Independence and Rights

 “The Freedman”
John Quincy Adam Ward. 1863. Displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a truism long accepted. I do not question the general truth this phrase attempts to convey, but I sometimes find it obscures more than it reveals. Men on opposing lines of battle may both fight in the name of freedom yet be fighting for very different things. “Freedom” comes in all shapes and sizes; when a Pashtun elder uses a word like freedom he may not be thinking anything close to the thoughts expressed at the average American Independence Day parade.

The freedom fighters of the American revolution fought in the name of liberty. The liberty they battled for came in two distinct flavors, each reflecting an esteemed political tradition inherited from their brothers across the sea. The first is the classical liberal tradition; the second is the classical republican. In many ways the political history of the republic they founded was an attempt to reconcile these two traditions. [1]

In the 21st century the word ‘liberal’ is used in odd ways. For Americans it has become associated with multiculturalism, the welfare state, and progressive social policy. This is not the type of liberalism here referred to. Instead we speak of the old fashioned, classical liberal, proto-libertarian, John Locke type liberalism. 

I am not a liberal. I like those folks, but I am not one of them and I find their central contribution to theories of freedom – the idea of natural or civil ‘rights’ and the ‘negative liberty’ they imply – less useful and easily manipulated by those in power. The problem is not that ‘rights’ are a meaningless concept or that they should not be protected from violation. Men and women do have rights that deserve to be protected. But a political philosophy fashioned for this purpose is a brittle construction. It looks well in the cloudy realm of philosophers and theoreticians, but crumbles once it contacts the tangible world of people and their politicking.   

If you fight for rights then rights will be given – but at what cost and to what purpose? Those who try to live these theories forget the world they live in. Neither the abstract theoretician listing his liberties or the starry eyed idealist crusading for his rights will find comfort in the cold halls of power. It is not their domain, and here the trouble lies. It is just too easy to get these searchers to trade power for the siren promise of rights, never realizing that once their power is gone there is nothing but the good will of those higher up to ensure those rights remain honored and unviolated.

I find myself much more comfortable with the republicans. I do not mean the current monstrosity of a party that bares the name, but the old fashioned, classical, James Madison type republicans. Their great virtue was independence – autonomy, the ability of self governing men in self governing communities to govern themselves. In this view the fundamental building blocks of society are not individuals but families; the goal is not to protect an individual’s ability to choose unobstructed from government, but to empower individuals and their families so that they have the capacity to make real choices in the first place. They recognize that talk of liberty is really just talk of power, and that you cannot have one without the other. Only when power is decentralized – so that families and communities can solve their own problems without relying on their betters and can successfully resist actions imposed on them by others – is real liberty possible. Rights come from freedom; freedom does not come from rights.

Some may wonder if America is growing more or less free. I advise all who try to answer this question to remember the distinction between independence and rights. 

Independence? American families, communities, and citizens have grown far less independent with time. Their ability to rely on themselves to solve their own problems has decreased. Their ability to resist and challenge the powers that be has likewise decreased. They have become true liberal individuals – isolated cogs in a great international machine.

Rights? Some individual liberties have increased. Others have not. Which is to be expected. Absent the power to defend and define one own’s freedom, rights and liberties are simply gifts from the machine. One should expect them to change with whims of those manning the control panel.


[1] The two main intellectual histories of this period each emphasize a different tradition. See Bernard Baiylin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press). 1992. Gordon S Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. (University of North Carolina Press). 1998.

Leave a Comment

No Comments Yet