Most people fear government control and its infringement on freedom and thus create ways to mitigate it. They should. However, we must also fear infringement on freedom from other sources, especially ones that we, as people, have little or no control over. Consider two things. One, total freedom for everyone is not only impossible, it is undesirable. It would be difficult to find a person who would argue with this fact. And two, achieving desirable freedom, whatever that may include, necessitates a balance of forces. Therefore, a check on all sources of illegitimate power is necessary, not just on government power. But before we know what freedom we have (or don’t have), we have to know what freedom is, right?
A simple dictionary definition of freedom yields the following: 1. The condition of being free from restraint. 2. Political independence. 3. Possession of civil rights, immunity of arbitrary exercise of authority. 4. The capacity to exercise free choice, free will.
Freedom from restraint? Immunity from arbitrary authority? Free choice? They all make sense but somehow these definitions seem ambiguous. There is a reason for this. Freedom is an idea, a concept; it is not concrete, and it is not black and white. We know when we feel free and when we don’t, but none of us feel completely free all the time (unless we are ignoring the obvious).
Impossibility of Freedom
None of us can feel completely free all the time. It is absolutely and totally impossible on this planet to be a completely free creature. In our current society, our government provides and protects our freedoms. If the government provides our freedom, than we are not totally free. It’s not necessarily a bad deal. In fact, in a democracy, everyone has some say so you have some control as an individual. It is undesirable to have a free society that is free from any form of government, because we assume if we all had total freedom, with no governmental control, than the more powerful people in society would be free to take advantage of the weak and even harm them without repercussions. We, as people, prefer and generally accept our government’s control over us rather than the unpredictable control of who ever finds a method of power over others.
Instead of hearing the word “freedom” and believing it as one universal concept, we should first begin to understand “freedom” as a system of balance. It is a balance between allowances (rights) and restrictions (regulations). Restrictions protect us from other citizens that could hinder our freedoms. Over time, Americans have learned, and are still learning, that if we have our government put restrictions on others, then, because it is only fair, we must accept those same restrictions on ourselves. Similarly, if we are allowed a certain freedom, then other people should have that same freedom, whether we agree with what they do with it or not. What is true for one person should be true for all people. If we cannot accept this one simple truth, than we are hypocrites. The challenge is to find the balance of allowance and restrictions as it best serves all people. This dilemma raises some more questions.
The Freedom Trade-Offs
Each “freedom” we have, also restricts others at the same time. So when we consider freedom, we have to be able to accept, or deal with, the limitations put onto us because of others having that freedom. Here’s a good one to ponder: the “right to bear arms”. Maybe it means everyone has the right to have a gun, maybe not. I’m not concerned with the meaning right now so much as the implication of how exercising that right impacts freedom. With this great freedom of bearing arms, the bearers exercise the right to feel protected because they have a gun, which makes them feel safe from harm. This is considered a freedom from fear BUT because one person has a gun, other people around that person are restricted on their freedom from fear because now they are likely to be fearful of the person with the gun. Even if the others get guns, it does not remove the fear because the fear is caused by others having a weapon that can kill them. In other words, even having your own weapon does not completely remove the threat of another person’s weapon. With rights come natural restrictions. Some are more obvious than others because, like with guns, they threaten our physical safety directly.
Freedom of speech, to offer another example, creates restrictions on our safety, just not as obviously as a gun. If we allow everyone to have freedom of speech, then we have to allow people to say things that we might think are unacceptable and can make our society worse. This applies especially to people on television and radio because they are in positions to reach a large amount of people and possibly effect their opinions. Depending on one’s opinion, it is possible that these people are corrupting our society. Thus the freedom to speak freely hinders everyone else’s freedom from the resulting consequences of speech that we do not like or think may harm society. For example, we may get upset that certain programs are allowed on television because we do not want our children seeing sexual or violent scenes allowed on the airways in the name of free speech. Many people would love to shut up people like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, but to do so we have to restrict freedom of speech, which could snowball into quite the mess. It is a hard line to draw no matter what right you consider. Just to clear, I am not saying that having certain freedoms are not worth the trade-offs, I just want to point out these types of trade-offs are inherent to freedom. These are just some examples that highlight the conundrum of the notion of freedom. Remember, what is true for one must be true for all, so we need to find a balance.
In our current version of a capitalist system (which is far from a real capitalist system) that promotes individual freedom above all else, we lose out in many freedoms as well. Instead of recognizing the balance and the trade-offs that are necessary, we instead have allowed individuals to strip us of our freedom to enjoy a clean and sustainable environment. We have allowed our freedom to have decent wages and healthcare. For many of us around the country and world, we have giving up our freedom to simply have enough food. Please do not mistake this, as a debate between capitalism and democratic socialism that plagues our corporate media. I am not discussing whether or not the government should provide these service. Instead, I am highlighting the fact that by allowing a few to plunder the earth without limits in the name of “individual freedom”, we have given up our freedom to get these things for ourselves. Just as we must analyze how our so