One says that there is liberty to and liberty from. Two distinct kinds of liberty, thus, whose compatibility or incompatibility will have to be proven during this demonstration. In this dichotomy the first liberty is that to dispose of all that is needed to do what one wants to do and the second liberty is that to be free from restraint from any external entity, usually the state.
The main problem of interpretation lies in the understanding of the first sort of liberty. When exactly does an individual have all he needs to achieve what he sets out to achieve and to what degree does the state have a responsibility to procure him what he claims he needs in order to consider himself “free to…”? At this stage a clear distinction needs to be struck between entitlement rights and liberty rights which all too often in people’s minds become entangled and are seen as one.
Liberty rights which mainly concern “liberty from” but also encompass several aspects of “liberty to” are at the origin of the doctrine of human rights, a concept which is British of origin and was meant to make sure that the individual could go on with his business without too much interference from outside, securing a certain security of autonomy so to say. These liberty rights which originally were not linked to any notion of “natural law” or right prior to the positive establishment thereof have since evolved into a somewhat overprotective “natural right” that people invoke now on an almost daily basis. This has led to a devaluation of the concept of liberty rights itself.
The German Federal Constitutional Court has seen the problem of too many and too broadly interpreted “fundamental rights” and to deal with this problem has conjured up the doctrine of “practical concordance” according to which a sensible balance has to be struck between two conflicting fundamental rights which have been invoked by two opposing parties. It seems to me that this intellectual exercise of deciding which fundamental right is more important in a particular case might not be necessary as often if less rights were proclaimed “fundamental” or “human”.
The absolutely insane trend of making everything a “fundamental right” is highlighted by the fact that the UN Declaration of Human Rights in which there is no hierarchy of the rights contained therein, lists alongside the right of freedom of speech and its own version of habeas corpus, a right to periodic holidays with pay. As natural as it may seem for us to think that everyone should be able to enjoy holidays from time to time, the enshrining of such a “right” in a Declaration of Human Rights mocks the very nature of “human rights”.
Back to the interpretation problem of “liberty to”. After having explained the nature of liberty rights, a few words still need to be said about entitlement rights. This is a concept very popular among the political left, although they would probably chose a different, less obvious name to describe these so-called rights. This political theory which favors government involvement in all facets of an individual’s life claims that the individual itself is powerless and that only by the mercy and help of the government the individual may be lifted up to a place from which they can then do their own work and finally claim to be free to do what they want to do. It is the government which enables them to do what they want to do.
While there is nothing to say against the concept of a certain “security net” being established which helps failed entrepreneurs to bounce back and gives them a second chance, the very essence of this policy is to let the individual think he is dependent on the government and stems from the same arrogance of the governing who think they are somehow more competent than the governed that is to be found in monarchs in relation to their people and sometimes also parliaments. A sublime example for this is the inscription on the German Reichstag “Dem Deutschen Volke”; a present thus by a merciful monarch to his people, not the work of the people itself.
One of the main problems with these entitlement rights is the fact that they establish an unhealthy way of thinking in the minds of the general populace, who now think themselves to have a right to whatever they want in almost any situation without linking their rights to any sense of responsibility. Since it is the government that is supposed to take care of their rights, it is most probably also the government’s responsibility if anything goes wrong.
This is, thus, one of those problems where the remedy for the symptoms of a disease only makes it easier for the disease to encrust and perpetuate itself. Only if we treat individuals as responsible and let them exercise their own judgment – and yes that includes letting them fail – can we foster a culture of entrepreneurship and social community in which people take care of each other without being withheld from doing so because they know they can be idle as the government is bound to step in at some point in any case. If we thus want more freedom, if we want to stop overregulation in all aspects of our life, we need to give the people the chance to prove themselves and to take responsibility for their own actions.
In no way does “liberty to” require government to be so involved in our personal affairs that it alone decides what is a secure next move for us. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of, it is not the end of the world and most importantly, the individual does not have a monopoly on it.