All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1992

The Language of Liberty

The idea and practice of human liberty—religious, civil, political, and economic—have been perhaps the most important social contribution of Western culture, yet today the idea of liberty has been all but forgotten in public debate and in the corridors of power. When the language of liberty is still heard, it has a quaint sound, the sound of a value now out of fashion.

The language of liberty has been replaced by the language of power. One no longer hears pleas for liberty, but pleas for and promises of “empowerment.” This rhetorical shift from liberty to power reflects a fundamental philosophical shift: No longer is our goal “liberty and justice for all,” but power. The peaceful and benevolent cooperation of citizens has been largely replaced by the noisy and malevolent contention of factions, each of which is seeking power at the expense of others.

The consensus that formerly governed America—the consensus that all men are created equal, and the purpose of government is to protect each person—is disappearing. What the new consensus will be, we cannot as yet discern. But the new language of power bodes ill for our future. When the language of liberty is infrequently spoken, and its sounds become unfamiliar to a people, the practice of liberty will pass away as well.

—John W. Robbins


Efficiency and Freedom

Federal departments are not efficient, but probably the most inefficient things on the face of this planet. But if they were the most efficient agencies that history has ever seen, I should, in this field of education, be dead opposed to them. Efficiency in a good cause is good; but I am opposed to federal efficiency in this sphere because the result of it is a thing that I regard as bad—namely, slavery. And I am not inclined to do what a great many people do today; I am not inclined to write “freedom” in quotation marks as though it were sort of a joke. I believe, on the contrary, that it is something very real. An ounce of freedom is worth a pound of efficiency.

—J. Gresham Machen


Lest We Forget

Did the Founders have to know economics to devise a system that raised the standard of living in this country from the near-subsistence level of the colonial period to the prosperity of a leading nation of the world, all within the first century of our republic? No! Their vision was focused not on economic considerations, but on securing individual liberty and individual rights. They established a carefully limited republic, thus freeing citizens from excessive government interference. For the first time in history liberty was validated as the inalienable birthright of an individual.

What a step of faith the Founders demonstrated with their belief that free citizens operating under a system of moral law would exercise their freedom responsibly, and that this would work out for the general good.

This is how a truly free-market economy develops; it is the outcome of the actions of people operating freely with one another, unhampered by government, nothing more, nothing less. This country’s early amazing economy evolved as a by-product of establishing the righteous principle of freedom.

—Richard W. Holden


A Message From a Great Gray Owl

Who says people don’t give a hoot about individual liberty and responsibility anymore? Judging by the spectacle of human initiative triggered by the appearance of a little creature from the wild in Jamestown, New York, Americans still have a feeling for the unregulated and the free.

Why under the drab sky of winter would flocks of brightly dressed individuals, from babies in buntings, to young girls in leggings, to senior citizens with canes, be streaming into a rough, wild forest? They’ll tell you it’s for a glimpse of a Great Gray Owl. Just two feet high, her tree-trunk-colored form is nonetheless large compared to more common relatives, and her expression is accentuated by big, sharp yellow eyes. Apparently Miss Great Gray Owl is a rare sight this far south of her distant-north habitat.

In quest of the owl, no one complains about brambles, slippery trails, gorges, and a host of other nuisances, which under different circumstances would call for swift remedial action from some federal regulatory agency. In fact, the owl’s visitors demonstrate an exuberance and openness that suggests they are relishing the challenges.

Youths, parents, and elderly are not segregated into their respective educational or occupational categories. Side by side, they share the intrigue of discovery. No regulations advise us of Miss Gray Owl’s visiting hours, or tell us just how close we may approach. There are no bans on rock-throwing, littering, or unnecessary noise, yet I haven’t heard of anyone engaging in such practices. (Visitors reminding each other to keep quiet may, however, find their voices drowned out by the roar of an airplane taking off from the Chautauqua County Airport adjacent to the field.)

Despite daunting creek crossings and old barbed-wire fences, there are no signs posted to warn us to proceed at our own risk, or that traveling beyond a particular point may be hazardous to life or limb. Nor are there any inspectors to make sure we keep each other safe, or child-welfare agents to warn parents not to climb banks or jump creeks with an infant in arms. In fact, the absence of restrictions seems to generate an attitude of respect and responsibility, as though everyone were anxious to safeguard so pure and fragile a wilderness freedom.

Unwittingly, the Great Gray Owl provokes us to re-evaluate the risk-free world we have tried to construct around ourselves, and to reflect on the price of broad restrictions on risk-taking. In a society where every other step you take brushes against legal requirements, it is refreshing to see people savor a taste of the raw, the “real” life. It’s as though they’re clinging to what remnants they can of a creed having to do with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—a creed which no one ever had to teach the Great Gray Owl.

—Hannah Lapp