Liberty and Justice for All

This nation was founded with a commitment to secure liberty and justice for all. The current political divisiveness and governmental dysfunctionality are clear signs that we may be running out of time to turn the ideals upon which the nation was founded into tangible reality.


The American Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” The preamble to the Constitution of the U.S. enumerates the basic functions of government, beginning with “to establish Justice” and ending with, “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, first drafted during the Civil War, is a declaration of loyalty not only to the flag but also to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In the most general sense, liberty means the freedom to act as one pleases. In the political sense, liberty may be defined more narrowly as “being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views.” Political liberty in the U.S. has been generally interpreted as being free from restrictions on individuals imposed by their government—as suggested in the Bill of Rights. However, individuals may also be deprived of liberty by the failure of the government to protect them from oppressive restrictions on their way of life, behavior, or political views—regardless of the source of oppression. Political liberty requires the protection of the unalienable rights of all to participate fully in society, including in the processes of governance. There can be no liberty in the absence of justice.

Justice is generally interpreted politically as “equal protection under the law” or the absence of discrimination by the government in protecting “life, liberty, and property”—as described in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a classic book, Political Justice, drafted shortly after the U. S Constitution, political philosopher William Godwin defined justice as the “impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a consideration of the properties of the receiver, and the capacity of him that bestows.” Political justice requires not only equal protection of rights to “life, liberty, and property” but also “impartial treatments in matters that relate to happiness.” The "pursuit of happiness" was not simply a casual addition to the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. Justice requires that to the extent these rights can be secured for any in society, they are to be secured for all.

This broader interpretation of justice is essential to the effective functioning of government. Whenever people are denied justice, including the essentials of life and the basic requisites for human happiness, they do not have the liberty or freedom to participate fully in society. Those denied justice cannot participate in governance in ways that are essential to secure the blessings of liberty for all. Without justice, there can be no liberty, and without liberty, there can be no justice.

There is general agreement among psychologists regarding a progression of human motivations that follows a process first advocated by Abraham Maslow—generally referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” The most basic human needs are those for food, water, clothing, shelter, and the other physical necessities of life. Once those most urgent needs are met, motivations progress to meeting the needs of safety and security. Only after a person feels a measure of personal safety and security are they able to focus on meeting their needs for personal relationships with others—family, friends, and community. Quite logically, there are overlaps among these various stages of development. Relationships may be formed for purposes of safety and security as well as the basic human needs for companionship and love. Only after these “personal” needs are met is the individual free to focus on “impersonal” relationships with others in their communities and society in general.

Governments are created specifically to allow individuals to facilitate “impersonal” or societal relationships within communities and societies—much as markets facilitate “impersonal” economic relationships. These societal relationships are even more important than economic relationships in the pursuit of individual well-being and happiness. Economies are simply means to more important societal ends. The higher-level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy for self-esteem, recognition, and a sense of accomplishment arise primarily from relationships within the larger society. The final stage of Maslow’s concept of human development is self-actualization, meaning the achievement of one’s highest potential or purpose in life. Life has purpose only within the larger whole of things.


The primary political implication of this assessment of human motivation is that people are not free to participate fully in the impersonal processes of governance until their personal physiological, safety, and security needs have been met—either by themselves or through their relationships with others with whom they feel a personal kinship.

Many people in the U.S. today have just cause for concern about their personal safety and security as well as access to clean air and water and enough wholesome food. How can a person focus on “liberty and justice for all” when their individual security, safety, or even survival, is threatened? Why should people in inner cities or rural communities believe the government can secure liberty and justice for them when their government has promoted the economic plunder and pollution of their communities? The “special interest groups” that now dominate politics are simply collections of individuals who have a political kinship arising from a common grievance or concern about government. Their political interest is focused on a specific grievance or concern. Few of these people have, or feel they have, the individual freedom to focus their participation in government on promoting the common good or securing liberty and justice for all. The noteworthy champions of liberty and justice among those with unmet personal needs are exceptions to this general rule.


Most of us in the U.S. do not have a legitimate excuse for failing to do our part to ensure liberty and justice for all. We have access to the basic necessities of life, we live in a reasonably safe and secure environment, and have a measure of economic security through employment and some assurance of a livable retirement. Extensive research has shown that beyond fairly modest levels of income, equality of opportunity is more important than economic status in determining the level of happiness within global societies. Economically, most of us live well above the level essential for a life of quality, well-being, or happiness.


The primary threat to liberty and justice in capitalist nations is the relentless quest for economic growth. If people are to be convinced to work harder, produce more, and keep the economy growing, they must be kept in a mental state of economic precariousness. They must not be allowed to feel “economically secure”—no matter their actual economic status. Persuasive advertising, planned obsolescence, easy credit, and privatization of government services are just a few of the tactics used to keep the political focus of Americans on their individual economic security. A strong Protestant ethic that equates hard work and economic wealth with moral worth seems to validate the nation’s economic addiction. Young families with large housing loans, auto loans, and student loans coupled with dependence on “at will” employment for income and stock market investments for retirement are economically precarious.


If the United States of America is to fulfill its inaugural promises, those of us who have the liberty to participate fully in government must work together through government to ensure a measure of personal safety and economic security for all. We must wake up to the fact an equitable and just society means far more to our own quality of life than would additional income or wealth. Special interest groups must understand their individual concerns are but symptoms of the larger failure of government to serve the common good. We must elect people to public office who will not sacrifice the common good of all for their own interests or the special interests of their constituents. Economic security does not mean that everyone must have equal income or wealth. Everyone must simply have enough to allow them to participate fully in society, including in the processes of governance. This is not socialism. These are the ideals upon which the American Democratic Republic was founded. We must find the courage to turn those ideals into reality before they are completely lost.

John Ikerd