The Liberty Bell, the iconic symbol of American independence from British colonial rule, is transcribed with, 'Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof'. Just this year, in the midst of a pandemic, US citizens continued to protest in the name of liberty: 'GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH'.
Liberty, being able to do what one wills to do, sits at the heart of American political ideology. It is romanticised through the ‘Land of the Free’, ‘Leader of the Free World’, and ‘the American Dream’. As the minimisation of legal restrictions, it is also enshrined in many rights (e.g. to be free in speech and in bearing arms).
But many liberties are dangerous—a view which is currently shared by many governments around the world, including USA’s—who have imposed freedom-removing lockdowns.
Moreover, there are many philosophical issues to consider. What liberties should we have? Is it fair that rich people get more of them? Do we all share the same liberties but differ on capabilities?
Either way, whatever liberties people value, liberty is usually always unequally distributed because of pre-existing inequalities. In one view, more wealth fairly ‘buys’ more freedoms. Such a view is commonly dubbed ‘right-wing’. But even in the liberalism of John Rawls, resource inequality is permitted by the ‘Two Principles of Justice’ (if it creates the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged).
Debates around liberty are often skewed, presenting freedom as something which is always coherent and covetable. The idea of liberty is idealised and sold to us; and we lap it up. But liberty isn’t everything that should be considered: political philosophers can’t even decide what justice is: which liberties should go where.
Liberty may often be preached about by US citizens for good reason. But the outright aspiration to be free masks potentially a greater problem: that we say we want liberty but we don’t freely form our own opinions on it. That is, ironically, we were never free to begin with.