The word liberty, like so much of our language today, has been pitifully abused and debased. (Other examples include spiritual, genius, legendary, gay, courageous, heroic, tragedy, literally.... The list goes on and on.) It now seems undeniably true that the breakdown of language precedes the breakdown of civilization - not, as many think, vice-versa.
Due in no small part to the mass absorption of - and perversion of - the utilitarianism preached by the likes of Bentham and Mill, the cheapening of liberty has now been going on for centuries. This situation thus demands a preliminary question: what is liberty not? Simply the absence of restraint. Nor does it involve anything like the “right” to hire surgical hitmen to snuff out our unwanted children.
True liberty involves a certain ordering of soul. Where there’s disorder in the soul, there can be no liberty. More specifically, where there’s slavery to one’s passions, there is no liberty.
Thus a prisoner in solitary confinement may be freer than the “free” man who’s abandoned himself to pornography, as long as the rule of reason prevails in that prisoner’s soul. He may be shackled, gagged, beaten and hosed on a daily basis – yet he may remain free while the pornofanatic remains a slave.
Now think of all the vices to which men, whom the world sees as free, are enslaved. Behold the myriad of new electronic devices forging stronger chains of slavery every day. Observe the legions of men – grown men! – now hooked on video games. Can a permanent adolescent be a free man?
Think of the herds of “individuals” today who brand themselves with tattoos. Can slaves to bovine fashion be free?
In the political world, think of Paul Ryan shamelessly declaring before us all during the Republican National Convention that “my iPod starts at AC/DC and ends at Zeppelin.” Assuming his sincerity, can a free man ever make such a declaration? O shame, where is thy blush?
As for a state, how does it secure and preserve liberty? In accord with the hierarchical nature of true liberty, it must first acknowledge that government does not derive its just powers from below, but from above. Thus, contrary to the Declaration of Independence, the consent of the governed is not the test of governmental legitimacy. Rather, the test is the extent to which the laws of the state conform to the laws of God. Only where there is such conformity may a body politic rightly be called free.
This reminds me of another abused and debased word: theocracy. We'll have to save this for another time.
In the meantime, I suggest the following reading:
-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
-St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
-Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei
-Pope Leo XIII, Libertas Praestantissimum donum
-Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas