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The Basics of Liberty

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 I often find myself pondering the meaning of Liberty. I accept that I am not an expert on this topic. That being stated I feel that there is a void of understanding in society at large concerning liberty. At the very least writing this will deepen my understanding on this topic.

I have recently read portions of John Stuart Mills “On Liberty.” Other Notable influences on my thoughts on this topic include 1: Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where much emphasis is placed on personal agency or the ability to Act and not be acted upon. 2: I briefly studied Political Ideology While majoring in Political Science. 3: I am a citizen of the United States of America, A society based on aspects of Liberalism.

"Give me liberty or give me death."


Patrick Henry famously uttered these words. “Give me liberty or give me death.” Consider the implication. Is this a common sentiment? Without Liberty would I want to cease to exist? What is within liberty that without it life is not worth living? Who has the power to give liberty?

Defining Liberty

There is an entire ideology that is based on the concept of liberty. A simple definition does not do it justice, however to foster understanding concerning liberty here is an attempt to define the word.  Often times, it seems to me, when people define Liberty they do so negatively. As in Liberty is the freedom from something. For example: liberty is the freedom from oppressive governments, or the freedom from taxation, the freedom from sin, etc. Often overlooked are positive definitions. That liberty is the freedom to, as in liberty is the freedom to establish a government, the freedom to religion, to speech etc. To understand liberty, both positive and negative definitions are necessary. Liberty is the freedom to as well as the freedom from.

So far as I understand there are three things that are required for a society to have liberty. First: members of a society must be generally free to choose. In order for this to be the case there must then exist choices. Second: members of a society must be able to become educated or knowledgeable about the choices they are given, so as to be able to choose according to their interests and desires. Third a society must have laws that both augment and protect liberty. A society having freedom to choose, knowledge about their choices, and law, will be able to attain and maintain liberty

Freedom to Choose


Freedom to choose is the basis of liberty. These freedoms should apply to every aspect of choice. For example, we must be free to choose financially. We should be free to choose how we earn money and what to spend money on. We should be free to choose what and how to worship. We should have a freedom of speech. We should be free to do what we would like with our time. You do not have to look any further than the United States Bill of Rights to see that the United States is a “liberal” society.

This freedom of choice does have limits. You are free to choose options that do not take away someone else’s ability to choose. For example, someone may upset you and you have several ways you could choose to respond. However if you choose to kill someone you eliminate their ability to choose, becoming an oppressor of their liberty. The difficulty is knowing where to draw the line, when do my choices start effecting yours? A common saying attributed to Zechariah Chafee goes “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” To this reasoning society must ask; What about pollution? What about smoking? What about drinking? What about driving? As it turns out it is very difficult to make a decision that does not affect anyone else. This power to choose is essential to liberty, however when abused or unchecked undoes liberty.



What good is having the choice between eating a salad verse eating a steak if I don't know what either taste like? This is true about any choice, trivial or important. If we do not understand our options how can we make a good choice. This is especially true because of the complexity with which most choices require. This is a main reason I believe firmly that public education should be available. As I become more educated I become more free. George Washignton Carver once said "education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom." Certainly in some places in the world where women, for example, are kept without education, it is an attempt at keeping them oppressed. Intentionally keeping people ignorant has no place ina liberal society. As Socrates says "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." Being able to make choices rationally and understand options is a fundamental part of liberty.



In regards to liberty L. Tom Perry  once said “obedience to law is liberty.” Likewise John Locke has said “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” Often times we hear children argue that laws take away freedom. While there do exist, such laws, in a liberal society, laws function to enlarge our liberty. For example “imagine seeing a sign on the seashore that reads: “Danger—whirlpool. No swimming allowed here.” We might think that is a restriction. But is it? We still have many choices. We are free to swim somewhere else. We are free to walk along the beach and pick up seashells. We are free to watch the sunset. We are free to go home. We are also free to ignore the sign and swim in the dangerous place. But once the whirlpool has us in its grasp and we are pulled under, we have very few choices. We can try to escape, or we can call for help, but we may drown.” (1). . Without law, there is no liberty.

Aristotle once said that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What individuals can accomplish by themselves is nothing compared to what can be accomplished as a society. The amount of Liberty a society can create is much greater than that which a solitary person could create. The example of taxes can be briefly used to illustrate what can happen if we sacrifice some personal liberty to enlarge liberty as a society. When we sacrifice some personal liberty, in this case financial liberty, we are potentially more free as a society. Those tax dollars create roads, provide security, fund education etc. Without which we would be less free. However a society in its efforts to create more collective liberty can in fact destroy personal liberty.  The question becomes, where is the line? Which Freedoms do we enlarge or diminish as a society though law?


The concept of Liberty can be very deep. I hope that my thoughts on this have helped clarify the basics as well as provoke questions about our society. Liberty is the ability to choose for yourself, to be able to make an educated choice and act on your desires. Laws serve to enlarge and protect that liberty. Without choice, knowledge, and law a society cannot have liberty.

On Liberty
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Aug 18, 2014 6:36pm
Nice summary of the topic with some great references for further reading. I had generally taken liberty to mean "freedom to do something", but I'm aware it's a bit more complicated (as all human ideas are). Thanks.
Aug 19, 2014 8:08am
Thank you! It is amazing to me how complex ideas really are, and yet, we try to encapsulate ideas into one or two simple words.
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  1. "Freedom to Choose." www.lds.org. 4/08/2014 <Web >

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