Liberty or Order?

The title of this essay, Liberty or Order?, has been a headline in the news recently. Indeed, it is one of the longest running headlines in the American news media. The first newspapers in America, printed in the early 1700s, frequently printed the headline—or something like it. Often the headline has been posed less as a question and more as a mandate: liberty then order, or, order then liberty. The question has intrigued thinkers for millennia. The Athenians of the fifth century, BC, asked it when they invented the idea of democracy. The Romans at the same time asked it when they invented the Republic. The question intrigued Cicero and Caesar in the first century BC. Since then it has constantly been on the minds of political thinkers, whether conservatives seeking more order than liberty, or liberals seeking more liberty than order. Magna Carta was signed by King John II in the shadow of the debate over liberty or order. The English Civil War was fought to reconcile the issue. The participants of the American Revolution, and after it the French Revolution, furiously (and violently) debated the issue. It was central to the debates among the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. It entered foreign policy discussions during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. It was a hot topic when Roosevelt proposed the New Deal. Liberty or order became a life and death issue during World War II and in its aftermath, when America stood opposed to the Soviet Union, while McCarthyism raised its ugly head at home in the 1950s. It was again a frequent headline in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. More recently, since 9/11, the issue of liberty and order dominates political discussion, especially in the wake of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the government’s attempts to stifle terrorist acts in America. A few years ago, Christopher Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and presidential contender, stated in an interview on NPR that he disagreed with the Republican contention, as enforced by the Bush administration, that Americans should be “more secure with less rights.” It reminds me of the New Hampshire license plate, “Live Free or Die.”

There have been a variety of great philosophers over the centuries who have considered the issue of liberty or order. Two of the most important, especially in respect to American government, were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes and Locke were English philosophers who lived and wrote during the 1600s, at the same time as the founding and development of the British-American colonies. Hobbes was the philosopher of the English Restoration (1660), when Charles II ascended the throne of England, restoring monarchy to the realm. Locke was the philosopher of the Glorious Revolution (1689), when James II was exiled and William of Orange made king. Hobbes is best known for his book, Leviathan. Locke is known for his Letter Concerning Religious Toleration, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Treatises on Civil Government.

Hobbes wrote Leviathan to argue that a strong orderly government, particularly the rule of one man (monarch), was the best way to ensure liberty, since without order people cannot experience the freedom to go about their business unimpeded by criminals and harassed by those who live a different lifestyle. Hobbes assumed that humans are inherently sinful, evil, hence will constantly be tempted to hurt others, to make war, as it were, on their fellow humans.

Locke wrote Treatise on Civil Government to argue that order comes about naturally through liberty, since humans are inherently good. Though humans can live together without a structured government, they voluntarily choose to associate or incorporate themselves in government to ensure their own survival, even prosperity.

So who had it right, Locke or Hobbes? Is liberty or order the best platform upon which to build government?

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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