“Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their powers; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”
– Thomas Jefferson (1816)
Over the past week I’ve made two round trip flights by air, which means I’ve had the distinct pleasure of passing through airport security four times in seven days. It may be my imagination, but I believe our friendly neighborhood TSA officers are getting more authoritarian. While the officer at the podium still exhibits call center courtesy, those charged with seeing people negotiate the canvass rope maze and show up with their license and boarding pass ready have taken to shouting orders, as if managing a chain gang. This characterization isn’t far from the truth. However, I don’t really blame the officers personally that much. Their job is to get people to act in a completely unnatural manner, partially disrobing in a crowded room full of strangers just for starters. With the exception of frequent travelers, no one is ever going to do it right.
So, as the days go by and thousands of new travelers shuffle in and forget to have their licenses ready, forget to take their suntan lotion out of their carry on, try to go through the metal detector with their jackets on, and do a thousand other things that innocent people would never think twice about doing, the frustration must build with these foot soldiers in the War on Terror. “I just told you yesterday that you can’t bring liquids through security!” they must think, forgetting that the little old lady they are snarling at today is not the same little old lady from yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that…
However, my sympathy does not go so far as to let me forget what is happening each time I remove my shoes and render my person, papers, and effects insecure against unreasonable searches. Regardless of the chirpy greeting by the uniformed agent with the infrared flashlight or the bizarre signs attempting to characterize this shakedown as some type of customer service (Rather be molested in private? Just ask…), I always remember what is really going on: I am being investigated for a crime.
There is no probable cause, no writs, no warrants sworn by oath or affidavit. In fact, for the 90-year-old gentlemen in front of me who just put his cane through the x-ray machine and is now holding onto the glass wall as he tries to stumble through the metal detector without it, there is no scenario that any reasonable person could imagine where he would or could harm anyone. Yet he is a suspect, too.
Most sane people who observe spectacles like this immediately conclude that law enforcement is going too far. Surely, there must be a better balance between liberty and security. But in thinking this they have already made an error. When it comes to liberty, there can be no balance. Liberty abides no compromise. Liberty is an absolute.
For generations, Americans have been conditioned to believe that there are no absolutes. The truth is always the synthesis of the extremes and compromise is the supreme virtue. These ideas proceed from the “intellectual class” that dominates our education system – a breed that long ago abandoned reason for the Hegelian confusion that allowed them to embrace communism. It is from this quarter that the spurious arguments against liberty proceed. “Absolute liberty is anarchy” or “you must balance liberty with the needs of society” or Bill Clinton’s infamous “When personal freedom’s being abused, you have to move to limit it.” All of these arguments are groundless. Those who make them don’t know what liberty is.
Today, what we used to call “liberty” has been given a sterile, quasi-clinical 20th century name by its most fervent proponents. We now call it “the Non-Aggression Principle.” This is by no means inaccurate, but hardly as poetic or stirring to the soul as Liberty. While it is useful in making arguments (I do so myself all of the time), I often wonder if this name allows people to relegate this most sacred of rights to the small libertarian and objectivist constituencies who champion it. It is much easier to say “there are more important things than the Non-Aggression Principle” than “there are more important things than Liberty.” Nevertheless, Liberty and the Non-Aggression Principle are one and the same.
The passage from Jefferson is not meant to suggest that it originated with him or our founders. They got it from Locke, who developed his ideas from ancient sources. As Locke said, men are naturally in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” The natural right to liberty is absolute within a natural limit: the law of nature. What is this law? The law of nature is reason, which “teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Thus, a state of absolute liberty “is not a state of license.” People exercising their right to liberty do not have an unqualified right to do whatever they wish, regardless of the consequences. There is a clear and unambiguous limit to even what a person in an absolute state of liberty may do. He may do anything that he wishes as long as he does not harm another in aggression, which he absolutely may not do.
Therefore, it is just more politicians talking gibberish when we hear arguments for more or less liberty or balancing liberty with security. Liberty does not conflict with any proper functions of government. When there is conflict between government and liberty, it is always government that’s wrong. Most importantly, as our founding document clearly states and reason demands, liberty is an unalienable right. It is for no one to limit, regulate, or balance with anything. The minute that any limit on human action is put in place beyond “the bounds of the law of nature,” liberty has ceased to exist. One is either free or not free. You cannot enslave someone a little.
Once liberty is properly understood, there are a few conclusions that one can draw about the purpose of government. First, government cannot at the same time secure the right to liberty and prevent crime. The minute government acts before a crime has been committed, it has destroyed liberty. Since they have committed no aggression, those restrained by a government crime prevention policy should be free to do whatever they choose, but are not.
To preserve liberty, government may only prosecute and punish crimes after they are committed, except in those rare instances when a law enforcement officer happens to be at the scene of a crime as it is taking place. Even military action is something our founders understood was only justified when a state of war already existed, which I wrote about in more detail in an article last year. That is why they granted Congress the power to declare war. To declare something presupposes it already exists.
An understandable first reaction to this idea is that in order to be free we must offer ourselves up as sitting ducks to criminals and foreign armies, only justified in responding after the damage has been done. This is refuted by the second conclusion one must draw from understanding liberty: that each individual has not only a right but a responsibility to defend himself. While this may sound frightening, it isn’t. This is really the only choice you have, whether you live in a free society or not. In all but the rarest of cases, the government simply is not there at the moment you are attacked. You must defend yourself the best that you can and try to survive. Only afterwards can the law come to your aid. This is why liberty and the right to bear arms are inseparable from one another.
In addition to destroying your liberty, crime prevention will always fail. A just law is one that prohibits aggression, like the law against murder. Once an aggressor has decided to violate this just and natural law, he is certainly not going to be dissuaded by some societal rule of conduct attempting to prevent him from having the opportunity to commit the real crime. He will simply break that law, too, as do so many murderers when they use illegal firearms to commit their crimes. Only the innocent are punished by attempts to prevent crime. They either follow the unjust law and surrender their liberty or are unjustly punished while committing no aggression.
This inevitable failure leads to the most ominous aspect of government’s misguided attempt at crime prevention: its equally inevitable expansion. With each new failure, the preventative measures must be increased in intensity to prevent further failure. The actions of all must be more and more limited until all opportunity to commit a crime is eliminated, which is impossible even under martial law. So, it is a steady march onward, with a police state the only logical end. Each new failure in the war on drugs or the war on terror takes us another step down that road.
Life in a state of liberty is not perfect. It makes no guarantees, other than the opportunity to pursue your happiness. You may prosper or you may be poor. You may be safe or you may come to harm. Chance will certainly have some effect on your life. We all deal with unexpected circumstances we cannot control, both good and bad. But liberty gives you the ability to act upon those things in life you can control, in the way you believe will be best for you and those you care about. Without liberty, you can control nothing and it is only a fool who believes any government can guarantee he will never be poor or never come to any harm. There is only one thing that life without liberty does guarantee: you will never truly be able to pursue your happiness. Robbed of that, why live at all?
 Jefferson, Thomas Letter to Francis Walker Gilmer June 7, 1816
 Locke, John Second Treatise of Government Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN (1980) Pg. 8
 Locke, John Second Treatise of Government Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN (1980) Pg. 9
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.