The reality is that there will always be leaders, and their attitude to those over whom they have power is not guided by the conclusions of moral philosophers. Those who can gain power will want it, and those who have power will exercise it. There is no point whatsoever in speaking of right and wrong, in trying to determine what they mean in any given situation, in analysing what the laws should permit or forbid, except as an academic exercise or, in the case before us, as a rhetorical or dialectical tool in the constant battle to stop those who have power from using it. They might be swayed by it, they might not.
Because there will always be leaders, who will act in their own interests, those who are not able to exercise power to the same degree have to protect themselves as best they can. One of the weapons they have is their own freedom. Not just using it well, but defending it at every turn, exercising it and being seen to exercise it by the leaders, making it an object of reverence, taking the rhetorical battle to those who would diminish its importance, and having them explain themselves.
This is only possible where the government is prepared to recognise the importance of personal freedom at all, and will be, or must allow itself to be, drawn into the rhetoric of freedom. Many governments, historically and currently, would be bemused by the very idea that their subjects could have such a thing as freedom, could act independently of what they have been instructed or permitted to do. One of the great things about democracy, for all its defects, is that it requires governments to recognise the rhetoric of freedom as part of the political process. Totalitarian governments do not have to do this. It’s one of the ways we recognise them.
It is, therefore, important to oppose on principle any restriction of freedom, to demand that it be explained and justified, and to extract a high political price, in support or acceptance of legitimacy, for any imposition upon our freedom. This is true of even the most justifiable impositions. Few people would argue that others should be free to commit murder, just in case they themselves wish to commit it at some point. Nevertheless, the right to defend ourselves from murderers has been arrogated to the state by itself. An individual cannot himself punish a murder committed on his property, nor, any longer (I’m thinking of Britain, Spain and the US- this last based more on watching Westerns than anything else), can a town, collectively, act against those who commit murder within it*. Although we are happy enough to give up the freedom to murder, the freedom to act against murderers has been taken away by the government and put in the hands of its appointed agents. We may agree that this is a good thing, a better guarantee that most murderers will be caught and only real murderers will be punished, and that therefore the restriction on our freedom is justified, but in exchange for that restriction we should demand that the actions of the government in acting against murderers be perfect, and they should know that we are checking and will hold any failure against them.
*The village I am writing this in, like many in Castille, still has its ‘picota’, also known as a ‘rollo’, basically a stone column that served as a gallows. It was permanent and usually stood in a high, visible spot (ours, for some reason in beside the river, but most of the ones I have seen, and quite a few still stand, are up high). It was a symbol of the right of a town, a right recognised by the crown, to defend itself on its own terms. Judgement was by the whole town (well, the committee of burgesses, basically the adult males). There may have been errors, demagogues, petty vengeances and other problems, but society as a whole took the decisions, not some outside agent appointed by the state. However expert and well-intentioned those agents are, they are not society, they are not the town and they do not genuinely represent its interests or its wishes.