Is freedom a virtue or a vice? That question goes to the heart of some of the past century's most violent conflicts. And it seems to be driving much of the criticism against the US today. But as it's described in the quintessential work on freedom – the US Declaration of Independence – liberty is worthy of all the world's admiration.
Essentially, the signers declared:
We believe that it is true beyond any doubt that every human enters the world with the right to live and with the freedom to pursue happiness. But since it's a jungle out there, few people are actually able to enjoy these freedoms. The sole purpose of the people-elected government is to protect these basic rights.
Detractors argue that this government-protected liberty licenses a lust for the kind of greed responsible for much of the world's misery. To satisfy this lust, they say, Americans, or their proxies, kill, steal, and destroy other cultures – and then justify this behavior on the basis of "freedom."
What rubs those that argue the perils of individual freedom the wrong way isn't just what the US unfairly takes from other societies, it's what we force on others – our ways. Profitmakers peddle Barbie dolls, iPods, cellphones, DVDs, computers, and other materialistic items too numerous to count in order to create a market for their goods and trample other societies in the process.
This indictment includes all Americans who work for, own stock in, buy from, or sell to Big Oil, Big Corn, or "Big" anything because, to the accusers, such individuals profit from or contribute to the "predatory practices of American capitalism" – and, therefore, should be held accountable.
So intimates Osama bin Laden, and so say some radicals of our own. Former professor Ward Churchill wrote of those killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 that "they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break."
Though not everyone talks in these hyperbolic terms, even the most patriotic American may have some unease about where the US stands today on liberty.
But, in the face of these kinds of arguments, there have been some pretty substantial defenders of individual freedom over the years:
In 1926 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge spoke about the virtues of individual freedom and the greatness of the Declaration: "Man everywhere has an unconquerable desire to be the master of his own destiny."
President Coolidge reminded us that the Declaration stood out as a great charter of government not only because it liberated Americans, "but was everywhere to ennoble humanity. It ... was proposed to establish a nation on new principles."
In between his runs for the White House, Adlai Stevenson also explained the importance of individual liberty to the institution of Democracy. "It is the function of the democratic form of government to nurture freedom," the former governor extolled in 1954. "No less does the democratic form of government require freedom as the condition in which it can function at all."
In societies without individual freedom guarantees, democracies fail because such societies tend to degenerate into factions in which the majority legally punishes the minority.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed. The United States, she declared "is the most reliable force for freedom in the world, because the entrenched values of freedom are what make sense of its whole existence."
Judging how our basic principles have served us and affected the world depends on the scale of measure. While other societies are usually evaluated on their progress from whence they began, too often the United States is judged on how far it has to go to attain perfection. But we are a work in progress. We have been ebbing and flowing for over two centuries, and yes, we still haven't found the perfect balance between democracy and liberty.
Others are quick to remind us of this imperfection and blame it on our freedoms. We write and talk about our own failings constantly. But as plenty of great men and women have pointed out through the years, what we have been able to accomplish is beyond great.
We take advantage of a bountiful land by implementing, albeit sometimes imperfectly, the founding principles. These have provided self-confident entrepreneurs the freedom to create an untold number of life-enhancing products and services that have benefited millions around the world. And it has allowed the United States of America to become the most successful and prosperous society.
As President Ronald Reagan repeated often, "America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
Is a society whose members enjoy the "blessings of liberty" evil and destructive by nature? The quick answer is no. It is because we have the virtue of freedom, that despite any imperfections, we are able to redevelop and improve ourselves constantly. Since it is clear beyond any doubt that liberty is a virtue, the answer is a self-evident truth.
• Gary Watts is a retired history teacher.