There are certain principles that almost all people would agree are fundamental to human existence. This state of agreement is less important than the reasons for it, which in the case of a handful of these foundational propositions come from a priori reasoning or knowledge. In plain, normal-folk English, a priori means the things that are so self-evident to most of us that they’re virtually unquestioned. I say “virtually” because there will always be someone (usually an attorney, but possibly an acid tripper) that insists humans can live without breathing or makes some other such assertion that is easily disproved. Anyway…
These principles I refer to are, in philosophical terms, natural rights. They’re things one has from birth unless someone takes them away, and they don’t depend on laws, customs, religious beliefs or any culture or government.
Here in the U.S., life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the things that usually come to mind when we think about natural rights. We cringe when we hear how China’s one-child policy results in infanticide, or practicing a religion inside Saudi Arabia other than Islam can get you arrested, because mandates like this seem to clearly violate natural rights.
Freedom and liberty
Complete freedom – absence of control by another – exists nowhere in the civilized world. Not even in New Hampshire. This is because to live amongst one another we concede some of our freedom to ensure we don’t unreasonably infringe on that of others. Liberty is what remains after we make these concessions, and individual instances of liberty – e.g., freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure – are liberties.
Liberties are freedoms to act as we think best, without interference (e.g., compulsion, coercion) by someone else. In general, we have a given liberty if it’s not removed by law or physical force, or we haven’t signed it away. Some liberty exists everywhere, even in prisons. But it’s obviously very limited in otherwise controlled places like that.
How much is enough?
Would you feel sufficiently free if you were wrongfully imprisoned but allowed to read a book from the prison’s library? While you might appreciate any liberties you have and realize things could be worse, you would likely prefer to have retained more liberties.
Being imprisoned is a quick way to realize the effects of losing liberties. The stark contrast in the ability to make choices for ourselves vs. having the majority of our lives dictated is enough to make prisoners appreciate the mere act of breathing outside prison walls.
While I do appreciate being able to breathe, I think it’s best to have far more liberties than that – and I’d personally like more than I can exercise at this time and in this place. No, I’m not in prison. I’m living in the so-called freest nation on Earth. But the people of this country have over time consigned our liberties to wardens of a different kind, and as a result we’re far less free than we’re meant to be.
We could change that if we wanted to.