In previous postings, I discussed how our democracy and our values are based on a three-legged stool: liberty, equality, and rule of law. I am aware that sometimes I said “freedom” instead of “liberty.” I should have been more careful. There is, actually, a big difference between freedom and liberty, and we need to be responsible to take whatever action is needed to support both.
Liberty is the right and ability to do something as provided by the culture or society we are in. Loss of liberty is the society prohibiting, preventing, or standing in the way of something we would like to do. That prohibition may be through laws, but it can also be through mores, taboos, tradition, any way a society tries to constrict or restrict behavior. In some ways, liberty needs to be curtailed or restricted in order for large groups of people to live together in close proximity. Examples of this are prohibitions against murder, taking of another’s property, violence against another person or his property, and so on. In other ways, liberty may be curtailed unnecessarily and even harmfully. Examples include limiting what a person can believe, what a person can say, who a person can associate with, or even what questions a person can ask.
Freedom is the right and ability to do something one confers upon oneself. For example, I have the freedom to say, “I think I would like to write something today. I think I will write about golf.” Or, “I am really happy today. I think I would like to dance.” And then I could do that. My self will have given approval. However, my ability to golf depends on the skill I have developed in myself to golf (which is none at all). A person is normally not able (thus not free) to golf a par round if that person has not been practicing. I may really want to dance. But my body is not able (thus not free) to perform the moves I want to perform, unless that I have been putting in the time doing barre and floor exercise. Or I may want to write, but unless I have studied vocabulary and syntax and sentence structure I may not be able to express clearly what I envision. The key to freedom is discipline. It is only through discipline that we are able to do things effectively.
Liberty has a corollary to discipline: rule of law. Rule of law is society’s discipline. This is what makes rule of law the second leg in the stool. If there is no rule of law, there is no way to enforce the liberty, or the restriction of liberty that the society has agreed on. We see this in our society right now. While we give lip service to allowing people the liberty to walk down the street without fear of being harassed, too often we see people are indeed harassed, and that harassment is based on something that our own laws prohibit. A person of color should feel free to walk down the street without fear of being harassed, based on our laws – our granting of liberty by consent of our society. However, we see that those who are supposed to enforce our liberty as well as enforce the curtailments of liberty that we have agreed to are the very ones violating that liberty in predictable ways. This leads us to the third leg in the stool: equality. Those tasked with enforcing rule of law do not enforce it uniformly and equally. The stool becomes unsteady and likely to topple. If we do not repair the stool, our democracy will fall.