Freedom

What is 'freedom'? How is it important? How does the idea of freedom affect our daily decisions? What relevance does the concept have in the political sphere?

A quick Internet search turns up a workable definition:

The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

Our country prides itself on our freedom. Our Declaration Of Independence asserts that the purpose of government is to protect individual freedoms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...

Our constitution also forbids the government to limit a range of specific individual freedoms, and goes on to point out that rights not explicitly mentioned are not thereby denied. Clearly, our founding fathers placed a high value on freedom.

In a practical sense, what is freedom? In my opinion, the only meaningful freedom is this:

The freedom to act, speak, or think in ways that other people object to.

Actions and ideas that are popular need no protection. What's important is to protect those that are unpopular.

Why is freedom so important? Consider the opposite extreme. My mother, a refugee from China, described the Chinese dictatorship to me as a society in which everything that was not forbidden was mandatory. Such a society offers no room for individuality. People have no opportunity to make choices that might improve their lives. There is no room for debate or discussion - society has defined which ideas are correct, and other ideas may not be mentioned.

Freedom to make important moral and financial decisions, discuss ideas, travel where we want to, own property - these are essential to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Limitations

In order for society to function, there must be some limitations on some freedoms. Some actions cause harm to others or interfere with the freedom of others. Though the origin isn't clear, a time-honored example is "Your right to swing your arm ends where the other man's nose begins".

While it's clear that some boundaries are necessary, this principle can easily be extended to justify almost any limitation. In many cases, there is a large 'gray area' where there is a trade-off between the freedom to do something and the resulting impact on others. This trade-off is inherently difficult to make, in part because the loss of freedom on one hand and the harm on the other are often entirely subjective. How important is it to me and to society for me to express an unpopular idea? How important is the discomfort that someone might feel at hearing something that's offensive to them? Who gets to decide?

Every society must establish these sorts of boundaries. In the case of free speech, our founding fathers ensured that our country places very few limitations on speech. Other countries have different standards. There are a number arguments in favor of having minimal limitations on speech:

  • Unpopular ideas are not always wrong - "The truth hurts". The majority may not be right.
  • The government might suppress ideas that are good for society but not in the government's interest.
  • The majority could prevent minority viewpoints from being expressed.
  • The powerful could prevent exposure of corruption.
  • As the Romans worried, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will watch the watchers)? Anyone entrusted with deciding what speech is allowed might tend to use that power to further their own interests and worldview while preventing dissent.
  • Philosophically, more freedom is preferable to less freedom.

Some limitations are necessary. While speech itself cannot directly cause physical harm, it can result in other types of injury. Our country has laws against libel and slander, for instance - knowingly and maliciously expressing falsehoods that are injurious to someone's reputation. Other freedoms may cause varying degrees of physical or financial harm to others, even if there is no malice or injury intended. One person's collection of vintage automotive projects is another person's eyesore that depresses property values in the neighborhood. Where do you draw the boundaries?

The fundamental issue is the balance between control and freedom. We are all too ready and willing to assume that our aesthetics or policy position is right and other people are wrong. If they're wrong, the world would be better if they behaved as we think they should - perhaps even for their own good. This thinking leads to ever-increasing limitations on freedom.

The examples of these limitations are everywhere - from the temperance movement to the war on drugs to 'political correctness' to anti-abortion laws to zoning to home owner's association rules. In every case, the proponents feel (probably with great sincerity) that we would be better off with their rules in place.

This is decidedly a bipartisan problem, though it may not be as easy to see if the proposed restriction aligns with your own preferences. There's a degree of arrogance embodied in that perspective, and I for one would rather live in a world where there's a preference for freedom.

Tolerance

Living in a society that provides freedom of thought, speech and action carries with it the responsibility for tolerance. If you enjoy the freedom to do things that others might not like, you must also have tolerance for others who do things that you don't like. It's easy to feel that everyone else should act the way you think they should. After all, you're an intelligent, enlightened, and caring person, right? Tolerance carries with it a healthy dose of humility: "Perhaps my way isn't the only way". "Maybe I'm wrong about this issue". "I wouldn't do that, but who am I to judge?"

In addition to humility, tolerance means accepting some discomfort, cost, or loss. If I don't want other people telling me what color I have to paint my house, I must accept my neighbor's color choices. If I'm free to speak my opinions, then I must allow others to express viewpoints that I find offensive.