Liberty or License?

Some people are beginning to grumble about the stay-at-home orders during this COVID-19 era. Protests are beginning to pop up in various state capitals. The concern, they say, is that their liberty is being trampled by authoritarian government. At this juncture, it might be beneficial to define terms.

Noah Webster, America’s first lexicographer, offered in his 1828 dictionary a key distinction between the words “liberty” and “license.” He divided liberty into various types, one of which was “civil liberty,” the one currently on trial in the eyes of some.

Webster’s definition of civil liberty begins with this statement: “Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation.” That means there is a measure of abridgement of that liberty that is possible. When? “As is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation.”

He adds that civil liberty ” is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another.” So, laws can be established that keep me from injuring someone else. Wouldn’t that apply in a pandemic? Historically, we have referred to American liberty as a responsible liberty. Men don’t live on their own little islands. Our decisions impact others.

What about that word “license”? Webster is quite direct when he defines it in the context of civil society: “Excess of liberty; exorbitant freedom; freedom abused, or used in contempt of law or decorum. License they mean, when they cry liberty.” Liberty and license are not the same—the latter abuses the former.

As a constitutional conservative, I am a great believer in limited government, the free market, and responsible liberty, and I have taught these principles for more than thirty years in Christian universities. I’ve also participated in a protest movement, the one called the Tea Party. My involvement, which included attending rallies and speaking to groups connected with the movement, was all for one purpose: to call the nation back to those principles I believe are essential to its health.

The spirit in which this movement operated, at least from what I observed, was one of genuine concern, not one of rash anger or mob rule. The rally I attended in my city of Lakeland, Florida, in 2010 featured speakers who did call out the problems we were seeing: the recession that led to a government bailout of banks considered too big to fail; the burgeoning federal debt (which seems miniscule compared to what has happened since then); the threat of a government takeover of healthcare; and other radical promises/policies of President Obama. Yet no one was calling for overturning the rule of law; the appeal was to return to the limits placed upon the federal government by the Constitution.

The rally was a peaceful practice of the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and assembly. Some of my students were there.

These, for instance, hardly look dangerous. Their garb was colonial-early American to showcase the desire to reclaim our heritage. One of the speakers was Congressman Dennis Ross, a conservative man with principles who wasn’t there to tell people to disobey the government, but to help get it back on track.

In the years that followed, as I noted above, I spoke at Tea Party/9/12 gatherings. My teaching at these meetings always focused on principles and standing for the rule of law: making sure the government was kept within its proper boundaries.

What I’m seeing now, though,in protests against COVID restrictions, is, to me, of an entirely different spirit. I see a lot more anger and attempted intimidation being manifested.

This rally in Michigan, for instance, showcases what I never saw in the Tea Party movement. If that isn’t threatening, what is? The man on the right looks like he belongs more with Antifa than a liberty-loving organization. And even though I disagree with some of the restrictions the Michigan governor has placed on the people, holding a sign that compares her to Hitler is, shall we say, more than a little overboard. Hitler began a world war of conquest and murdered 12 million in his extermination camps. Gov. Whitmer closed off certain sections of stores and restricted boating. Not exactly a parallel, is it?

Extremists nearly always use the Hitler analogy. The extreme Left did it with George W. Bush. Remember this?

I want nothing to do with people who operate in that way. Whatever one’s disagreements with Bush and his handling of the response to the horror of 9/11, stooping to this level of “protest” is beyond the pale. What’s most disheartening is that this used to be relegated primarily to the Left. Now, certain elements of the Right are employing the same tactics. I say “the Right,” but I don’t really acknowledge them as part of the conservative constitutionalism with which I have always been associated.

I also cringe when I see photos like this.

I’m not sure I’d want to be surrounded by these people in an elevator or even in an open space. I’m glad they stayed six feet apart to make sure they didn’t spread the virus.

And then there was the Austin, Texas, protest hyped by conspiracy-monger Alex Jones. This banner was particularly fascinating to me:

Restrictions on our “liberty” to avoid a virus that has taken thousands of lives is akin to “The Mark of the Beast”? Someone needs to study Biblical exegesis more carefully. Then there’s that list of “treasonable men” whom we should “deliver up.” What happens to traitors? Are these people really calling for the execution of Dr. Fauci, Bill Gates, Mike Pompeo, Deborah Birx (who, by the way, isn’t a man), Steve “Menuchin” (misspelled), and George Soros? I’m not fond of Soros, either, but I’m not calling for his execution.

Notice that two of those people are the secretary of state and secretary of the treasury, appointed by Donald Trump. They are treasonous? If so, why is Trump relying on them? Does that make him a traitor also? Or if not, then maybe he’s a dupe of the traitors, doing their will?

This would be more comedic than anything if the risks of what they are promoting were less serious. Opening up everything in our society at this stage, while the virus is still exploding, is pure foolishness.

Here’s the question: Are these current waves of protest really rallies for liberty or are they primarily for license? Are these protesters clamoring for responsible liberty or are they merely angry that they can’t do what they want to do, not caring one bit about how their fulfilled desires would affect everyone else?

Their quest, in my view, is pure selfishness. It is draped with the cover of American liberty, but it’s only a cover. Yes, we should all be alert to tyranny from the government, but we should also understand when certain restrictions are not a tyranny but an attempt to ensure that our liberties will eventually continue with the least loss of life as possible.

I offer this Scripture for meditation as we ponder these things:

Be angry, yet do not sin. Do not let the sun set upon your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold. . . .

Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen. . . .

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, outcry and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and tenderhearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:26-27,29,31-32