Individual liberty is a precise concept and a powerful ideal. It has an enormous moral appeal – “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson wrote these words even though there was only liberty for propertied white males at the time in the US, but these words would serve as a beacon through American history, which Lincoln would invoke to motivate the Emancipation Proclamation, and which Martin Luther King would invoke to end Jim Crow and get de-facto voting rights for blacks.
Freedom also has pragmatic appeal. I think the case is strong that many of the accomplishments of economic development are due to liberty – such as the cornucopia of consumer goods through economic freedom, technological innovation through scientific freedom, and holding states accountable for a minimum quality of public goods through political freedom.
Yet the word “liberty” is also much abused and used as cover for many less glorious causes – like promoting an amusement park in the example above (maybe next year’s Davos could have participants go first to “Refugee Run” and then to “Liberty Land.”) Bush used “liberty” as a cover for invading Iraq. To many others, individual liberty is a code word to promote selfish greed or right-wing ideology. We have to rescue the inspiring ideal of “liberty” from these abuses.
Liberty just means the individual’s right to choose his or her own course as long as they do not harm others. The invasion of Iraq obviously does not fit this definition – it didn’t respect liberty for Iraqi individuals. And there is no presumption that the individual’s own course has to be selfish greed -- individuals could also choose altruism towards the poor, or sacrificing themselves on behalf of some larger group.
Nor is “liberty” automatically associated with the Left or Right, because neither ideology really accepts it. The Left tends to restrict your economic choices, while the Right tends to restrict your moral choices. (The Left won’t leave you alone in the marketplace, the Right won’t leave you alone in the bedroom.)
In development, liberty is spreading de facto (as the share of nations that have either political or economic freedom or both keeps rising steadily) but is still not really recognized as a guiding ideal. This is a shame, when our generation has already seen the greatest expansion in liberty in human history, at the same time as the greatest decline in the global poverty rate in human history. Obviously, correlation is not causation, and both trends could be driven by some third factor, but I think there is plenty of other research that would suggest the rise in liberty and the gradual ending of poverty are closely related.
Maybe Liberty Land could add a development ride called “Free the Poor!”