Is it really all that great?
Recently, in a comment to another story, I asked if the author wanted to think of himself as a free person in a free society. Later I thought that was a good question I should be pondering for myself. I realized, however, that there were two questions to consider:
- Did I want to be a free person living in a free society?
- What exactly would that look like?
The second question, of course, implies that I don’t think I am currently a free person living in a free society. This led to more questions:
3. What exactly does freedom mean?
4. Is it a continuum or an either/or state? That is, is the choice “free or not free” or can there be gradations of freedom — mostly free, somewhat free, etc.
This is not the first time I’ve pondered these questions, so I already have an answer for the last two. By freedom, I mean political freedom, not the “freedom” to flap my arms really fast and fly around the room like a bird, or the “freedom” to cross a busy street anytime I want without having to worry about the deadly repercussions.
Freedom is relevant only in a social setting. Robinson Crusoe was not concerned with freedom. It was him against nature and freedom does not exist in nature. Freedom only applies to our relationships with other people.
Freedom exists when no person is forced to do anything they do not want to do or forcibly prevented from doing what they want to do. When I first came up with that definition, years ago, I went on to apply a bunch of addendums, stipulations and restrictions. You know, the “your freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins” kind of hedges. Then I realized they were not necessary. Someone had asked me, “So, if being free means I can do whatever I want, then I can take a big stick and whack you over the head if I wanted to? After all, being free means I can do whatever I want.”
“No,” I replied. “That is not an example of you being free. It is an example of you taking my freedom from me.” That’s when I realized that freedom is not just something that is best described as belonging to or a characteristic of the individual. It is also a characteristic of the society. A society is free if everyone in that society lives every moment according to their own decisions, if no part of the society (that person over there, for example) is being forced by another part of the society (that other person way over there) to act according to dictates other than their own.
While we speak of personal or individual freedom, freedom itself describes not the state of any individual but the relationship between any one individual and all others within the society. This is why concepts such as freedom and morality doesn’t apply to Robinson Crusoe (at least until the arrival of Friday). It was strictly Crusoe against Nature and neither freedom nor morality play any role whatsoever to Man’s relationship with Nature.
Freedom and morality are inexorably linked. Is it possible to impose on someone’s freedom without committing an immoral act? I cannot think of a single exception. To take away someone’s ability to live their life as they see fit, I must murder them. To take away someone’s ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor, I must steal from them.
So a free society must be, by definition, a moral society. And vice versa — a moral society can do nothing less than respect all the freedoms of all its citizens.
So my answer is “yes.” I would very much like being a free person living in a free society.