TWO KINDS OF LIBERTY

A piece by Thomas Woodlock in today’s OpinionJournal makes a distinction between political liberty (the right to participate in governance) and personal liberty (individual rights upon which government may not trample). He concludes,

Now the plain fact is that there has long been going on amongst us a change in the conscience of certain groups of opinion and especially in “Liberal,” “progressive,” “left-wing” circles in the direction of emphasizing the importance of “society” as against that of the person. The “Instrumentalist” philosophy has gone practically the whole distance in this direction, and its logic implies absolutism of the “democratic” state. All the left-wing drift is in the same direction, that is of sinking the person in the State. It is a drift toward the old Greek and Roman concept of “liberty”–political liberty–and away from the American concept of individual liberty that is afoot on the “Left,” a drift of which public opinion is as yet largely unconscious because the “democratic” form structure is not so far in question, and has sustained no important visible changes.

It is not in forms that this change has occurred but in the use to which the forms have been put and the validation by the judicial “form” of that use that is the point. The “police power” in the most important arm of the State and the Constitution does not give the Federal government this power nor was it intended that it should. Yet we have seen in he last decade, as Mr. Vreeland has pointed out, a series of judicial interpretations of the Constitution’s (so-called) interstate commerce clause which have placed in the government’s hands police powers of a sweeping character, the dimensions of which are still quite unsuspected by the general public. Moreover, the logic supporting these interpretations has implications still less suspected, much less generally understood, implications of further extensions of this power to a point where there would remain for the citizen but little of the “rights” that our Government was founded to protect.

It is high time that our people generally should recognize what is happening for what it is and ask themselves whether it is what they want. Their first job should be to get clearly into their heads the distinction between political liberty and personal liberty and how the same “democratic” structure can be made to produce either.

The piece has many implications for both the rebuilding of Iraq and our domestic reaction to the war on terrorism. Interestingly, the column first appeared on May 11, 1945.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.