The tragedy in Paris last Friday has regrettably been employed as a catalyst for renewed calls by governments in western Europe and even in the United States for more curtailment of personal liberties. Those who accept the trade of liberty for safety have argued in favor of less liberty. They want government to have more authority to intrude upon the daily lives of more innocent people. Their targets are the freedoms of speech and travel and the right to privacy. Their goal is public safety, but their thinking is flawed.
The clash between liberty and safety is as old as the republic itself. The United States was quite literally conceived in liberty. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson painstakingly listed the ills and evils of the British government’s administration of the colonies. There were no complaints about the absence of public safety; rather, Jefferson’s “long train of abuses” cataloged the British government’s interference with the colonists’ personal liberties.
What has made the declaration so enduring and unique in world history is its unambiguous embrace of the natural law as its explanation of the origin of our rights. The British king thought he reigned by the will of God – the so-called divine right of kings.
Jefferson, influenced by the British philosopher and political theorist John Locke, turned that belief on its head. He argued that our liberties are natural, even inalienable, because they stem from our humanity, which is a gift from God. How could the same God have given us natural, inalienable personal freedoms and also have given the king the natural right to interfere with those freedoms?
The declaration’s answer is the profound rejection of the moral legitimacy of any government that lacks the consent of the governed, as well as its articulation of the Judeo-Christian ethic of valuing human life and its acceptance of the belief that humans possess inalienable rights “endowed by their Creator.”