Acton Commentary

The Paradox of Liberty


There is a paradox at the heart of liberty, a tension between our desiring what is good and our willingness to sacrifice true happiness for fleeting satisfaction. "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom," abolitionist Wendell Phillips said. Lord Acton echoed the idea, calling liberty, "the delicate fruit of a mature civilization."

The delicacy of freedom cannot be explained without recourse to the realities of good and evil. Freedom is both universally sought and everywhere in jeopardy because of the imperfection of human nature. We are beings who seek what is good, but are tempted by what is evil. Freedom--the capacity to know and choose what is good--is the path to fulfillment, but reason is clouded and the will is compromised by our inclination to pursue what is base.

This is why liberty blooms only in a mature civilization, a culture in which the discipline to act virtuously is widespread. It requires a political order in which the proclivity to acquire power is checked by constitutional limits and, more critically, by the moral formation of electorates and officials alike.

Yet the temptation to trade liberty for other apparent goods is ever-present. Radical equality appears as a desirable goal; lurking behind the veil is power for a few and lowered status for the rest. Financial security without personal cost similarly appeals; but it too will be revealed in time to be illusory, material prosperity finally failing along with the freedom of self-direction.

Such deceptive allures permeate our policy debates. The promises of government-run social security, having undermined the duty-in-freedom to provide for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, are perched on an increasingly unstable base of a shrinking proportion of workers. Abdicating our responsibility to provide for and direct the education of our children, a government system has raced to a lowest-common-denominator approach devoid of moral or religious content--and often enough not very effective in conveying skills or knowledge either. Faced with the daunting prospect of taking charge of the cost of medical care for ourselves and our families, many are willing to cede control over value-laden health care decisions to government agencies.

Pope Benedict XVI understands the paradox of freedom. "Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world," he wrote in Spe Salvi. Yet we are called to battle, nonetheless: "Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good."

The link between freedom and goodness is unbreakable, but it is always in danger of being forgotten. The notions that free means "carefree" and that liberty entails no limits are now deeply rooted in our politics and in our culture. But while we may deny who we are as human beings made in the likeness of God, we cannot overturn nature. There is no true happiness in reaping the rewards of someone else's labor, in wielding power over the decisions of others, or in following every urge and impulse regardless of the consequences for ourselves or for those around us.

The vigilance demanded to protect freedom is watchfulness over the potential abuses of powerful institutions: political, commercial, and even religious. But it is first and foremost a conscientious scrutiny of our own motives and actions. For it is only when large numbers of individuals become complacent and indolent that those who seek power are able to attain it. July Fourth is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to acting toward the genuine good of ourselves and others--in other words, to remind ourselves always to conform our freedom to what is true. This fundamental connection was articulated long before Phillips, Acton, or Benedict drew breath: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."