Whenever the topic of personal liberty is debated, it is unfortunate that the liberty to do evil is often what is at stake. On one side there are libertines, or those who are at best morally indifferent, arguing that morally offensive behavior ought to be legal and even socially acceptable; on the other side there are those who advocate that what is immoral ought to be illegal as well. There are reactionaries and progressives both who turn their noses up at the idea of personal freedom as nothing but a recipe for chaos and an invitation to anti-social, selfish, and even cruel behavior à la Lord of The Flies.
I have had the good fortune to see this tendency challenged by my generation, the “Ron Paul” generation if you will. For the first time in a long while, the idea that we ought to maximize personal liberty so that we may freely choose to do what is good is beginning to catch on. The contraception mandate has awakened many Catholics from a statist slumber, a dream-like state in which government as such was seen as the guarantor of the public peace and common good. But there is much more that needs to be seen, many more areas of life besides religious practice or our weekly paychecks that governments across the nation are intruding upon in the name of safety and order.
Producers and sellers of raw milk are being targeted for raids across the country; even the Amish aren’t safe. You won’t fare better if you attempt raise pigs or chickens in a manner that displeases local or state governments and the agribusiness interests who successfully lobby them. It was only after a wave of protest and indignation that the Obama administration rescinded a law that would have barred children from working on their family farms.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Speaking of children, if you believe that yours would be better off without vaccinations, you may see a S.W.A.T. team at your front door when you refuse to relinquish your child to Child Protective Services. And if you send your child to a public school, make sure you instruct her not to burp in class or write on her desk, or even blink or breathe in a way that could be interpreted as “disruptive“, lest they be arrested, put in handcuffs, and hauled off to jail.
These are only a few examples of the sort of things that were once part of normal, everyday life for millions of Americans becoming criminalized or at least attracting police involvement in an unprecedented way. One could also look to the sexually-invasive security methods of the Transportation Security Administration, which may spread well beyond airports and into shopping malls, sporting events, and other places that Americans casually frequent on a daily basis. It is also a guarantee that they will be accompanied by mechanical drones in the near future, the same sort of technology used to keep track of people assumed to be violent threats to national security.
What is at stake in these examples, and there are thousands more like them, is not only liberty but human dignity. It is a violation of human dignity to force a 95-year old woman to remove her adult diaper, or to expect a reasonable person to feel as if a serious security risk is being addressed by such measures. It is a crime against decency to terrorize a four-year old girl as a potential terrorist suspect for hugging her grandmother, or this child, or that child, for whatever reasons. In these cases we are to believe that we must be degraded and humiliated in order to “keep us safe” from the terrorists.
There are more than a few Americans who agree with this sentiment. And yet one hopes that we have reached a point at which we say to ourselves: what exactly are we keeping safe? What happened to the nation that was inspired by Patrick Henry, who cried “give me liberty, or give me death”? If the majority of Americans eventually decide that life is worth living without liberty, they will soon find themselves living without dignity either, for the two are inseparably linked.
This is confirmed in the teaching of the Church. Pope Leo XIII begins his encyclical Libertas by stating as much: “Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity – that he is “in the hand of his counsel”(1) and has power over his actions.” To be endowed with liberty is to be endowed with dignity, not to mention moral responsibility and accountability; to be denied liberty in an arbitrary fashion is to be denied dignity as well. Thus it will not do to speak of human dignity while forgetting human liberty.
The battle for liberty and dignity is inseparably tied up with philosophy and theology as well. This becomes clear if one watches some of the “God debates” between Christian and atheist philosophers, such as this one between atheist Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. As Craig repeatedly points out (to no satisfactory response), in Harris’ view of the world, human beings lack free will, and therefore lack moral accountability as well. To broaden the point a bit, mere animals that lack freedom can have neither morality nor dignity. To assign them dignity is arbitrary and subjective; on such a foundation, human dignity cannot stand.
We can only insist upon our dignity if our liberty is something more than a chimerical illusion, if it is really a property, a defining characteristic, of the human being. Not only that, but it must be understood that liberty is not the product of a random, meaningless series of historical events, but instilled in man for a specific reason, by a specific being. There may well be atheists who strenuously object to the sort of gross violations of human dignity and liberty I provided examples of above, and this is on balance a good thing. What will ultimately become of such objections, however, if they lack a solid foundation in reality? The approach of the secular Leviathan is at least consistent with the view that man is nothing more than an atypically complicated animal with no special meaning or purpose for existing. Pleasure and pain, as Bentham wrote, are his sovereign masters; the preservation of his life, as Hobbes insisted, is his sole concern. If he lives without liberty or dignity, it is enough that he merely lives.
Maximizing our liberty and dignity does mean accepting some restraints. But the Church has not proclaimed dogmas and morals so that man can be weighed down with unnecessary burdens. On the contrary, it is only through knowledge and acceptance of the truths revealed to us by our Creator – the very being responsible for the creation of our inherently free souls – that we can exercise our liberty in accordance with our nature and with an eye to our ultimate and eternal destiny. To cherish liberty is always to invite some risk. We may choose sin and damnation; we may choose to harm ourselves and others and disrupt the common good.
But the idea that evil can be eliminated in this life by the rational planning of man is far more dangerous. Scientific progress can create the impression that such a fantasy may one day become a reality; the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century were infatuated with the possibilities of total social management. And yet, as F.A. Hayek argued in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, such dreams are based upon a “pretense of knowledge”, an unfounded assumption that the methods that have produced such marvelous results in the hard physical sciences can be applied or mimicked in the social science. But one would only assume that such methods could be easily transferred if they already tended to view human beings as atoms or cells, without free wills, pushed about entirely by external forces.
When I look at our intrusive state – put whatever adjective in front of it you will, be it “police”, “nanny”, “managerial”, etc. – I can’t help but see the pretense of knowledge in full swing. There is no need to make rash comparisons to Hitler or Stalin, because our own intrusive state is not the product of one man’s will imposed upon a nation; it is a product of attitudes, assumptions, and policies that have gradually been adopted by the social and political elites of the country. Who can resist them? Only those who have the full and complete understanding of who and what man is; and this is found only in the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.