The Value of Liberty: how much liberty is worth without responsibility, how much power is worth without accountability

Of all concepts, liberals value liberty the most. Whether a person identifies him- or herself as a social liberal, or as a libertarian, or any other branch of liberalism. But there is a difference in how liberty is valued, and specifically which concept of liberty. Before expanding this, I will give some definitions of the terms I will use.

  • Individual Liberty
    The freedom of an individual to make his or her own decisions, without external interference.
    The freedom of speech.
    The freedom of religion.
  • Social Liberty
    The freedom of an individual to make decisions that involve other individuals, without interference of the other individual or a social construct.
    The freedom not to be excluded from a group.
    The freedom to communicate with another individual.
  • Negative Liberty
    The freedom from general interference.
    A free market.
    No requirement of a visa to cross a border.
  • Positive Liberty
    The power and resources to be free.
    Education to provide an individual with intellectual freedom.
    Social security to relieve an individual that does not have enough resources to participate in a free market.

Varying between personal views and ideological views, one may choose to value one concept of liberty more than the other. However, whatever concept of liberty one may prefer, when power comes into play, all concepts have one thing in common: liberty is worthless without responsibility.

A free individual can only live in a free society if each individual takes proper responsibility for his or her actions. For each concept of liberty, there is a concept of responsibility.

  • Personal Responsibility / Individual Liberty
    The responsibility for a person’s individual liberty.
    An individual admits he or she lied about something.
    An individual admits he or she stole something from someone else.
  • Social Responsibility / Social Liberty
    The responsibility of an individual towards the liberty of other individuals.
    An individual within a group involves another individual who is excluded from the group.
    An individual within a group decides to help out another individual who is in some kind of trouble.
  • Negative Responsibility / Negative Liberty
    The responsibility not to interfere with another individual.
    An individual does not force another individual to involuntary action.
    An individual only takes a decision that involves another individual with the consent of the other individual.
  • Positive Responsibility / Positive Liberty
    The responsibility to give power or resources to another individual.
    An individual needs something to be free and another individual decides to provide it.
    An individual is not able to freely take a decision due to his or her condition, so another individual decides for him, or her.

As I point out in the examples, a liberty can not exist if there is no responsibility for it. For one individual to be free, another individual has to take responsibility to secure that liberty. If one individual does not respect the liberty, whether individual or social, negative or positive, of another individual, that liberty is devalued. That liberty can not exist, because it is taken away by the absence of responsibility.

If every individual would do what he or she wants, without taking responsibility for his or her actions, the liberty of other individuals will inevitably be taken away, for a society, by definition, consists of more than one individual. Disregarding the role of any kind of authority, each individual must consider his or her actions and the consequences of his or her actions before enjoying his or her liberty to take that action. Otherwise, that liberty will be in vain, as it will probably have taken away the liberty of another individual.

This also has consequences for governance, where responsibility translates to accountability. Accountability, to me, is an advanced form of responsibility. It should include the possibility to reclaim power from one who has power and does not use it responsibly. This means the person or body that has that power has even more responsibility than an individual who does not have the same power. This puts some restrictions on what that person or body could and could not do without having to face the consequences for it. And again, as responsibility does for liberty, accountability determines the value of power. Power is worthless without accountability for it.

Accountability has stronger adversaries than responsibility. Whereas responsibility can be omitted by sheer negligence, selfishness, foolishness or any other kind of conscientious absence, accountability has to face corruption, power play, opportunity and similar ways of obscuring abuse of power. It can even be uglier when individual liberty of an individual in power over multiple other individuals is considered to be more important than the liberty of the individuals who are subdued by that power. That individual in power might have even more liberty than the individual would without being in power, but at the cost of the liberty of all the individuals being subdues by that power. But dictatorship is not considered liberal, is it?

This is why any individual who has some power, will have to take more responsibility for it. Each action with power has stronger consequences compared to the same action without power. One could even say that power exceeds the domain of liberty of one individual and involves the liberty of many individuals. This is why accountability is immensely important, and it is also the responsibility of the individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with that power to secure accountability.

This includes oversight, prosecution, transparency, proper laws and independent political instruments to ensure that there will be accountability for those individuals that have any degree or form of power. There will be no political justice if these are not implemented, as there is always the possibility of an individual that regards his or her liberty to be superior to the liberty of others and will not hesitate to use power to enact this view. Any criminal course of action needs a motive, an opportunity and a situation for the crime to be committed. Abusing power over many individuals for the benefit of one individual is a crime in itself.

Corruption and the abuse of power should therefore be treated as such. Civil society should always be on guard for this. That is why it is the responsibility of each and every individual in civil society to be aware of the possibility of corruption and abuse of power, and enforce accountability on those who involve themselves in these practices.

As there is no justice when a crime is committed and the criminal can continue without consequences, there is no justice when power is abused and the person who abused that power can walk away without consequences.

Once a person has the opportunity to obscure a criminal action, it comes down to whether that person regards his or her personal gain to be more important than the wellbeing of those who are under the influence of this action.

The motivation to look for power should therefore not be personal gain, but to make a difference in the lives of other individuals. Each and everyone should therefore consider for each person who looks for power that this person truly wishes to make a difference and does not aim for personal gain. And even when in power, one should not take the power lightly and distinguish any personal relationship from political relationships.

What is that power still worth, when it is consumed for the extended liberty of one individual, at the cost of the liberty of many other individuals?

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