Liberty: The License to Be Free

“Liberty and license are not the same thing.”

I hear this all the time. My response is, “Oh, really?”

 As I see it, liberty and license are the same thing. Liberty is the license to do whatever your own mind tells you makes sense to do. Likewise, liberty is the license to refuse to think at all, and to act in self-defeating or even self-destructive ways.

It’s true that liberty does not entitle you to violate the liberty of others. You may not initiate force against another, steal any of his property or touch him without his consent. But this is not proof that liberty has limits. It merely proves that a proper understanding of liberty includes respecting the liberty of everyone equally. If I deny you your right to liberty, then there is no freedom. Likewise, if you deny my right to liberty, there is no freedom. The only way for a free society to exist is for everyone to be equally free, under the law.

This need to draw a distinction between liberty and license is often a rationalization used to … you guessed it, to violate someone’s liberty. “Drug use could never be legal. If it were, stoned pilots would crash planes.” Actually, alcohol is legal and pilots rarely, if ever, crash airplanes while drunk. This is because there’s such a thing as rational liability and, even more than that, a simple desire on the part of profit-seeking airlines not to kill their customers. One fatal crash with a drunken pilot would be the end of business for an airline. The same would apply to drugs, if they were legal.

What about “helping” the addicted by making their drugs of choice illegal? The ‘war on drugs’ is just as spectacular a failure as the ‘war on poverty’ and the war against capitalism and individual rights, more generally. This is because while it’s hard enough for a loved one to stop a person from a determined course of self-destruction, it’s impossible for a government to do so.

Social conservatives use this rationalization to violate the individual rights of people to have consensual sexual relationships with whomever they choose. Advocates of nutrition use this as an excuse to promote laws to restrict or even outlaw fast food, or any food deemed unhealthy. People who don’t like cigarette smoke (admittedly a majority) use this rationalization to promote outlawing smoking everywhere, even where the owner of the property wants smoking to be permitted.

The lesson here is: Whenever you hear someone draw a distinction between liberty and license, it’s someone’s liberty that they’re hoping to somehow restrict. Follow up with questions to find out which liberty they hope to eliminate.

Human beings need liberty in order to think. Put simply, man does not think at gunpoint, nor under the nagging of a preening, peering politician or bureaucrat. Man is a rational animal, a being of volitional consciousness who’s never going to survive, much less produce, without being free to exercise his reasoning. In a society that restricts liberty, reason tends to go underground. In a society that upholds liberty and individual rights, reason does its job because the brightest and those most willing to think are free to create and profit from their discoveries. Case in point: The United States, especially in its early years, enjoyed largely unfettered liberty, and look at the accomplishments. No other society in human history has even come close to what author Andrew Bernstein called the ‘Inventive Period’ of the United States. It’s not because of some nationalistic superiority. America, after all, has always been a nation of immigrants. It’s not diversity that deserves the credit, either. Diversity is not a value; it’s merely a measurement. What makes things happen are reason, talent, persistence and creativity. These qualities are open to any and all applicants, of both genders and of any race.

It’s true that some human beings waste their liberty. They abuse drugs or alcohol, or they waste their lives out of laziness, inertia or hopelessness. This happens in both free societies and societies without liberty. This is not a problem for government to solve. This is a problem for disciplines like psychology or medicine to attempt to solve, and ultimately for the individuals themselves to resolve. One thing is certain. In a society without liberty, where reason is underground and the best and brightest cannot create, produce or profit, these people who waste their talents are much worse off than they would be in a free society. At least in a free society, they’re more comfortable. Freedom and rationality lift the standard of living for all: Those who are in the arena of creation, and those who merely benefit, passively, from the creations. Everybody should be in favor of liberty — along with the license to practice it.