What is Freedom

Freedom is a term tossed around quite a bit.  The dictionary defines it several ways.  The most common usage in the political arena is “enjoying personal freedom, not subject to the control or  domination of another”.  Commonly freedom is meant by conservatives to be the absence of government control, regulation, law etc.  The conservative movement has in fact defined their purpose as to increase individual freedom.

My first point is quite simple and gets at the role of government in our life.  We tend to idealize individual freedom with some mysterious notion of an independent farmer working the fields, or a business person starting from scratch in building a successful business.  But none of the freedoms we enjoy would be possible without the security provided by government.  Think of it.  We need police and armies for securities, roads for transportation, a secure monetary system for out money, and educational system to provide knowledge and hone skills etc.  Even someone who works totally independently, growing their own crops and hunting for meat needs these protections I described to be safe enough to enjoy freedom.
.  This truth was recognized in the Declaration of Independence.  It recognizes that government is necessary to preserve natural rights when it states,”. . . We hold these truths to be self evident  that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  THAT TO SECURE THESE RIGHTS GOVERNMENTS ARE INSTITUTED AMONG MEN. . .”

Please note the importance of the statement, without government we do not have secure rights.  Experience tells us the same.  Modern countries such as Somalia which have limited or no government provide a state of anarchy for their citizens.  Thomas Hobbes, the father of modern conservatism said that life in a state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Second, I want to make the point that government has actually expanded many  freedoms in our country.
US history provides many examples of the government expanding freedoms.  These include, the Morrill Act which made free land available to western settlers, the establishment of Land Grant Colleges which established among other things state universities providing high quality education at a low price, the 13th amendment which freed slaves, women’s right to vote, enfranchising about half the US population, Social Security, providing economic relief to millions of seniors, the GI bill which made housing and education available to millions of returning GIs, the Civil Rights Acts empowering millions of African Americans, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and now various laws legalizing gay marriage.  All of these government actions empowered and increased freedom for millions of Americans.

Now to be sure governments around the world have used power to oppress citizens.  In our country slavery and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are both examples of government power being used in an evil way.  Nevertheless, I would argue that government action in the United States and the western world have largely advanced freedom.

The third point I want to make is that freedom is not the only value of importance to society.  As a matter of fact civilizations are constantly struggling to balance individual freedom and security.  The Preamble to the United States Constitution does a great job of spelling out the important values of our country:

We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.

The words Union, Justice, Domestic Tranquility, Common Defense, General Welfare, and Blessing of liberty are what stand out.  Many times these ideals are at odds with each other and require great wisdom to establish a balance.  Yet despite the need to balance these other values, I hear conservatives talk too often only of freedom, and a narrow definition of freedom at that.  We cannot live in any type of relationship with others with maximum freedom being the only operating principle.  Why would we think it is acceptable for our government?

What I hope this article has shown is that a proper understanding of freedom leads us to understand that the federal government has played a very strong and positive role in expanding freedoms.  I also acknowledge that the government can deny freedom as when Japanese
Americans were interred during World War II. We also need to understand that freedom is not the only value important to a democracy. Individual freedom needs to be balanced by a need for order, the general welfare, and national defense.  If everyone exercised freedom to the maximum, we would have total chaos and anarchy.

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