Liberty is fleeting

José Azel
José Azel.

In his book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder cites the hero of a novel asserting that, “When you make love for the last time, you do not know that you are making love for the last time.” Liberty is somewhat like that, and when we enjoy liberty for the last time, we seldom realize that we are enjoying liberty for the last time. Liberty is fleeting.

We need liberty to act on our judgement because our rational judgement is our most basic means of living. If we are unable to act in accordance with our free judgement, we cannot live fully as human beings. During the Peloponnesian War, Pericles reminded us of this with a wonderful oration in defense of democratic values. He exhorted Athenians to fight for their freedom reminding his countrymen that “…happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

Nowadays we can examine the fleeting nature of freedom worldwide with the help of reports such as The Human Freedom Index (HFI) produced by the Cato Foundation. “The Human Freedom Index presents a broad measure of freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint.” In its sixth annual report the Index uses 76 indicators of personal and economic freedoms covering topics such as the rule of law, security and safety, movement, religion, association and others.

The HFI is a comprehensive index covering 162 countries representing 94 percent of the world’s population. The HFI measures freedom on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents more freedom. Accordingly, in 2018 the aggregate freedom rating worldwide was 6.93. This is a slight decrease from the base year of 2008. Critically, the gap in human freedom between the freest and the least free countries has widened since 2008.

Countries leading the freedom index are New Zealand and Switzerland, with Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic at the bottom of the freedom index. The United Sates and the United Kingdom are tied in 17th place. For my South Florida readers, Cuba does not provide adequate information to participate in the Index, but we can anticipate it would rate near the bottom. Venezuela rates third from the bottom in 160th place.

Importantly, the report shows that countries with greater freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income of $50,340 compared with the least free countries’ average per capita income of $7,720. Evidently, as economic and civil freedoms interact with one another, these freedoms play an important role in our well-being.

An influential late 18th century thinker on the fleeting quality of freedom was Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian who served as Professor of Universal History, at the University of Edinburgh. In his lectures, Tytler expressed a critical view of democracy. In a famous quotation, attributed to Tytler, he argues that:
A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.

Conscious of the frailty of liberty, Thomas Jefferson echoed Tytler: “Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction.”

Today, in our uncritical enjoyment of plenty we should ask: Are we enjoying our liberties for the last time?

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.