Why liberty is so important to us

The response to last week’s column asking our politicians to dare to lead and dare to lose was substantial, and mostly positive. The column closed by commenting that there is nothing wrong with our country that cannot be resolved by us once again becoming Americans!

But what does that really mean? The column last week also said that we became great by our own grit, and by respecting and enforcing private property rights and free trade, and that’s certainly true. But fundamentally none of these things would have been effective without liberty. Therefore, when it comes down to it, the strength of America is our liberties.

So that necessarily brings up the question, what is liberty, and why is it so important? The formal definition generally is that liberty gives a person freedom from despotic or arbitrary rule or control. More specifically, liberty gives a person freedom from undue interference by government or anyone else. To look at the impacts of liberty in more depth, I recommend that you read the recently-released book “Why Liberty: Personal Journeys Toward Peace and Freedom,” (Cobden Press, Apple Valley, 2010). This book, edited by Marc Guttman, provides the opportunity for 54 different authors to tell their stories about how liberty works where virtually nothing else does.

The first story was written by an African American who discusses a time when he raised his voice in anger while arguing that since blacks had been taken advantage of for so many years, somebody had to pay! Whereupon an older black man, who eventually became his mentor, simply smiled and said: “I don’t want nobody’s help. Just get out of my way and I can do it myself.”

The author never forgot those words, and by following them, he became successful. Then as he grew older, those words became his mantra, because he realized the truth that only he could effectively control his own destiny. And that is what liberty allowed him to do.

Over the years we have taken these stories for granted, and that has led us astray. The problem is that any approach without liberty is inherently self-defeating. For example, for several important reasons, government programs are simply not the same thing as parents or caring private charities. First, they have no flexibility and really cannot discriminate between people who really need a helping hand, and those who are simply lazy or gaming the system. Furthermore, the people administering the government programs really do not have a viable incentive even to make these important distinctions. Why? Because no one really owns the money that the government programs give out; they simply control it.

Private charities are run differently than government programs because they are evaluated by results, not by intentions. Thus in virtually all cases, private charities, which are run by people with liberty, results-oriented flexibility and accountability, yield much better results. One huge example of this is the Orange County Rescue Mission, which is a private organization previously discussed in this column. No government program I am aware of has ever come close.

Another difference between government and private programs is that people who are receiving assistance from private charities are constantly mindful that the generosity comes from somewhere, and it is not their right to receive it. Thus there are much greater feelings of “please” and “thank you” with a private charity, instead of with government programs, where people continually and self-righteously shout about their “rights.”

In a similar fashion, the liberty of free trade allows deals to be struck that benefit both sides. This, in turn, breeds a sense of interdependence and trust, and allows those parties to bypass inefficient, protective and often stodgy government bureaucracies. John Stossel illustrated this fact quite well in one of the chapters when he said: “Once established players capture a licensing board, they tend to use their power to stifle competition and keep newcomers out. Every day businesses are killed by ‘consumer protection’ regulators.”

Stossel went on to cite examples of two elderly ladies who liked to knit sweaters and mittens in the comfort of their homes, and then sell their products in local markets, and of another lady trying to stay off welfare by baking muffins at home and selling them door to door to her neighbors. But the authorities closed all three of them down. Why? No businesses were allowed in the home, because they might “disrupt the neighborhood.” Of course, this action worked to the detriment of those ladies, as well as their customers, but protected the established businesses, who, in turn, provided support for the government regulators.

In case after case it is shown that the one thing big government is really good at is increasing the intrusion and size of government. That reality also carries over into our political world, as shown by the fact that neither of the two main political parties really ever campaign under the slogan: “If you want something, work and save for it until you can buy it for yourself.” To the contrary, all we seem to hear is: “If you want something, vote for us and we’ll make others work and save and pay for it.”

But the one-word slogan for the Libertarian Party is “liberty.” Unlike the two main political parties, what Libertarians promote is not “warm and fuzzy,” or based upon the philosophy of what I call “poor baby,” but it works. And America will only regain its greatness when we finally go back to it!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)