Liberty and its Self-Imposed Limitations

“The rule-of-law argument assumes a stable body of rules – whatever their content – that at least tell individuals what to expect and how to plan their lives against the background of this body of rules.” – Charles Fried, Modern Liberty

When we think of liberty, we become immersed in utopian ideologies of what that vision would look like. In our mind’s eye, we see people smiling, people who are prosperous, people who all have “good work”, and people with loving families.

We see clean streets, fully stocked stores, healthy wildlife, the ability to take vacations, and communities of like-minded people who share those liberties with us in equal measure.

But is that what liberty means? As an idea, we could say yes; but in reality, the answer is no.

When we think of liberty, each person has a vision of what they believe liberty should stand for. What was listed above, for example, are things we think of when we think of liberty based on liberal ideology in the west, but it would just as easily be mistaken for communism ideology in the east, based on the cultural and political context.

Think about that for a moment. Think of how easy it is to reframe liberty when we boil it down to politics, simply changing the casing of the ideas so to speak.

In theory, the ideas themselves are said to be achievable within each political structure, but this proves to be much more difficult in practice.

The reason is not politics. It’s not big business. It’s not even the state of the economy. These are all just symptoms of something much deeper. These are symptoms of individual ideas, as represented in the thoughts and beliefs of nearly eight billion people.

Liberty is not a clearly defined term, although most of us can convince ourselves otherwise. Humans project their own reality onto the world, the subconscious mind attributing at least some values and ideas of liberty to others in our environment. This is not a choice we make, it is a matter of social survival. In order to feel a sense of belonging and security, we fool ourselves into believing that the world around us must share our values in rather precise detail – but this is rarely the case.

We do share some core beliefs in the majority under the agreement of society: murder is wrong, rape is wrong, and thievery is wrong. As a society, we agree that these acts violate the freedoms and liberties of others, but as individuals, we may not all behave as such from moment to moment.

In some parts of the world, these same acts may not fall under the same scrutiny depending on the local societies. The factors of culture, class, race, religion, politics and economy all play a role – but again they are only the symptoms of the beliefs of individuals.

Yuval Noah Harari, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, presents the generally accepted definition of personal liberalism as – “liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and follow their hearts – as long as they do not infringe of the liberties of others.”

Liberty, the very idea of it, is entirely subjective. It’s not a set of clearly defined rules. Rather, in moments of deviation from the constructs of society, liberty is nothing more than a choice made moment by moment based on individual emotional states.

And this is why liberty cannot possibly be real. Moment by moment, individuals shifts in their beliefs. Making ideal freedoms and liberties impossible to coordinate.

As Harari discusses further, he presents the compelling argument that liberty is nothing more than emotions pretending to be rationality. How any given group feels at any given time, can radically alter the definition of Liberty, as we frequently see in elections. Harari illustrates this point by discussing how people vote based on how they feel, not on what they think.

If this is true, then that would mean Liberty is nothing more than a word used to describe the process of turning emotions into cultural norms and laws. Both of these must take into account the borders of the communities or nations in which those emotions have been expressed.

If those are the conditions of Liberty, how could we possibly agree on what it means to be free?

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