A person who has liberty is free to make choices about what to do or what to say. A primary purpose of government in the United States and other constitutional democracies is to protect and promote the liberty of individuals. The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution proclaims that a principal reason for establishing the federal government is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The Preamble to the 1992 Czech constitution also stresses liberty: “We, the citizens of the Czech Republic . . . in the spirit of the inviolable values of human dignity and liberty, as a homeland of equal, free, citizens . . . hereby adopt, through our freely elected representatives, the following Constitution of the Czech Republic.”
The U.S. Constitution, the Czech constitution, and the constitutions of other democracies throughout the world include guarantees for the protection of fundamental civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly and association, freedom to vote and otherwise participate in elections of representatives in government, freedom of conscience, free exercise of religion, and freedom from unwarranted invasions of one’s home or other private spaces in society. These freedoms are called civil liberties because individuals enjoy them only within the context of civil society and constitutional government.
Civil liberty in a constitutional democracy means liberty under laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people. Rights to civil liberty are exercised, constrained, and protected by laws made through the free and fair procedures of democracy. Liberty is secured by limiting the power of government to prevent it from abusing the people’s rights. But if the government has too little power, so that law and order break down, then liberties may be lost. Neither freedom of thought nor freedom of action is secure in a lawless and disorderly society.
Ordered liberty is the desirable condition in which both public order and personal liberty are maintained. But how can liberty and authority, freedom and power, be combined and balanced so that one does not predominate over the other? This was the basic problem of a constitutional government that concerned the founders of the United States, and it has continued to challenge Americans as democracy has evolved and expanded throughout the history of their country. Early on, James Madison noted the challenges of ordered liberty in a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson: “It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether the Government has too much or too little power; and that the line which divides these extremes should be so inaccurately defined by experience.”
Madison noted the standing threat to liberty posed by insufficient constitutional limits on government. He also recognized that liberty carried to the extreme, as in a riot, is equally dangerous to the freedom and other rights of individuals. Constitutional democracy may provide both liberty and order, but the right mix of these two factors can be difficult to find and maintain.
There are two continuously challenging questions about liberty and order that every democracy must confront and resolve. First, at what point, and under what conditions, should the power of government be limited in order to protect individuals’ rights to liberty against the threat of despotism? Second, at what point, and under what conditions, should expressions of individual liberty be limited by law in order to maintain public order and stability and to prevent the demise of constitutional democracy? Every country that strives to achieve or maintain democracy must resolve these questions about liberty and order.