This is an often used, at least in the USA, phrase that Americans employ to justify what they want and expect from their governments. I imagine, as simple as it is, it means vastly different things to each person who thinks about it.
I was asked to be on a panel once, with two Democrats and two Republicans, answering questions about different, broad subjects. One question was something like, “What is the role of government in our personal lives?” I think each of us answered equitably, that government has no role in our personal lives, or at least shouldn’t. My answer was last, and quite emphatic. There is an, “however,” though. Of course. I don’t think government ought to tell me how to live, but I think it is the role of government to create parameters that maximize my ability to live as I wish to live, i.e., with maximum personal liberty.
This is where things get tricky. As long as I am within ear-shot, or choose to travel within ear-shot of anyone else, now government has a role. For two bodies within close proximity that may interfere with each other’s maximum liberties must have an agreement for how to deconflict their exercise of their liberties. If you add even more bodies to the formula, and I go shopping at a mall, or go to a concert, or even just drive my car down the road paid for by all of us, and in cooperation with other drivers so we don’t interfere with each driver’s ability to get to their destinations, then we really need someone/something to create sets of minimum parameters that we all abide by so we don’t disrupt others’ exercise of liberties. Now it’s really complex. And I haven’t even begun to describe the layer upon layer of situations that could potentially collide to inhibit my liberties.
Do I need to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water in order to have liberty? Is it within the definition of “my liberties” to have local wildlife roaming freely for me to enjoy? If that wildlife becomes destructive to my property, is it within my liberty to destroy that wildlife, even if it means others cannot continue to enjoy it?
These are not easy questions, and certainly give rise to a recognition that we need some sort of rules for how we live together. With more and more people populating the earth, we have more and more potential for interfering with each other’s liberties, and maybe increased need for rules.
The common ground? I believe we all want as few rules, i.e., laws, as possible, to maintain freedom and liberty for all. As our world gets more complex, there is a need for more laws, despite our desire for minimal interference from government. Governments which, by the way, are actually the voices of all the other people represented on the opposite end of the scales from each of us, trying to balance the liberties of everyone.
We’ve only begun to try to find the common ground. I feel like a person trying to lay a thousand square miles of carpet, one tile at a time. We’ve put down a couple.