Everyone knows the words from the US Declaration of Independence, that there are certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Many of the American colonies as they declared independence, some even before the Continental Congress, stressed Life, Liberty and Property The French Revolution, a decade later, phrased it Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. (They celebrate July 14th Bastile Day – the day they liberated the prisoners of Paris as akin to our independence day.) But all had in common the word LIBERTY. But what did it mean and what does it mean today?
Liberty encompassed all the natural rights. The right to practice ones religion or not, the right to have a say in determining who would govern and what the power of that government would be, the right to privacy and others -- some spelled out in American state constitutions and some in the federal Bill of Rights.
Today there is a Tea Party movement, taking its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and proclaiming that it stands strong for LIBERTY. What does Liberty mean to them and to their radical right wing Republican partners who with them control that Grand Old Party. Well we know what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean the right of a public employee to form a union and bargain collectively, as we’ve seen by their actions in Wisconsin. And, it doesn’t mean the right of a woman to choose an abortion even if her personal views allow it. Nor does it evidently allow a couple to practice birth control as a means of family planning, according to laws being pushed in eight states.
It does mean the right to own a weapon not just for hunting or self defense but for any reason. And apparently it means the right to make as much money as you can any way you can and give as little or none of it to the government which according to some of these radicals needn’t exist.
Yet government is instituted by the people to secure and guarantee these rights.
Can one enjoy Liberty if one can’t feed and clothe their family? Liberty has to include the right to get an education that will allow you to get a job to pay for lifes necessities or you can’t enjoy Life, Liberty or the Pursuit of Happiness. Liberty should include the right of two people to marry and build a family and live the life style they prefer.
The pursuit of Happiness is the reaching for the American Dream. The Dream that brought so many immigrants to this country. And the Dream that led eight of my ancestors to fight in the Revolutionary War so America would be free to chart its own course and not be ruled by a monarch and a nobility from across the ocean. (I don’t think they expected we might be ruled by an oligarchy of billionaires living in our own country and investing most of their money overseas.)
So who really supports LIBERTY today. The radical republicans support what they call economic liberty - no taxes on business, no individual mandates to require people to have health insurance, no regulations on financial transactions or large industries while providing government subsidies to big oil, big agriculture and other big businesses to keep them big. Liberal Democrats support personal LIBERTY: freedom of choice on reproduction, no-discrimination due to choice of life style, a constitutionally protected right to privacy (9th amendment), absolute first amendment freedom of speech and religion with no government interference. And a third party, the Libertarians, support absolute non- government interference in economic or personal affairs ; almost a non government approach which didn’t work when advocated in Europe in the 19th century by the anarchists and nihilists.
Surely there is common ground here around which a majority of Americans can rally. Keep the government out of the bedroom and the church. Let Americans be secure in all their rights - their papers (including their computer emails). Let Americans with legitimate reasons,e.g. hunting or self defense, be allowed to possess weapon(s). Let small businesses be exempt from as many regulations as possible as long as such exemptions don’t endanger the life of employees or customers. And let big business be regulated by government on behalf of the people so that the people rule their government and their lives.
Today in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain people are facing death protesting and demanding Liberty. People in Tibet, China, Burma, and Belarus struggle to find ways to open up their societies to allow more personal freedom. Here in America, when not obsessed by sex scandals, we debate issues that involve Liberty as if they were academic abstractions – perhaps we’ve had so much Liberty that we take it for granted. We had best not – when we take Liberty for granted we will likely lose it.
11 July, 2011