Pete Buttigieg, Democratic presidential candidate, articulated the “perfectionist progressive” conflation/confusion of freedom with rights in his campaign-launch speech: “First comes freedom: something that our conservative friends have come to think of as their own….but freedom has been a Democratic bedrock ever since the New Deal. Health care is freedom. Consumer protection is freedom. Racial justice is freedom. Empowering teachers means freedom. Women’s equality is freedom. Organized labor sows freedom. The chance to live a life of your choosing, in keeping with your values, that is freedom in its richest sense. And we know that good government can secure such freedom just as much as bad government can deny it.”
I will call that the “positive” idea of freedom, or liberty (I use those two words interchangeably), positive as in additive (by the state). The “negative” idea of liberty is that true “rights” are endowed by our Creator, and the primary function of the state is to protect the exercise of those rights from those who would encroach on them, usually those who wish to add rights, which often come at the expense of someone else’s liberty. “Negative” liberty is inherently limited to one’s own ability to achieve his aspirations within the space allowed by the state and their own limitations. Our nation’s founders were primarily concerned with those rights which pre-exist government, and the subsequent limits upon the ability of the state to interfere with them. The more radical, “positive” conceptualization of freedom preferred by contemporary “perfectionist progressives” lacks any manner of limiting principle whatsoever, and therefore poses significantly more danger to our political discourse. Limited government is fundamentally unable to provide the never-ending stream of “rights” enumerated by the positive conception, so the removal of checks on state power is inevitable. It’s no coincidence that the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century spoke of freedom/liberty as “positive”, rather than “negative” in their pursuit of an imaginary perfect society, which always leads to the gulag or the grave for many of those not in power.
Edmund Burke, in 1790, wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves. What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics.”
Self-government and the worthy habits that result, are THE FOUNDATIONS of a truly free society, one which protects God-given rights and the liberty to do what conscience requires, so that the fruits of those rights and habits may be enjoyed. BUT, how is self-government possible, when human beings deceive themselves constantly, strive inconsistently, fail regularly and shift the blame? My good friend and wise man, Robert Andrews, draws on the Bible for the answer(s).
Philippians 2:13: For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. “I cannot be free from the prison of self when I am constantly trapped in the self-absorbed doubts of, ‘Am I being obedient, am I maturing, am I pleasing God?’ Real freedom is living by doing what I want to do and knowing that God is, right now, directing my desires. How can that be? I have responsibilities in the world I must fulfill, in my family, job, finances, education, etc. How can I just do what I want to do? Here’s how.
“If I am late to work every day, thinking, ‘God loves me, has forgiven me fully and I can sleep in and be late if I want to,’ I will be right, but I will also be fired and have to find a new job. If I buy whatever I want with no financial planning or restraint, telling myself, ‘God will provide for us because He loves us,’ I will be right, but I may go bankrupt in the process and my family has to live in a tent. If I neglect to diligently train my children, based on the law of God in the Bible, thinking ‘I love them too much to discipline them. God will take care of them,’ I will be right, but they will suffer the struggles that children whose rebellion was never broken must face later in life.
“However, as I learn to walk by faith and not excuse my sin as I face these responsibilities, He convicts me of my tardiness, extravagance, and sloth and brings me to repentance and produces in me, by His power, the desire to be punctual, frugal and diligent. Ironically and counter-intuitively, this obedience-producing faith always is born and then flourishes out of facing and embracing my sin, weakness and failure rather than my strength and success.
“I am free! Free to obey God’s law or to disobey it, and I know His love and forgiveness for me never, ever wavers. Free to have an affair whenever I want to, to indulge in pornography whenever I want to, to lie, steal and cheat whenever I want to. Is that shocking? Yes, but the real shock comes when I find I have a waning desire to commit those sins as I walk by faith. Philippians 2:13 proves to be true. He is changing my ‘want to’s.’ If I am involved in sin, there will be consequences here on the earth in my life, but not in my relationship with God. The cross took care of all that.
“This is the true gospel, and as soon as we see this in our hearts, we are a threat to the enemy. The gates of Hell—arrayed around the government, the education system, the church, the arts, the trades, Wall Street, entertainment, athletics and every human endeavor—cannot stop our attack. By just being on site, wherever we go, the kingdom comes! We become dangerous, and Satan’s weakening hold on our culture is diminished. Jesus said, ‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32).”