Liberty and Responsibility: Two Fundamental Concepts

Published on May 11, 2016

Liberty and Responsibility: Two Fundamental Concepts
21 August 2009


On the masthead of my blog, you can read two words: “liberty” and “responsibility.”

These two concepts are the most important ones in my political philosophy.

I believe they are the foundation of a peaceful and prosperous society. They are necessary conditions for order and progress. They are the very basis for civilisation.

Those of you who already know me have often heard me talk about individual freedom and free markets.

As I noted in a recent video message about the ideological notions of left and right, when we debate an issue of public policy, the alternatives are usually to have the government intervene by imposing new spending programs and regulations; or to leave individuals free to cooperate among themselves and find a solution.

I have often observed that some people fear liberty because they are afraid of its consequences. They think that if we leave people free to do what they want, it will mean some kind of free for all where anybody can do anything. For example, where people will be free to steal, or to pollute, or to do dangerous things that will bring trouble to everyone else.

In other words, they are afraid that they will be the victims of other people’s freedom. They will bear the consequences of other people’s behaviour.

But that’s not what freedom is about. A free society is always one where there are basic rules protecting everyone’s freedom and property.

You are free to do what you want with your own person and your own property. But your freedom stops where the freedom of others begins. Nothing you do should have negative repercussions on other people or on their property, unless you had an agreement with them beforehand.

Freedom does not mean doing what you want and unloading all the consequences on the rest of society. On the contrary, to be free necessarily means that you have to be responsible for your actions.

So when we discuss government intervention, we absolutely have to take this into account. Ideally, governments should intervene as little as possible so that individuals are free to act as they want. But governments should also protect the rights and property of all citizens, and enforce agreements and contracts.

In particular, they should not do anything that would allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. For example, in an ideal world, governments should not bail out those who made bad business decisions. They should not act as a collective insurance for everyone who took unnecessary risks. They should not, as is often the case nowadays, privatize the profits and socialize the losses.

If people understood this, perhaps there would be less fear of freedom, and a better appreciation of its fundamental importance.

I believe that Canadians are intelligent and responsible people who can be trusted. They know better than any politicians or bureaucrats in Ottawa what’s good for them.

I will leave you with this excellent quote from the great economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek:

“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”

Talk to you soon.