‘Liberation’ and the Dismantling of Liberty

The original idea of liberty in America was fairly narrow. “Liberty” referred simply to the state of affairs enabled by a limited government that protected the natural rights of its citizens. In fulfilling that commitment, citizens were enabled to pursue ends conducive to their own happiness and flourishing. 

But as government steadily expanded, so too has the menagerie of “rights” Americans demand the state recognize. Today, we are told healthcare is a “right.” Marriage is a “right.” Abortion is a “right.” Education is a “right.” These ideas would have puzzled people in the early republic. These new “rights” are the product of a movement away from God-given natural rights in favor of civil rights.

When activists say “Healthcare is a right,” what they mean is that health care should be a right. In other words, they are inventing a new right through the use of rhetoric. These new rights aren’t God-given natural rights.

The very possibility that a new right to privacy (or healthcare, or education, and so on) can be imagined shows the place from which these rights derive: the power of the state. Under the new order which began in earnest with the New Deal, the state doesn’t merely protect rights—it creates them. Having abandoned the historical concern with natural rights, liberals pursue an ongoing expansion of civil rights which can only be achieved through a steady expansion of state power. 

A government that can create a right can also take it away. And when such a situation obtains, the constitutional vision of liberty has been lost. The past six months have been a stark demonstration, illustrating just how perilous that state of affairs can be.

This loss of the older form of liberty (a precondition that enables the individual to pursue happiness) restructures the relationship between the individual and the state when it comes to the question of happiness. As various limitations to the individual pursuit of happiness come to light, the state invents new rights (and obligations) to dismantle them. In bestowing these rights as a means to actively advance some individuals’ prospects for happiness, the state itself accepts a new role as a guarantor of happiness. Over time, this enables a public perception that the absence of individual happiness is evidence of governmental failure. Or worse, as we see in cases like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” the existence of personal dissatisfaction is confirmation that the founding principles of the nation are lies.

From Liberty to Liberation

The danger inherent in our historical moment is illustrated by the fact that we hear less and less about liberty and more and more about liberation.

For example, the “About” section of Black Lives Matter’s website makes no use of the word liberty but has repeated references to liberation. It boasts a “continued commitment to liberation for all Black people.” They also inform readers that they “embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace with one another.”

The fact that this sentence does not promise just and peaceful interaction with “others” in general, but rather with “one another” hints at the intolerance of the movement towards those who refuse to endorse the organization. Inviting readers to “take action,” the site reminds us that BLM is not only a “liberation” movement, but a hype fashion movement as well: “Join the Movement to fight for Freedom, Liberation and Justice by signing up for updates, supporting our work, checking out our resources, following us on social media, or wearing our dope, official gear.

On the off chance the Biden campaign is reading this, you can get said “dope gear” here.

On the “Mission and Principles” page of the Women’s March site, we find the same kind of blather. No mention of liberty. But liberation plays a prominent role in the group’s “Unity Principles,” which promise “a new understanding of the connected nature of [their] struggles and a vision of [their] collective liberation.”

Another example: in calling for the decriminalization of all sex work, the Democratic Socialists of America explain that this is a necessary step “toward the goal of liberation.” The liberating power of such a move may come as a surprise to many, given the sex industry’s notorious involvement in human trafficking. But let’s not get wrapped up in the details: this is liberation we’re talking about.

The embrace of “liberation” by the Left is instructive, especially given their careful avoidance of liberty. So, what is the difference? Liberty is a pragmatic idea—one of this world. It is not happiness. It is not satisfaction. It is a tool for pursuing these things. The attainment of happiness or satisfaction through the exercise of liberty is never guaranteed. To acquire those things, the person with liberty is required to do something himself. Liberty is something that is exercised by the individual. 

The End Goal of “Liberation”

The proper role of government is to protect the natural rights of citizens that enable them to pursue the blessings of liberty. But the state itself does not pursue liberation or happiness or satisfaction, not for itself and not for its people. Not only would that be presumptuous, but it would also be wrong.

Free persons will locate happiness in different places and conditions, so it is they who must use their rights to pursue their own happiness. If the state were to dictate what happiness means and how it must be pursued, then liberty would cease to exist. As it stands, we’ve made significant “progress” toward that goal. And the peculiar absence of the word liberty from the leftist parlance of our day makes clear that for them, it is not a goal at all.

Liberation of the kind they seek is a transcendental idea—it is not of this world. Unlike liberty, which serves as a means, liberation is an end. That end seems to be universal happiness, universal satisfaction, and perfect justice. No such society has ever existed. These are the characteristics of a utopia. Those who know some Greek will remember that translated into English, utopia is “no place” or “nowhere.” We call the perfect society with a universally happy people a utopia because it is impossible in this fallen world. 

Strictly speaking, the end goal of liberation is an “other-worldly” state. As an end (rather than a means), liberation implies the roles of the people and the state. In contrast to liberty, which is independently pursued by free individuals, liberation is a historical endpoint which will be achieved by the state on behalf of its people. The people on the streets from BLM, Antifa, and other groups only pursue liberation indirectly: the chanting, the sign-holding, the destruction of images and property; they do nothing to actively promote more happiness or justice. Instead, those vicarious forms of agitation and violence work as coercion, applied to the state in an effort to force it to do the legislative work of “liberating” them. 

Of course, the idea that universal happiness, equality, or justice can be achieved through the exercise of state power presupposes that one particular ideology has the proper understanding and definition of those concepts. Put differently, the totalizing autocracy that would be necessary to enforce “liberation” of the kind these groups agitate for would need to actively silence and expel competing ideas of human happiness and fairness. As such, the project of liberation is clearly at odds with the values of diversity and pluralism (two ideas over which it claims sole patronage).

For these reasons, whenever you hear anyone using the term liberation, it should be cause for alarm. Ever notice how when you learn a new word, you hear it in conversation for the first time a day or two later? You already know the word liberation, but its shared etymology with liberty make it seem benign and unworthy of concern. 

Make a point to listen for liberation though, and pay attention to the context in which you hear it. Now you will hear it. A lot. And when you do, understand that the only way liberation can be pursued (of course, a utopia can never be achieved) is through the systematic dismantling of liberty as it was understood at the Founding of this nation 244 years ago this weekend.

In other words, it can only be pursued through control. Over you.

If you do the math above, you’ll see I’m talking about the Revolution that fought for liberty in 1776—not the current revolution that, in looking back to 1619, seeks liberation by demolishing the vision of freedom that was imagined by our forefathers and advanced by patriots in every American generation since. Long live the real American Revolution of 1776, not this fake revolution we’re experiencing now. Long live American liberty!

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Illustration by Ruben Cueto

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