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essays

Jan 1, 1885

The Widest Possible Liberty

An Excerpt from "The Choices Between Personal Freedom and State Protection"

Herbert defends a principle of liberty which holds that “freedom in … pursuit of happiness must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others.”

We can suppose no other object to be placed before ourselves but happiness, though we may differently interpret the word, in a higher or in a lower sense. We are then entitled to pursue happiness in that way in which it can be shown we are most likely to find it, and as each man can be the only judge of his own happiness, it follows that each man must be left free so to exercise his faculties and so to direct his energies as he may think fittest to produce happiness;—with one most important limitation, which must always be understood as accompanying the liberty of which I speak. His freedom in this pursuit of happiness must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others. Neither by force nor by fraud may he restrain the same free use of faculties enjoyed by every other man. This then, the widest possible liberty, is the great primary law on which all human intercourse must be founded if it is to be happy, peaceful, and progressive. Perfect obedience to it will produce constant advance in our capabilities for happiness, in our feelings of kindliness and good will toward each other, in our intellectual acquisitions. Just as I believe this to be the master-principle of good in human affairs, so do I believe that old desire which is so firmly planted in the breasts of men—the desire to exercise force over each other—to be the master-principle of evil. Where liberty is to be bounded by liberty, it is necessary for us to define liberty and to restrain all aggressions upon it. In this one case force acquires its true sanction, that of being employed in the immediate defense of liberty, but except in this case physical force has no place or part in civilized life, and represents the antiprogressive power that still exists amongst us. If this principle be true—and I believe that the more it is examined and subjected to attacks, the more clearly will it be seen to be true—then how sure and how simple is the guide which we possess in political life, and how mischievous though well intentioned are all those efforts of the reformer or the philanthropist who believes in his own special method of coercion and restraint, and has never learned to believe in the all-healing method of liberty. I do not ask that the principle of liberty should be accepted by any man until he has most carefully and most anxiously viewed it in its every bearing, and has examined every group of political facts with the purpose of ascertaining whether mischievous results, like in kind, do not, sooner or later, follow wherever there is a neglect or contempt of liberty. If the principle be true we shall be able, with increasing knowledge and better methods of examination, to vindicate it at every point. Of all the serious steps in life, that is the most serious when a man chooses the guiding principle of his actions. I think, therefore, we ought to search out for ourselves and to listen to all that can be said against the principle of liberty. Let us hear all the counter evidence possible before we finally exalt it as our rule and guide, though, perhaps, when we have once done so, we shall be as much inclined to smile when it is impatiently proposed to disregard it for the sake of some passing evil, as the Astronomer Royal would be if some new group of facts were to be hastily explained in disregard of the influence of gravitation. Nor must we assign to liberty qualities which it does not possess, and which, if we were in a mood of unreasoning enthusiasm to attribute to it, would only lead to our disappointment. Like other great beneficent forces in nature, such as natural selection, there is a sternness in it, and its direct effects are often accompanied with pain. It is, as I believe, the great all-healer, but healing must sometimes be a painful process.

Now let me point out to you that we have not arrived simply at an abstract result, but that this question of liberty as against force will be found to enter into all the great questions of the day. It is the only one real and permanent dividing line between opinions. Whatever party names we may give ourselves, this is the question always waiting for an answer, Do you believe in force and authority, or do you believe in liberty? Hesitations, inconsistencies there may be—men shading off from each side into that third party which in critical and decisive times has become a proverb of weakness—but the two great masses of the thinking world are ever ranged on the one side or the other, supporters of authority, believers in liberty.

What, then, is the creed of liberty, and to what, in accepting it, are we committed? We have seen that there exists a great primary right that as men are placed here for happiness (we need not dispute as to the meaning of the term), so each man must be held to be the judge of his own happiness. No man, or body of men, has the right to wrest this judgment away from their fellow man. It is impossible to deny this, for no man can have rights over another man unless he first have rights over himself. He cannot possess the right to direct the happiness of another man, unless he possess rights to direct his own happiness: and if we grant him the latter right, this is at once fatal to the former right. Indeed to deny this right, or to abridge anything from it, is to reduce the moral world to complete disorder. Deny this right and you have no foundation left for rights of any kind—for justice, political freedom, or political equality—you have established the reign of force, and whatever gloss of civilization you may place over it, you have brought men once more to the “good old plan” on which our fathers stood.

This I believe to be the plain truth. There is this one strong simple foundation, or there is nothing. We may accustom our minds to Houses of Parliament, to majorities in the House, or majorities in the nation; we may talk our political jargon and push forward our party schemes, but this great truth remains unaltered through all our sayings and doings. It is true that here, as elsewhere in nature, we may live in disregard of the law, but here, as elsewhere, there is no escape from the consequences. All the partialities and privileges—all the bitter envyings and hostilities which exist amongst us—all the craving for power—all the painful unrest and blind efforts—all the wild and dangerous remedies—all the clinging to old forms, and the want of faith and courage to choose the new—all these will be found in an ultimate analysis to be amongst the consequences—and serious enough they are—of not recognizing and obeying the law on which our intercourse with each other is founded.