds wrong, I know.  But see “liberty,” above.  Ask any Leftist: What specific thing do you want to do that you can’t do, right here and now?

Hold their feet to the fire — “yes yes, it’s just awful that gentle giants like Michael Brown can’t rob a liquor store and grab a cop’s gun without getting  shot, but what is it that you, personally, can’t do in the fascist hell of Donald Trump’s America, that you’ll be able to do in the socialist paradise of Elizabeth Warren’s?”  They’ll no doubt try some dodge like “Wake up in a world where we aren’t doomed to extinction by climate change,” but the rebuttal to that should be obvious: As we have it from zillions of unimpeachable authorities, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg on down, that at this point we’re screwed no matter what we do, the answer, once again, is “Nothing.”

Ditto “abortions for trans-women” and the whole dog’s breakfast of liberal fantasias.  You may not be able to afford such things, but “inability to pay for X” doesn’t mean you don’t have the freedom to do X.  You’d like an addadicktomy; I’d like a new high-end BMW; nobody’s going to say I’m not free to buy one if I hit the lottery, right?  So once again, the answer is: Nothing.  There’s nothing you can’t do right now, that you’ll be able to do once Orange Man Bad is in jail.  Unless you’re really going to put it all on the line for incest or cannibalism or something, our society right now — the pluperfect fascist hell that is Orange Man’s America — is a land of almost perfect license…

…. which, see above, y’all equate with liberty.  QED.

Locke, of course, meant something much different.  For Locke, “liberty” meant something like “freedom of conscience.”  Locke’s world, you’ll recall, was that of the English Civil War and its aftermath.  Locke was born just as the crisis was heating up.  His father was an officer in Parliament’s army; he was no doubt deeply affected by the war.  In a very real sense, the war was about nothing but “freedom of conscience,” which the victors cherished to such a degree that they executed their king to preserve it.  And this in a realm that was unbelievably “free” by our standards — 17th century infrastructure being what it was, a man could easily pass his whole life without ever laying eyes on an agent of the State.  They had very little license, did Locke’s countrymen — again, the last witch was burnt just 20 years before he was born — but they’d hazard their lives for freedom.

If Our Thing ever wants to get out of the blog comments ghetto, we’ve got to find a way to restore a notion of liberty that means, if not “freedom of conscience,” then at least “freedom to take the consequences of our actions.”  We Current Year Americans actually cherish our license, I say, because we’re free from the repercussions.  You were quite free to be an unwed mother in Locke’s day, too, but very few did it, because a society that cherished actual freedom wouldn’t enable the State to subsidize such behavior.  The State exists to promote liberty, not license.

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3 thoughts on “Overturning Locke: Liberty

  1. Pickle Rick

    In the 18th century, the word was often used in the plural – “liberties” (much as the pre-1865 country was referred to as “these”, not “the” United States. There were plural liberties based on your personal status. Free white men capable of bearing arms had the most liberty, because they also had the most obligations to defend it.

    1. Severian Post author

      Bingo. This is what I’m trying to get at with “freedom to take the consequences” — until very, very recently, everyone who thought about the issue took for granted that each man has a “natural right” only to the amount of liberty he has proven himself capable of handling. We need to return to this, because as Sallust said somewhere, most men don’t want their freedom; they only want to be ruled by a just master.

      1. Pickle Rick

        Well, we used to be very comfortable with the idea that some people (women, children, Negroes, lunatics, etc. need a just master)

        Good luck on us returning to that paradigm for society, though.

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