Redefining Freedom: Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law

By: Laurence M. Obaob

University of San Carlos


          Rights and freedoms inhere in every man, independent of any legal grant, and in a democracy, these rights and freedoms are articulated into guarantees at each citizen’s ready disposal. These guarantees, however, are not limitless. The rule of law, to ensure the harmonious coexistence of individual freedoms with the common good, installs mechanisms that regulate the peaceful exercise thereof. Every day is a continuous battle to achieve this balance.

          Simultaneously, a similar battle brews in the economic plane. Issues on rampant poverty, rising prices of basic commodities, concentration of wealth in a single class, among others, perpetually congest the daily traffic of public discourse, yet remain uncontained and unresolved. A clamor for civil rights on one hand, and economic rights on the other, these problems have long been misconceived to be isolated from each other, without realizing that you cannot truly address one without solving the other.


Liberty as a legal concept

          History tells us that freedom can never be perpetually withheld from the people. The natural instinct of human beings to long for freedom would eventually ignite in one way or another, although in most cases, it might take some time for the people to realize how chained they are. This is evidenced by countless historical events relating to victories in the plight for individual liberty, such as the French Revolution and the American Civil War, which have played significant roles in pivoting towards a more progressive and developed nation-state in the west side of the globe. Thus, it may be safe to conclude that ensuring individual liberty is the initial step towards societal development.

          The legal concept of liberty has been defined as early as 1789, during the era French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen set by France’s National Constituent Assembly provides that “liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by law.”[1]

          More than two centuries later, this definition remains to be relevant — that the concept of liberty is rooted on the idea that it should not trample upon others’ rights and freedoms. In the Philippine context, no less than the Supreme Court has recognized a relatively the same concept of liberty, to wit: “liberty as understood in democracies, is not license; it is liberty regulated by law”[2]. In another case, it held that “liberty is not a gift of the government but the right of the governed. Every person is free, save only for the fetters of the law that limit but do not bind him unless he affronts the rights of others or offends the public welfare.”[3] At one glance, it seems to be ironic that individual liberty can only be attained if its exercise is restricted in a certain degree. However, it would be naïve to say that there is such thing as absolute liberty. There needs to be some sort of a “limiting organ” which will ensure that individual liberty is never used to prejudice others’ right to exercise the same.

          Since an individual has the inherent right to liberty, it follows that he has the discretion on how to use this right. He may use his liberty to pursue his passion by training to become the person he wants to be. This liberty can also be used to express his views on issues that matter to him or express himself to the public. His liberty may also extend to intervene with the affairs of the State in a democratic space. But as a right which is not absolute, this liberty does not guarantee him that he can offend anyone or commit an affront to the public. Despite this limitation to his liberty, a man is always at his discretion to use this right subject, of course, to consequences when such liberty has been used to harm another.

          The fact that the use of liberty is subject to an individual’s discretion means that one can be asked of what he can do with that liberty. When the question of “What can we do about liberty?”, is asked, liberty becomes a weapon that may help build or destroy. Liberty will build a better society when it is used to promote the liberties of others, scrutinize the government, and alleviate the conditions of the underprivileged. It can also destroy when liberty is used in an unbridled manner as to cause harm to others. But since man is communal, we may fairly assume that as a general rule his intention is that for him and his surrounding to prosper because he knows that a prosperous community will also redound to his favour. As such, man naturally seeks the good of his community, and the unbridled use of liberty to selfish interest is only an exception.


Prosperity as a legal concept

          Having established that liberty can be used to promote a prosperous community, it is important to take into consideration the concept of prosperity. In common parlance, prosperity is understood as a state where one is having a rich and comfortable life. To elaborate, it also involves the general alleviation of the underprivileged from the difficulties of life and from other social obstructions which slow or impede the chance of some people at opportunities to better themselves. Prosperity, therefore, is linked with the capability of man to have chances at opportunities which will help him improve his current situation or have a chance at opportunities where he can develop his talent or skills. Opportunity is an indispensable element of prosperity.

          As opportunity is linked with prosperity, we now come to consider how someone can have a chance at opportunities. This is where liberty comes in. When man has liberty, he sees various opportunities for himself to use. For instance, when man has the liberty to choose his own beliefs, he has the opportunity to study, know, and espouse any worldview he deems fit for himself. When one has the liberty to travel, it carries with it the opportunity to meet various people and build up his connections, or he may understand various cultures and become more open-minded. When man has the liberty to use his property, he has the opportunity to grow a business, develop his property and gain reasonable profits. When man has the liberty to free speech and expression, he has the opportunity to air his views which may effect changes in the State.

          These situations only mean that when there is liberty, there is opportunity. Since opportunity is an element of prosperity, we can thus say that liberty and prosperity are intertwined. When someone has liberty, he can become prosperous, and based on the situations presented earlier, it shows that when liberty is recognized, opportunity follows, and when opportunity follows, prosperity may result.

          Liberty and prosperity are concepts that cannot be divorced from one another. One cannot said to be free when he does not experience prosperity. One cannot exercise his liberty to free speech and expression when his stomach is empty as he will have no time for that exercise because he will drown himself at work to feed himself and his family in order to survive. The reverse is also true that one cannot said to be prosperous if he has no liberty. A businessman who enjoys his wealth would not have become that prosperous if he has no liberty in the development of his business and the use of his property.

          The two concepts should go together. A poor person, notwithstanding having an inherent liberty to property,  cannot do anything with it because he may have no property at all. An example would be the case of a landless farmer tilling the land for decades of a haciendero. Liberty to property then becomes useless without prosperity. On the other hand, there are also situations where liberty has been used to the effect that prosperity has led to an excess in the accumulation of wealth. For instance, a wealthy tycoon becomes more prosperous as he has in his possession various tools to come up with opportunities to accumulate more by using his liberties, sometimes at the expense of the liberties of others.

          The absence of one of the two concepts and the excess in both contribute to the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Unfortunately, this is the recurring theme of the Philippine society – that the rich becomes richer, and the poor, poorer. The consequences then follow as social conflict arise because of this gap as many people feel that they are neglected and that the government cannot put a check to the excesses in the accumulation of wealth of the few. This is where the law must strike a balance between liberty and prosperity. Like liberty, prosperity too should have its limitations that the law must impose.


Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law

          “There are many ways that societies may choose to live, but there are few ways for societies to live well. A society that seeks freedom and prosperity must also seek the rule of law.”[4]

          The Rule of Law has been said to mean different things for different people. However, amidst its indefiniteness, consistency stands in its supremacy, and in the equality of all before it. Ideally, under the rule of law, people from different classes of whatever status are treated equally with neither discrimination nor privilege. However, equity demands a differentiation in the delivery of certain needs due to the existence of social inequities, in order for equality to exist among naturally unequal subjects.

          The rule of law is indispensable for safeguarding and nurturing the legal philosophy of liberty and prosperity. This is primarily because it is the rule of law that strikes a balance to both by putting limits in order to ensure that no one can be absolutely free, which, in most cases, may lead to harming others or violating the liberty of another. Rule of law also balances prosperity so that no one social class can create a very wide gap than the other classes. A State where the rule of law is weak may lead to abuses of liberty, and will drag down the equal right to prosperity which may be manifested through the accumulation of unchecked wealth of certain social classes. In short, it is the rule of law that guarantees the realization of the legal philosophy of liberty and prosperity as an intertwined concept.


Liberty and Prosperity under the Rule of Law: The Philippine Context

          The Philippines is replete with legislations addressing primarily the excesses and gaps of liberty and prosperity. We have a Constitution which promotes not only political, but as well as social, economic, and cultural rights. We have various laws limiting liberty so that prosperity will not center around one class. Examples of which are agrarian reform laws which aim to redistribute lands, along with other social legislations. This simply means that the Philippines has at least a recognition that liberty and prosperity must be regulated by law so that no excesses can happen.

          Be that as it may, there are limitations and challenges to the realization of the philosophy liberty and prosperity under the rule of law. For one, while Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living condition”[5], such is not a justiciable issue in the Philippine context as it still requires affirmative action from the government, specifically from the congress. After all, this is a policy question which depends upon the discretion of the political branches of the government, and such is the prevalent thinking in the mainstream of our legal system. Perhaps this thinking is the one which needs to be discarded – that there is dichotomy between liberty and prosperity.

          As liberty and prosperity are intertwined, there must be no dichotomy between them. And when we recognize this relationship, especially if our national leaders put emphasis on this relationship and consider this as a worldview and action point, we may have a prosperous nation. A prosperous nation is where the liberties of the citizens are recognized as inherent and allows safe space for its exercise. Since liberty leads to opportunities, prosperity is ensured. Liberty and prosperity must be under the regime of well-defined just and reasonable laws so that arbitrariness or excesses in both are prevented, and thus it is most important that both must be consistent to the rule of law.

          Another problem which hinders the realization of this legal philosophy is the individual indifference towards the plight of others. Filipinos, especially the privileged ones for that matter, tend to lack moral responsibility to be aware and sympathize with the struggles of the others, mainly because such difficulties are not experienced by them. In other words, people only care when their individual interests are involved. This problem is beyond the legal regime. Notwithstanding the availability of all the laws and regulations, the State can only do so much. It cannot penetrate the individual mentality of its citizens. We have a fragmented way of solving things, because thinking that societal problems such as the clamor for a living wage, the plight of the farmers and the fisherfolks, lack of education, limited job opportunities, etc., should only be solved by those sectors affected. We think that their struggles are not ours. We are wrong.

          This is where the role of the legal community becomes vital. Law students, and those in the legal profession, should uphold its social mandate to influence and educate others, in order for the latter to understand and realize that true liberty and prosperity can only be achieved, not by the actions of the State alone, but through the help and collective effort of its citizens.


Law student for the future

          In the course of the study of law, I have come to know more and understand the gaps in our legal system, the areas for improvement, and how simple acts by the State and its people become crucial tools in solving and addressing the same. As a student, I consider as my personal guidepost the philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law to properly situate the rights that individuals are guaranteed – that liberty is not merely freedom to do an act but is also intertwined with the concept of prosperity. The philosophy enables me to see beyond legal technicalities, and arrive at an understanding of the law with social justice as end. As a law student, the legal philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law serves as a constant reminder to me that law school is not just about the things that you learn, its more on how you transform such learning to the benefit of others, especially those who are in need.

          In my legal career in the future, the philosophy will be helpful as it will guide me on how to understand and interpret the law. It also serves as a helpful guide to prepare me to the legal profession as the philosophy reorients me that practice of law always involves advocacy that positively impacts our society. It will also help me in the advocacy for actions to recognize that social rights are rights that should not just be relegated as optional or dependent upon the mood of the current government administration.

          It is my moral duty as a law student, and as a future member of the legal profession to contribute to the realization of the legal philosophy of liberty and prosperity under the rule of law. As such, I will apply these principles by refraining from acts which tend to erode the confidence of the public to our laws and our legal system. Instead, I will continue to influence others in the best way that I could, and use every platform so that people, in one way or another, will be educated of their rights, and hopefully develop the social responsibility to be aware and fight for the plight of others.

          All of us have roles to play in the pursuit for liberty and prosperity, and no matter how small our actions may seem, we must remain to be hopeful that these little deeds can make a difference; that all of these are essential for the attainment of such goal— that is for liberty and prosperity to thrive, especially in order for the larger society to be free both with respect to their rights, and from the shackles of poverty.


[1] Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen). August 26, 1789

[2] Rubi, et al. v. The Provincial Board of Mindoro. GR No. L-14078. March 7, 1919

[3] Ordonez v. Director of Prisons. GR No. 115576. August 4, 1994

[4] Todd J. Zywick. The Rule of Law, Freedom, and Prosperity. (02-20)

[5] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights