Last week I hit writer’s block on a posting I was working on about the nature of freedom. But occasionally when handed lemons, I try to make lemonade, so I tried an experiment in “open-source” blogging. I posted my notes and encouraged to see what they might do with my raw jottings.
It went pretty well, for a holiday week. Peekah took it as a chance to tie it into Thanksgiving. Tim Worstall took it into a discussion of common law (not Common Law). John Harper ran with the freedom-responsibility connection. And Jimmie used it as a starting point for explaining his libertarian philosophies (which I partially share).
But I cheated, and didn’t actually come up with my own contribution. I’m rectifying that now, in the extended section.
And my thanks to those named above, along with Omni, BR, Dacotti, htoms, and Berlins, who contributed their thoughts in the original comments section.
A while ago I heard a talk show host refer to Massachusetts as “the cradle of freedom.” It’s an old nickname, and I usually just let it blip past me. This time, though, I snorted in contempt. The Bay State might’ve been the cradle of freedom, but it’s long grown up and moved elsewhere. The state government is always intruding more and more on personal freedoms, and the residents seem to not notice or care.
Freedom tends to go where it’s most cherished. It was born, in the form of the American Revolution, in Massachusetts, but long ago it was taken for granted. It got fed up with that, and moved on. Right now the places where freedom is most cherished is in places where it is still fresh and new. In Afghanistan, people (especially women) recently spent hours in line to cast their votes, despite extremely credible threats of punishment and death from Taliban remnants. In Eastern Europe, especially Poland (some day I’ll post my favorite Polish joke — it’s very germane), still bearing the scars of decades of Soviet domination, are extremely protective of their freedoms and willing to fight for others to have the same privileges.
There are a lot of great quotes about freedom. Thomas Jefferson once said ” The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” I finally grasped what he meant by that — it wasn’t a proclamation of pride, it was acknowledgement of a harsh truth. Freedom must be continually re-earned and re-captured, or we forget that freedom is not the natural state of man.
But the single best definition of freedom I’ve ever found is from David Gerrold’s “A Matter For Men.” Gerrold (and yes, he is the guy who invented the tribbles) said “freedom is the right to be responsible for your actions.”
That’s a pretty heavy thought, and he spends a good chunk of the book building up to it — it’s much clearer with many thousands of words of exposition beforehand. But in a nutshell, the idea is that one is truly free when one can do whatever one wishes, as long as one is willing — in fact, eager — to accept all the consequences of those actions. Freedom and responsibility must needs go hand in hand, or it is simple license.
The classic example of freedom is “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” True freedom means I am free to swing my fist at your nose, as long as I am willing to accept all the consequences of that action — from you cussing me out to getting arrested for assault to being killed by you in retaliation.
When I took a philosophy course years ago, I was taught how to evaluate different ethical standards. I don’t remember much else, but I do recall one key principle was universality — for a philosophy to be ethical, it must apply equally to all. If my beliefs say I can hit you but you can’t hit back, it fails as an ethical standard. That basic principle, to me, rang the clearest.
Freedom must mean the same for everyone, or it isn’t freedom. And it must be coupled with responsibility. In Massachusetts, as in many other places, there is a great movement to divorce actions and consequences, to protect people from the predictable outcomes of their choices. To do that is to gull people into thinking they are free, to cheat them of true freedom. And that has to be one of the most evil, insidious forms of slavery there ever was.