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Center for the History of Liberty

Wilfred M. McClay, director

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Reflections on Liberty

by Wilfred M. McClay
G.T. & Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty
Director of the Center for the History of Liberty

No idea is more central to the way we live and think in the Western world than the concept of liberty. And none is more highly esteemed. We value liberty for the many collateral benefits that it produces, such as economic growth, opportunity, innovation, creativity, and intellectual freedom. But more than that, we value it simply for its own sake. We view the exercise of liberty as an essential feature of what we are as human beings, a key aspect of our dignity and infinite worth, and our status as morally responsible persons with a capacity for rational self-governance.

Therefore, liberty’s value for us exists prior to and independent of any particular uses to which it is put. Liberty cannot be submitted to a cost-benefit analysis; it is more fundamental to us than that. It is the oxygen mixed into the very air that we breathe, and it gives vigor to our passions for exploration, discovery, and invention. The very existence of liberty is living proof that, in the words of Walter Lippmann, “man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine.” On the contrary, “in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.”

Fire is never without its risks, and the freedom to make choices must even include the freedom to make mistaken ones—the right to be wrong. For how could it be otherwise? A virtuous life cannot be truly virtuous if it is sustained solely through coercion and manipulation; it must be able to stand on its own feet and breath the rich air of freedom if it is to be fully itself. This is precisely why the preservation of liberty is for us an end in itself, and not merely a means to some other end; and why it so often involves us in the protection even of the right to be wrong. For just as such preservation cannot rely upon a force that compels us in the right direction, so such protection should not insulate us from the consequences of our wrong choices. We cannot know that we are free unless we are permitted to err; and by the same token, we can never be confident in the truth unless we listen to its challengers.

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