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“We All Declare for Liberty, But We Do Not All Mean the Same Thing” by Eugene Volokh

A comment on my freedom and hypocrisy post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, from Abraham Lincoln, in his Address at a Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Apr. 18, 1864:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.

I’ve long found this to be a thought-provoking piece, and a useful reminder that “liberty” in the abstract is not self-defining. Most rhetoric that simply refers to “liberty” — whether in the context of slavery, where Lincoln said this, or abortion rights, or national sovereignty, and so on — rests on the assertion about the proper definition of people’s or institutions’ rights; and it’s that definition that should often be at the heart of the debate.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t itself tell us what the proper result is in any debate (such as the debate about abortion). But it should remind us that many questions can’t be resolved by just talking about “liberty” in the abstract, or “not imposing one’s beliefs on others” in the abstract.

If liberty means freedom to do things that don’t violate the rights of others, the important questions are (1) what constitutes those “rights,” (2) what counts as violation, and (3) in some contexts (e.g., abortion, animal rights, slavery), who counts as “others.”

This post first appeared at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Eugene VolokhEugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

SEMANTICS: Everyday Terms that Sometimes Cause Confusion

Too many times I find myself in discussions with another person where we both might be on the same page, but end up comparing apples to oranges. In most cases, the difficulty with verbal intercourse is due to either a misunderstanding or unfamiliarity of certain terms. Many words have more than one meaning, especially in the English language, lending more confusion to communication. Some organizations, such as our military, “coin” or write their own definitions of words to fit a particular situation. Used to be the goal of a soldier was to kill the enemy. Today, the military talks about “servicing the enemy.” Does that mean kill? Injure? Wound? Change his oil?

COMMON LAW: Principles of law which are based on custom or judgments of courts rather than upon an enactment of written law. Though our nation is based on custom and historical decree, we are not a common-law nation – we are a statutory country whereas only conduct expressly forbidden by statute is punishable by law.

CONSERVATIVE: A person whose political thinking is to the right side of the political scale. Capitalistic. Conservatives lean toward viewing less government control as being better than more control. One who tends to believe in conserving or preserving established rules and traditions and one who believes that when change is needed, the proper procedures should be followed.

CONSTITUTION: Basic and underlying system of rules of which all other laws and behavior is judged. The supreme law. The rule of law.

CONSTITUTIONAL CORRECTNESS: Sometimes called Strict Constructionist. Persons, who believe in a rigid adherence to the rule-of-law. These citizens believe that if the majority of the citizens wish to act in contravention to a constitution, the only legitimate method for doing so is by amending this Constitution.

CRIME: An act which has been determined (by enactment of a law) to be injurious to the public. We are a statutory nation inasmuch as unless there is a law against a certain act, the act is not a crime. If the subject law is in violation of any constitutional provision, it is not a crime to violate that law.

DEMOCRACY: A nation that is governed by the concept of majority rules. In a true democracy the people decide all issues by whatever the majority wishes. Without any guiding provision, such as a constitution, the rules of conduct change as the majority of the population changes. If the majority is comprised of X persons, they can repress or control Y persons. If there is a shift in population where Y persons suddenly become the majority, then they are free to discriminate (retaliate with their vote) against X persons. America is not a democracy, it is a republic (see REPUBLIC and RULE OF LAW) where this discriminating practice is negated. Some American erroneously believe they can enact and enforce any law (anti-gun, school prayer, etc.) merely by garnering the majority of votes to pass these statutes, regardless of constitutional mandates.

INALIENABLE: (aka unalienable) Something that cannot be taken away. An intrinsic right such as the right to life and with it the right to use what tools (firearms) necessary to protect that right.

LAW: Rules, customs and practices a society has established to regulate and control the actions of its constituents. The “pecking order” is: Ordinances (city/village laws) are subordinate to statutes (state laws) which are under federal acts and laws. All of which must be in compliance with the Constitution (see Rule-of-law).

LIBERAL: A person on the left side of political beliefs. Socialistic. Considers more government control to be better than less control. Persons who view our Constitution as a guideline inasmuch as they believe it can be circumvented and molded to fit the POLITICAL CORRECTNESS du jour – as opposed to amending the Constitution.

LIBERTARIAN: A person who believes in full individual freedom and a very limited size and role of government. It has been said that a REPUBLICAN is one who was robbed last night; a DEMOCRAT is one who was arrested last night and a LIBERTARIAN is one who shot the person robbing him.

MALA IN SE: (Latin) Acts that are wrong in and of themselves – morally wrong. American’s don’t need a law to tell us that murder is wrong. Championing (voting) to pass laws that violate one’s constitutional or INALIENABLE RIGHTS is MALA IN SE.

MALA PROHIBITA: (Latin) Acts that are wrong only because society says it’s wrong. Parking your car in a no parking zone is only wrong because society, via laws, has deemed it so.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: A rhetorician, with a virtuosity complex, who ignores the rule of law to further a political agenda. A slang catechism meaning the most expedient thing to do regardless of legalities. For example, those who desire to restrict or control firearms by passing unconstitutional laws, will justify their position with the pseudo belief that their actions are (in their opinion) in the best interest of society. (see RULE-OF-LAW)

REPUBLIC: A nation operating under a RULE-OF-LAW where its citizens have the sole power to elect representatives to enforce the rule-of-law and conduct the nation’s business to the best interest of its citizens – in accordance with a constitution. The difference between a true democracy (see DEMOCRACY) and a republic is in a democracy the majority rules, i.e., there is no controlling factors (constitutions) to hinder the will of the majority of the citizens or their representatives. In a republic, the citizens/representatives can only act in accordance within the established RULES-OF-LAW. Of course if the majority wishes to act in opposition to their own rule-of-law (a constitution), they must first change this RULE-OF-LAW/Constitution.

RIGHTS: aka privileges or immunities. That which belongs to a person by law, nature or tradition. Some rights have been established by law, edict, court decrees and constitutions. Others are intrinsic (see: INALIENABLE).

RULE-OF-LAW: An organization (including a nation) that has agreed to live (operate) by a set of pre-established rules or laws and that these codes take precedent over all else. The U.S. Constitution is our rule-of-law inasmuch as it is the set of laws to which all other laws, statutes, ordinances, court orders and executive edicts must conform. It doesn’t always work to perfection as witness how the Judicial Branch forces its uncontested opinion of the law upon juries in direct conflict with the 6th Amendment (see Government Corruption with Solutions, Part 3 – 29 Dec 05).

© 2014 Chuck Klein