Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Liberty

I'm too far gone now to change my stripes. As the old cartoon legend says "I are an engineer, and yesterday I couldn't even spell one."

Nuance is not something you learn to appreciate in an engineering education, or in the pursuit of an engineering career. It is, instead, the opposite of what you immerse yourself in. Engineering is all about hard facts, ones and zeros, equations with answers, and various laws of the physical universe. Get out the old slide rule and come up with a result accurate to three significant digits.

So I come late to an understanding of the difference between "freedom" and "liberty," and that makes my appreciation of the difference all the more meaningful and personal.

Freedom, in my engineering mind, is a function of the laws that men (excuse me for this) enact. Liberty, on the other hand, is a profound and unique concept that derives from a higher "natural law," a right recognized in our founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, and The Constitution. It is "unalienable," along with the right to life and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty, in its deepest sense, transcends mere laws.

"We grow to soon old and too late smart" reads a truism whose source I don't recall. No matter; viewing the John Adams series on HBO, and subsequent substantial reading about the founders, has given me an appreciation of the critical difference between liberty and freedom, even though I am unable to articulate it very well.

As a result, I despair that liberty as the founders understood it is being stolen from us day by day, week by week. I intend to write further on this subject in the future. For now, I offer two thought provoking quotes:

First, this from President Reagan, who although he used the word freedom instead of liberty, clearly was talking about the latter:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

And this from President Lincoln, who clearly understood that the concept of liberty is at once a core principle of our nation while at the same time the language of our founding can be dangerous in the hands of those who would abuse it. Need I say more?

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 many 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.

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