Liberty v. Freedom

During the recent IAHE Action Government Affairs panel at the 2016 IAHE Convention, State Representative Tom Washburne (R-HD 64 Evansville) mentioned there is a difference between freedom and liberty.  We asked him if he would share his thoughts with home educators.


“Give me freedom, or give me death!” — right?  Wrong.  We all know that when Patrick Henry of Virginia made his famous speech before the War for Independence with England, what he really said was, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”  Now some may say: “So what?  Who cares?”  Well, we all need to care, for these are two very different statements with very different implications.

Let’s first consider the concept of freedom — the ability to do whatever it is that we want to do.  Note the word “whatever” in my definition, because herein is the problem with freedom: it has no associated value system.  There is no real right or wrong.  If an action feels good to you, your “freedom” allows you to do it.  Kris Kristofferson (through Janice Joplin) nailed this meaning of freedom in his hit song Me and Bobby McGee:  “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,

And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free…

You see, if there is no value, no right and wrong associated with freedom, then what we end up with is a collection of valueless actions, and conflict will be inevitable.  In such conflicts, who is to say who wins?  Ultimately, the government wins, through lawyers, judges, and litigation — the power of the sword.  But the government will have its own world view, which may or may not agree with yours or have at its base any concept of enduring values. I think that this is why we have seen such frustration with the explosion in the number of lawsuits in the last few decades.  People are losing the ability to resolve conflict on their own and are turning to a more and more valueless Court system for answers.

In contrast to freedom is the concept of liberty.  Liberty is like freedom in that it maintains that humans have choices.  But liberty also has with it an element of values, right and wrong.  Yes, people enjoy a sort of freedom in liberty, but it is a self-constrained freedom.  A society based on liberty voluntarily limits available actions to commonly accepted views of morality, or as John Locke put it, operates within the bounds of natural law. Accordingly, when values conflict in a society based on the concept of liberty, it is not solely the government that dictates the outcome, but instead the broader, deeper principles that the people hold dear.

Like John Locke, America’s founders loved liberty.  Indeed, they based our society on it.  They spoke of liberty often in terms of self-government.  For them, what we today call the government is only half of what they referred to as government.  They saw another form of government at work in America: the duty and ability of Americans to govern themselves.  In the words of John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

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If you have read this far, you may be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute, if liberty depends on values, then there must be different forms of liberty depending on the values in play,” and you are correct. In addition, it must be pointed out that some societies will not support liberty at all.  Value systems which support liberty are said to be systems which maintain the conditions of freedom.

In the United States, we have simply taken it for granted that when given freedom, society will flourish.  We accordingly fail to realize that freedom is only possible where the values of the society support the conditions necessary for freedom to work as intended.  In other words, giving freedom is not enough. Without a value structure that also gives rise to liberty, a society will fail.

At the founding of the United States, Christianity was the dominate culture of the people, and  Christianity provided the foundation for liberty. In such liberty, America has flourished without heavy government intervention.  Remember, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).  Note the contrast of this with the recent experience in Iraq where a well-intentioned imposition of freedom through war has resulted not in a prospering society but rather in chaos.  The reason? These countries have inherent cultures that give little support to liberty or even freedom.

I should add that one virtue at the time of America’s founding was that minority voices should be tolerated.  Put another way, in the Christian view of liberty true free speech, free association and free exercise of religion are to be respected. But with this toleration of dissension, there was and is the risk that some other culture can use these rights to emerge from obscurity.  And should that culture get strong enough, it could even gain control of government and curtail the very values that gave it life.  God help us should such a culture prove hostile to Christianity.

Every generation of Americans must be mindful and recognize that our original Constitution was built on Christian liberty. Should we drift from this concept of liberty to a concept of freedom, there is a danger that the exercise of these freedoms will actually undermine the system of government that recognized them.  In other words, we must teach our children that there is right and wrong, there are values, and that these values are critical to ourselves, our families, our churches, and, yes, our government.  Indeed, America as we know it depends upon true liberty.

By  Tom Washburne, J.D., Indiana State Representative District 64