The Liberal Tide: From Tyranny to Liberty

Liberalism, as the name implies, is the fundamental belief in a political ideal where individuals are free to pursue their own goals in their own ways provided they do not infringe on the equal liberty of others.

As such it is primarily concerned with issues of human rights. Two prominent liberal philosophers put it this way: “Rights are the language through which liberalism is spoken.” The entire liberal philosophy revolves around the primacy of the rights of the individual.

The great American liberal Thomas Jefferson put this liberal ideal into one succinct paragraph in his magnificent Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed...”

Liberalism turned upside-down the prevailing doctrine of human rights and politics. For centuries it was assumed that man lived for the sake of the State; that what rights he possessed were gifts given to him by his King or government. Liberals argued that the opposite was true. People possessed rights first and governments got their sanction from the people. The government is not the giver of rights to the people; it is the people who are the source of government’s legitimacy.

The French liberal Frederic Bastiat explained liberal principles in his classic work The Law. Bastiat starts with the fact that all people are given the gift of life. But he says that life “cannot maintain itself alone”. Humans have “marvelous faculties” to produce that which is required for life and man sits amidst “a variety of natural resources”. “By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.”

To survive man must apply his rational mind to natural resources. Life requires freedom and if man is to survive he must keep the product of his labor or, in other words, he must have rights to property. Liberals have argued that it is for this reason that legitimate governments are created. Jefferson said the purpose of government was to secure rights already held by the individual.

AUTHOR Jim Peron is President at Laissez Faire Books. This article is an extract from the book The Liberal Tide: From Tyranny to Liberty published by the Institute for Liberal Values, and may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Policy Bulletin / 15 May 2012

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