If there’s one thing America is about, its freedom. Many politicians use "freedom" as a mantra, a word repeated so much that it has nearly lost all meaning. Everyone agrees that nothing is more important than freedom, but what does that really mean? When is a person free?
A rough definition is that we are free when there are no external constraints limiting our ability to do as we please. In this regard, and in a very real sense, the freest person is the homeless guy living under a bridge. No job, no family, no home, no responsibilities, no ties that bind, free to do whatever he chooses, free to be whoever he wants.
But when we think of that homeless guy, when we see him pan-handling at an intersection or pushing a shopping cart full of his worldly possessions, do we envy his freedom? Or do we pity him?
No one is freer than a person without a job, without a family, without a home.
The person without a job never has to worry about a boss telling him what to do, doesn't have to be at work at a certain time, doesn't have his days and hours predetermined for him. When the man with no job wakes in the morning, the day is his and his alone.
If freedom is the lack of external constraint, then the person without a job is freer—far freer—than the person with a job.
But a job is not merely a burden, a job gives us a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that we are contributing to society. It also provides us with the money—the wherewithal—to do things. The man with no job may, in theory, be able to go anywhere and do anything, but without money his ability to do those things is seriously limited. He is free in theory, but lacks freedom in reality.
The person without a family is unconstrained by familial responsibilities, his evenings unburdened by family meals, his weekends free of family visits and the drama that often entails. The man without a family is never hectored or henpecked; he has no reason to stay, and no one stopping him from going.
If freedom is the lack of bonds, then the man with no family is the freest man of all.
But a family is not just a constraint, it is a source of comfort and connection and solace. Most of us gladly trade a bit of our freedom for that connection. And most of us imagine ourselves adrift without those familial connections.
The person without a home does not have to worry about rent or mortgage; he is unconcerned with taxes, upkeep, or maintenance. His weekends are never filled with lawns to mow, leaves to rake, snow to shovel.
But we define ourselves, to some degree, by where we live, by our neighborhood. A home is often more, much more, than a place to live; it is our stake in society.
The reality is that we don't envy the homeless guy living under a bridge, we pity him. Few people seeing the homeless comment on their freedom. In fact, those who are the most likely to talk about freedom—conservative politicians and pundits—are also the most likely to denigrate the homeless. Words like “bum” or “moocher” flow easily from their lips.
The reality is that we judge people by their stake in society. We judge people by their willingness to trade their freedom for responsibilities and social connections. We praise people for a job well done, we congratulate them on their successful children, in some neighborhoods we even give them awards for their well-manicured lawns.
Responsibility, not freedom, is the foundation of society. We praise freedom in the abstract, but when push comes to shove, what we value most is a willingness to give up some of that individual freedom for benefit of society.