Law. Liberty. Love.

Liberty has an emotionally powerful appeal. We instinctively crave opportunities to choose our own way and resist boundaries that constrain us. This thirst for self-determination unceasingly appeals for freedom.

In its heroic embodiment, the pull of liberty compels some people to heroic actions that risk their lives and/or fortunes. Many Americans willingly laid down their lives to protect our freedoms. Yet, the license of liberty drives some to acts of callous disregard for others and even unspeakable acts of evil. Ancient writings speak of the chaos which results when every person does what is right in their own eyes and history is replete with examples of despotic power holders imprisoning, enslaving and killing millions of fellow human beings.

That contrast of outcomes suggests liberty is amoral. While often raised as a rallying cry, liberty alone will not produce stable families, societies or businesses. In order to avoid the risks of its worst excesses, we must somehow constrain liberty without squelching its productive nature. We may constrain liberty by external or internal forces.

External forces constrain liberty by cultivating fear and imposing physical force. A small element of a society (in extreme cases a single individual, such as a king or dictator) defines boundaries in the form of laws that prescribe the adverse consequences for unacceptable behaviors. These dictatorial lawgivers possess sufficient power to restrain lawbreakers and compel compliance through fear. In theory, a rational person will fear the negative consequence of breaking a law and instead choose to behave within the constraining boundaries prescribed by the laws of that society. When coupled with the human desire for liberty, this environment will encourage some to flirt with the lines of the law (i.e. how close may I get without getting in trouble?). Of greater and grimmer long-term consequence, the fear induced by the force of law reaps a risk-averse society or organization that squelches creativity and innovation.

An effective external constraint of liberty via laws relies upon several highly unstable presumptions in any society governed by fallible humans.

  1. Prudence — Laws prescribe a limited set of behaviors necessary for a safe and orderly society. Laws are few enough to remember and simple enough to understand such that each individual member of the society may moderate their own behaviors in full confidence of compliance with all the laws of that society.
  2. Reasonableness — Laws require no more than modest efforts to comply and are generally perceived as fair.
  3. Equality — Members of the society receive equal treatment under the laws. There are no exceptions or undue burdens for any element of society.
  4. Reliability — Laws are consistently enforced. Members of society know with certainty that they will get caught and punished for breaking the law and left alone when they comply.

The absence of any element unleashes increasing amounts of lawbreaking, which, in turn, causes the lawgiver(s) to deploy increasing levels of force and induce higher levels of fear. This societal death spiral will either choke the vitality of a society (consider the moribund Russian society under the yoke of the Soviet Union) or may induce rebellion (remember the birth of the United States).

Love for others as an internal driver can also compel us to restrain our exercise of individual liberty. We abandon other activities which may offer greater personal pleasure to care for our sick child. We moderate our language and even speaking volume around certain people or situations. We adjust our style of dress appropriate to the situation. We change our work style or schedule to accommodate the needs of the group. We give of our time, talents and treasure when others are counting on us. We make these choices voluntarily and often without immediate or even certain benefit to ourselves. Out of internally motivated love we choose to sacrifice our personal liberty for the benefit of those around us.

When we allow love to restrain our individual liberty we do not need long lists of dos and don’ts that cover every conceivable situation. We do not need bulging employee manuals or bloated legislation. We only need one beautifully and unforgettably simple guiding principle…Love your neighbor as yourself.

On the other hand, liberty constrained by law creates narrow spaces hemmed in by the boundaries of many laws and wastefully consumes attention and energy to understand and avoid those boundaries. The simplicity of liberty restrained by love creates vast open fields of opportunity for creativity and risk-taking. When I know that others have my best interests at heart I trust (not fear) them. This freedom from fear unleashes the innovative spirit within each of us.

Ask yourself this question…Do I personally and professionally cultivate relationships fueled by love or compelled by law?

Looking ahead…The choice to constrain liberty by law or restrain liberty by love impacts societies and businesses in innumerable ways and results in vastly outcomes. Present society defaults to liberty constrained by laws (including policies and procedures) to the point that “love” for others is rarely heard in the public square or board rooms. How societies and businesses might look if we constructively restrained liberty by love is the subject for a future blog post.