From Natural Law to Liberty to Capitalism


Over the past 20 years, much of the defense of liberty has centered on its empiric success, rather than on the morality of economic and political systems whose very foundations rest on concepts of liberty.

The people who we traditionally have looked to when discussing issues of political philosophy and morality have withdrawn from the discussion. Arguments from those few in The Academy or from The Church are marginalized when The Natural Law or a moral defense of liberty or private property, free markets, capital accumulation, or contract enforcement is discussed on our campuses, in the lay press or even amongst the religious. They would rather talk about diversity and discrimination. Concepts far easier to understand, but irrelevant without understanding that their foundation is built on liberty. No liberty no diversity.

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Many people who call themselves conservative or libertarian do not subject themselves to the moral testing of the ideas and policies that are brought before them. There are no rules for applying general rules to specific cases and without a moral bases or acting on a state of emotion, moral relativism can be coercive and thus self-destructive. When specific rules are applied to general or specific cases, rules based on a moral standard such as The Natural Law, a subject discussed in a previous post, then judgement can be applied to situations. No standard means no judgement and thus no justice. Christians and humanists alike have agreed that the moral standard to be applied in our country is based on The Natural Law defined as” a moral order inscribed in all of nature and known to all men based on reason, grace or revelation”

It is The Natural Law that the philosophers of the Enlightenment especially Locke, Burke, Adam Smith, and Jefferson, understood to be the bases of our liberties. And all discussed in detail the difference between the concept of freedom and liberty terms that today are used interchangeably. This confusion may be a small part of the problem in many of our political discussions today. The argument for freedom is easily made and compelling. The argument for liberty requires also arguing for responsibility and accountability.

The ant understood liberty. The grasshopper understood freedom. Robin Hood like the progressives of today transferred wealth, but unlike the progressives of today took on an agency position and was at risk because of his actions against the law. Politicians promise free stuff and in so doing they do not secure liberty, but rather encourage dependency and indenture hood. They themselves are never at economic risk, and in fact, the promise of “free stuff’ may help secure their political office. I look at the taxes I pay for the promises they make as a non-deductible campaign contribution.

Liberty described today by modern philosophers means being unencumbered within an oppressive society from any form of coercion making one act against one’s conscience. When Jefferson spoke of freedom of the press or religion this was always with respect to an outside coercive force. But the Enlightenment Philosophers understood that liberty required responsibility and the duty of accountability.

Freedom was described by several of our Founders including Jefferson as being free “from something” and liberty was described as being free “to do something” 19th century academics confused the issue by describing freedoms as being positive-to do something, or negative or dispositive as restricting an action. Our Bill of Rights are dispositive or negative because they limit actions by government. They do not define negative individual liberties but rather protect positive liberties they protect the actions of individuals from each other and government.

My Quaker grandfather was an electrical engineer and he always tried to simplify philosophic arguments. He told me that freedom was being able to throw your fists in any direction, but when they hit someone’s nose that defined your and their liberty. “Your liberty, your ability to act extends as far as the end of the other guy’s nose”.

Without The Natural Law, there would be no foundation to secure individual liberties. Without liberty, there would be no right to property. Without the right to property, there would be no capitalism. Without capitalism, the industrial revolution would be still in its infancy and slavery would still be ubiquitous throughout the world. Without this uniquely Western march to modernity, the lifting of the great masses out of poverty and providing the great number of people in our world the benefits of liberty and material well-being and upward mobility, we would be living very different lives.

The march from The Natural Law to where we all are today needs to be better explained by those in the academic and ecclesiastical world. Time for them to get started. Time for us to start relearning the lessons of our Founding. Don’t we owe that to all who have sacrificed to secure “the blessings of liberty” for us?

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