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Freedom and liberty: means, not ends

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There is a certain allure to libertarianism within the conservative community. The stress on individual freedom definitely has its merits. Human freedom, personal liberty; these are terms which are deeply embedded in the American psyche, perhaps more so than anywhere else on Earth these days. So why aren't American conservatives more overtly libertarian seeing as so much of their rhetoric employs libertarian phraseology? The irony involved in answering that question lies in the very same ideal of freedom which is at the heart of the libertarian movement.

Libertarians preach freedom. But the trouble is that, at the end of the day, freedom is a means, and not an end.

When someone says that they are for freedom, can we ever really drop the subject at that? Might anyone actually say: Oh, he's for freedom, so we know where he stands. If we do, we are pretty close to talking nonsense, don't you think? In order to really understand what our libertarian friend supports, isn't it necessary to ask: Freedom from whom? Freedom from what? Freedom to do what, and why? How might this freedom be attained and secured? Indeed, why should we think we are entitled to any sort of freedom and liberty at all? When we ask these questions, there appears one important point which sort of encompasses them all (and a great many others), a critical point which few people rarely consider.

Once we begin asking these questions, we aren't really talking about freedom, are we? Aren't we actually saying that we can only support freedom in the context of the question involved?

We're in fact talking about what might be called doing justice; it might be called The Golden Rule; it might be called ethics and morals or plain old right and wrong. But whatever we call it, we cannot call it freedom. Freedom of action, so far as it goes, must be seen as valuable only insofar as the action in question is right and just, or encourages rightness and justice. For it goes without saying (even though we are about to say it; don't you hate that?) that freedom as freedom simply means doing what you want because you want to do it. Freedom as freedom does not necessitate reflection upon whether we ought or ought not do something. It means nothing at all, on its own terms, except that Joe Smith wants such and such done and has the ability to do it, so he does it.

But when asking whether are free to do something, or whether society should sanction or prohibit a given action, well, isn't it implied that we are only truly free to do it if it's just? Isn't it in fact putting restrictions and qualifiers on our freedom? In this light, when our libertarian friends say they're for freedom, well, it's hard to take them at their word, for in the very act of making that assertion they themselves must mean they support something beyond mere freedom. When they protest torture, are they really protesting the lack of freedom of the persons tortured or the fact that torture is wrong, even if part part of the affront is denying him his freedom? When they clamor for homosexual rights, they must mean that such rights are worth support in themselves, or what's their point? Indeed, when they protest oppressive taxes and regulations, something which we right wingers can agree with them about, they must be claiming that the government is wrong to aggressively tax and regulate citizens and businesses and not, ahem, that the government is free to do so. For if freedom is our measuring stick, who's to say that the government isn't free to overtax and overspend?

We don't see how anyone can be for 'freedom' any more than they can be for 'education' or 'civil liberties' or 'peace'. But we can see how people can want to support what is right and disdain the wrong; we can understand why they would want to encourage good and discourage evil. We understand that doing good and avoiding bad is precisely what the individual and the broader society needs. That, perhaps, is the key difference between libertarians and conservatives. And it's all the difference in the world.

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