All Americans agree liberty is one of our nation's fundamental values, perhaps the most fundamental of all.
It was the battle cry of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence called it an "unalienable right," and the goal of the Constitution was to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
But what does "liberty" mean here? It is sometimes used interchangeably with the more general term "freedom" because '"liberty" refers to freedom under, and secured by, government.
Liberty can seem paradoxical. As Texas Rep. Ron Paul loves to remind us, "all government action is inherently coercive." How can we be free under coercion?
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Many people see the apparent contradiction between liberty and government as real. Yet they recognize we need the internal and external security only a government can provide.
So libertarians such as Paul accept the state as a necessary evil. But they want to keep it as small as possible by limiting its functions to what is necessary to defend individual liberty in a free-market society.
Paul is a consistent libertarian. He would shrink government by reducing not only social programs but also the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend "maintaining an American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 foreign countries."
His radical views are unlikely to get him the Republican nomination for president.
The mainstream Republican Party today flirts with libertarianism, carefully peeking at the public to see how far it can go. It ignores the costs of our military empire, but it attacks social programs by demonizing government as oppressive and meddlesome. The Tea Party paints President Barack Obama as a latter-day King George III, an enemy of all true patriots.
There is a deep and dangerous incoherence in this libertarian vision.
American colonists revolted against the arbitrary power of a British government which they had not elected and which was unaccountable to them. The GOP is trying to weaken our elected government and maximize the power of an unelected corporate elite that is unaccountable to us.
Republicans try to depict the private sector as the domain of liberty. Yet they fight to shield the wealthy from taxation even though the richest 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
This great inequality in wealth translates into great inequality in power. It creates an unelected ruling class that funds the campaigns of politicians who will serve their interests. This is a private sector that subverts liberty.
Robert Nozick, a prominent libertarian philosopher, popularized the image of a night-watchman state. Its sole function would be to make sure no one harms the institutions it guards, allowing people to go about their business freely and productively.
We can see the silliness of this image by applying it to the reality of our society. Would anyone want a night watchman armed with the most powerful weapons on the planet, capable of killing or imprisoning us at will?
Even if Paul had his way and American imperial power came to an end, we would still need a sizeable and very powerful military to defend us. The more we strip our government of every function but external and internal defense, the closer we get to a night-watchman monster.
In fact, there is no contradiction between liberty and the coercive power of government. They are complementary.
There are certain very important goals that a society can achieve only by collective action. In addition to security, these include such things as the infrastructure of the world's largest economy, and basic scientific research of the sort that gave us the internet and will launch nanotechnology.
The coercive power of our democratic government is nothing else than our capacity to achieve those collective goals chosen by us through our representatives within the limits of our constitution.
Government is (or should be) us.
For instance, if we decide, through Congress, that extending Medicare to everyone is the best way to provide affordable health care to all Americans, this would be an exercise of liberty, not (as Republicans claim) an assault against it.
Our nation is like a voluntary association that adopts certain rules to achieve its goals. If a member finds new rules intolerable, she can quit. We're not slaves. We can always emigrate.