We fight wars in defense of liberty, and we proudly point to our Founding Documents declaring our freedoms to be inalienable rights. So, where does liberty come from?
An easy answer is that our freedom comes from God. However, that is an unsatisfying answer that leads to questions such as: why has a loving God not allowed freedom to flourish in most of His world? According to the Freedom in the World Report, (Freedom House 2019) only 39 percent of a world population of 7.6 billion can be said to be free, 24 percent partially free, and 37 percent are not free. That is, 4.6 billion people are not free or only partially free. The trend is also disturbing; since 2006, 116 countries have experienced a decline in liberty and only 63 have experienced an improvement.
We believe that liberty is an aspiration of all human beings. And yet, freedom has been historically rare and continues to be scarce. As pointed out by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their latest book The Narrow Corridor, “…there is nothing automatic about the emergence of liberty, and liberty hasn’t been easy to achieve in human history.”
Most societies have been unable to develop a state with the capacity to enforce laws, resolve conflicts, and provide public services while remaining in the control of an assertive and well-organized society. Powerful states abound, but many use their power for repression and dominance rather than to promote individual liberties.
A central theme of Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis is that liberty needs the state and its laws, but society needs to control the state so that it protects and promotes individual liberties. “Liberty needs a mobilized society that participates in politics, protests when it’s necessary, and votes the government out of power when it can… for liberty to emerge and flourish, both the state and society must be strong.”
Thus, liberty does not come from government. And, if we must have a rules-enforcing government to avoid lawlessness, then liberty must flow from the balance of power between the government and society. Liberty is critically dependent on the state-society balance of power. If society is unable to influence the state’s policies and actions, despotism will develop.
But why are so many societies unfree and unable to assert their rights and change course towards freedom? Another easy answer relies on the repressive power of the regimes. Yet, a more insidious answer is a condition social scientists call “path dependence.” In essence, path dependence explains how the decisions we face for any given circumstance are limited and framed by the decisions we have made in the past, or by the events we have experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant. It is a technical way of saying “history matters.”
Consider this practical example of path dependence. When thinking of upgrading to a new and superior word processing or accounting software, the new software must be capable of reading files from our previous years of work. If it cannot, it would not work for us. Our purchase of the new software is path-dependent.
History does matter, but history is not destiny as Marx thought. History results from our actions, and path dependence does not prevent societies from transitioning from one path to another. Yet, such a transition requires the mobilization of society. This is why despotic governments seek to keep their societies fragmented and focused on trivial issues.
Liberty does not warrant that we will make the best decisions for our own lives. It only assures us that no one will decide for us. And, although the evidence shows that individual liberty is a necessary condition for the well-being of society, there is no natural tendency for governments to protect individual freedoms. As political theorist Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884) taught: “The Omnipotence of the State is the Negation of Individual Liberty.”
Liberty is intimately connected to our notion of rights and liberty needs a civil society organized around the idea of individual rights. Which is another way of saying that, liberty comes from us.