What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom may seem like a simple thing to define, but it means different things to different people, and yours may conflict with theirs.
Recently, my husband and I were visiting one of our neighbors, sharing a bit of history, politics, and philosophy, while sharing some home-grown garlic and zucchini. We compared the American form of government to the British model, and our neighbor agreed on the family resemblance, with the caveat that “we have freedom” here.
It was a real headache for me. I mean, the monarchy has lost a significant amount of influence over the body politic of the Commonwealth since the days of tea dumping in the harbor and taxation without representation. It is a stretch to claim that the people of Britain are suffering under the dark rule of autocratic dictators any more than we are across the pond. Does freedom mean anything different to my neighbor than to me?
Over the past few decades, the culture war between American political factions has precipitated a growing chasm in the way we use language to express ideas. Take “family”, for example. Even though Americans broadly aligned with Democrats have expanded the idea of family to encompass a diversity of people who willingly love and associate with each other, such as same-sex couples and even the idea of family” chosen,” the right have responded by restricting their definition (usually to a pious man as the head of the family, the only woman he married, and their obligatory children). Yet each side argues that the other is “anti-family.”
Likewise, the word “freedom” has become a contentious front in the culture war, further muddying the waters on a word that already means so much to so many people.
Ask people what freedom means to them and you’ll get a range of answers, but one of the most common is the feeling of being able to do and say what you want, without fear or coercion. Who wouldn’t want that? The devil, however, is in the details. There’s a gulf between “freedom from” (playing your stereo at high volume, for example) and “freedom from” (having to hear your neighbor’s loud, awful music at all hours). Consider economist Ronald Coase’s thought experiment of a farmer and rancher with adjacent land. To keep the cows out of the corn, someone will have to go to the trouble and expense of building a fence, but should that burden fall on the crop or livestock owner? In any case, the freedom of one creates a cost for the other.
Then there’s the “taxation is theft” contingent, who balk at having to pay even a modest cost to, say, fix the roads, and that if the potholes get too big, the real freedom is that everyone can decide for themselves which car shop to visit, whether certified technicians or the local shading mechanic. Unlike those who would rather pay less, through taxes, to fix roads for everyone, instead of incurring the downtime and expense of fixing cars. Or even the unborn, whose freedom is already foreclosed by our collective inability to rid ourselves of our addiction to internal combustion engines. Some people can be free all the time (usually our best). All people can be free some time, usually when someone else is constrained, voluntarily or not. Absolute freedom for all, all the time? It is not a thing that exists.
Even if freedom means “not having the government in our business,” how does that happen without one person’s liberating deregulation simply passing the cost on to someone else? And how hypocritical is that for the party that prides itself on literally having “freedom caucuses” working hard for withdraw legal marriage people they don’t like, to prevent private companies to provide certain benefits to employees, or even to prevent a whole class of non-criminal people to cross state borders?
One could then retreat to a populist position, seeking the most freedom for most people by citing majority rule in a democracy as the closest realistic approach to perfection. It is hard to find a faction currently in power that does not support this concept, even if it is not, strictly speaking, pro-democracy. Minority parties rightly oppose it, reminding us that majority democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on the dinner menu. Or, as some have said, “we’re not free until we’re all free”.
There is a metaphor, attributed to Isaac Asimov (or perhaps Ivan Kasanov), about bathrooms. It’s like this: if you live alone, you can go to the bathroom at any time and sit there as long as you want. However, if another person moves in with you, your “bathroom freedom” is limited. Living with many people, and it is even more diminished; before long people will be knocking on the door and a bathroom schedule may be needed. The more people we have around us, the more we have to consider others in the equation.
Freedom can never be absolute. It’s not just about you or me, it’s also about those who are not free to go out in public because others are exercising their “freedom” to go out without a mask during a public health crisis. Are you free if getting sick means choosing between dying, begging money from strangers, or lose your home? Is it to live without fear or coercion if factual reports can be fatala popular vote can annul your marriage, you are more likely be killed by the police, or you can’t drink the water? How free is each of us, living through it all converging crises, In any event? Maybe freedom is really about having nothing to lose.
However, what if we could reinvent a more mature definition of freedom that focuses less on to be able to have your way no matter how many other people are harmed, while protecting even unpopular minorities from the tyranny of the majority? This is where anarchists come in. Contrary to the hype, anarchism is not just chaos. It is the belief that reasonable people can organize to meet their own needs and those of their community without resorting to coercive top-down power structures and without being destroyed by the paradox of tolerance. That seems like a laudable goal to me.
Maintaining maximum freedom is not for the lazy. It takes active thinking, instead of outsourcing its conclusions to politicians, business leaders and other talking heads. It requires a real commitment to the idea that even the people we don’t like deserve the same treatment we want for ourselves. A healthy dose of restraint, responsibility and rule making is necessary, in a way that may not resemble freedom. And it takes steps to maintain a standard of living that allows us all to move beyond immediate fear for our well-being and the possibility of power-hungry people taking advantage of our natural needs. That’s a lot to ask. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to maintain a truly free society, instead of the one we have.
Related: The social cost of freedom, part 1 and part 2