Personal liberty is one of the great ideals upon which U.S. society is founded. Liberty of thought and belief are critical to the preservation of a free society. Freedom of expression and of the press are necessary to protection of them. But freedom of action must often be constrained to preserve a civil society. No reasonable person would argue that societies have no right to enforce laws against murder, for example. But far from being enshrined in the core of our national identity, constraint on freedom of action evokes an immediate negative response from many.
When we think of constraints on liberty of action, laws against murder, robbery, and other things upon which nearly all members of our society agree are rarely what comes to mind. Instead, shadowy thoughts are evoked of the heavy hand of government reaching into areas of our lives where we don't believe it belongs. Despite the strength of our agreement about many constraints, we do not celebrate constraint and the benefits of it the way we celebrate freedom. This is appropriate. Historically, the struggle for freedom has been much more difficult and necessary than the struggle for necessary constraints. But have we become too obsessed with freedom, and lost sight of the value of constraints?
If asked about constraints on freedom of action, many would argue that any actions that don't infringe on the rights of third parties should allowed. But let's name some specifics. Should children be compelled to attend school, or should that choice be left to them? Should they be compelled to do their homework, or should that choice be left to them? If they skip school, which undoubtedly most usually would if given the option, who does it hurt other than them? Nobody, directly. Indirectly, if they get into trouble while looking for ways to fill their days, others might be hurt, but that's beside my point. We feel it appropriate to compel children to attend school because we know how severely their lives will be limited if they don't get a good education. We feel good about constraining their liberty because we don't feel they're mature enough to make certain decisions for themselves. We know that the easy route that many of them will choose will leave them with less freedom in the future.
But what about adults? Are we wise enough to make the decisions that will be for our good? Do we not often make foolish decisions because of our laziness, our lack of understanding, our ingrained habits, our narrowness of vision, and lack of hope?
I'm not going to advocate handing control of our lives and personal decisions over to government or any other external decision maker. But I would hope that we would spend a little more time thinking about the value of constraints, the value of making and sticking to commitments--even voluntarily giving others the authority to hold us to our commitments under some circumstances.
The one specific area on which this has bearing that I'll mention is marriage. When people get married, they accept certain constraints. If they decide they want out of the commitment, they can't simply pick up and leave without any residual responsibility. I suspect that our national distaste for external constraints is a significant part of the reason for people increasingly living together unmarried. Without arguing questions of "right and wrong", is their any objective value in the constraints that are part of the marriage package? Like compulsory education for children, are we not better off if we are compelled (or at least strongly encouraged by the "costs" involved in divorce) to make an effort to improve our relationships when challenges arise? Do we not "suffer" if we take the easy way out, rather than developing some more social skills, even if not all our relationships are salvaged? I'm not arguing for requiring people to get married, but if we agree that there is value in the constraints of marriage, or any other constraints which we feel to choose not to accept, then it behooves us to consider whether we ought to be a little less obsessed with maximizing our liberty of action, and put a little more thought into continuing our education.