Why do we have freedom and why is it important?
About a month ago, I was cruising YouTube and came across the title “What is the Purpose of Freedom?” I enjoy taking deep philosophical dives of “What is X” and “Why do we have x?” so I watched the video.
It is only 4 1/2 minutes long. Good thing because it was largely a waste of time.
The question was put to Ted Cruz and Micheal Knowles at a YAF conference. The backdrop stated “Catholic University of America” which is the first hint that the answer might be nothing more than, essentially, “because God.”
I have never like such answers, even when I was a believer. Even then, I saw it as a cop-out. For example, if I was trying to explain to someone why murder is wrong, saying “because God” is not a good answer. First, this assumes the other person not only believes in God but also believes in the same God as me. It further assumes that, even if the first assumption is true, they would interpret the Bible (or at least that part of the Bible that discusses murder) they same way I did.
To me, the answer “because God” always seemed to have a quite obvious next question: Why does God think it is wrong?
If you can’t answer that question, you shouldn’t be discussing the subject. If you can answer the question, you didn’t need to invoke God in the first place. In philosophical discussions like that, God is superfluous.
So why do we have freedom?
(If you think I should start with the question, “Do we have freedom?” just keep reading. I hope that question will also be answered.)
Freedom is when there are no arbitrary restraints placed on one’s actions. By arbitrary, I mean “political” or “the result of someone else’s decision.” We are not “free” to flap our arms really fast and fly around like a bird. Natural restraints — the limitations placed on us because of natural laws — have nothing to do with freedom. So understand that when I say “restraint,” I mean other people restraining us, not reality restraining us.
Another way to express it is to say that freedom is not having someone else mandate what we do. That someone else may be a complete stranger, our next door neighbor or the President/Prime Minister/Monarch of the country.
“But,” you may be wondering, “shouldn’t there be some constraints? Aren’t some rules and laws necessary in any society?”
Yes, but the key word here is “some.” The only real constraint is “Don’t interfere with anyone’s freedom.” Or, put another way, “don’t use force to prevent anyone from doing anything they want or make them do anything they don’t want.”
This identifies all “bad” behavior, from murder to robbery to egging someone’s car.
Why we have freedom originates in the nature of the universe and the nature of life in general and human life specifically. We learn early in life that Man does not have a lot of the survival tools we see in the animal kingdom. We don’t have claws, wings, great speed, hyper senses, camouflage, hard carapaces or any of the many advantages that animals have in order to evade or capture other animals.
What we do have is our brain. Our ability to capture information, process it logically and then act, is what keeps us safe. In fact, our ability to reason is so superior to all the other survival tools, we sit comfortably at the very top of the food chain — except for, you know, the occasional unfortunate accident.
So our very survival as a species depends on our ability to think, come to a decision and then act according to that decision. That is the basis of morality, so any interference with that process is the very definition of evil.
There are two main ways one may interfere with this survival process:
- Pre: The validity of our thinking depends on the accuracy of the information which we are processing. So either interfering with our ability to gain accurate information or deliberately feeding us false information can both be seen as an interference with our survival.
- Post: Active interference in our ability to act according to the decision we reached upon processing that information is the second way to interfere with our survival.
There are other, minor ways to interfere with our survival (interfere with our freedom) but these are the two most often used: 1) lying to us and 2) directly (using force) or indirectly (using law) to prevent us from acting or force us to act against our will.
The two pillars of social evil: lies and laws.
Now, before anyone accuses me of being against laws in general, allow me to state that laws are proper and necessary for a functioning society. But there are good laws and there are bad laws. How can we tell the difference?
A good law performs two major functions. First, it defines the crime: first degree murder, second degree murder and so forth. Second, it specifies the allowable sentencing to be issued upon conviction of the crime.
Furthermore, “crime” has a very strict, if somewhat simple, definition. A crime is violating someone else’s freedom. A crime is when someone places an arbitrary restriction on someone else’s ability to act. Murder is a rather severe and obvious restriction. Robbing a bank or convenience store is also such a restriction.
All crimes require one or more victims. Whether directly (mugging) or indirectly (bank robbery), people are being forced to participate against their will; that is a violation of their freedom.
What about laws that, say, restrict the number of hairdressers or taxis that may operate within a city? Simple question: where is the victim? If there is no victim, it is a bad law.
Take, for example, a law passed by a small town that limits the number of barbers operating within the town to four. So it would be a crime for a fifth barber to come to town and open shop.
But where is the victim?
The people who enacted the law (and those who lobbied to have such a law enacted) might argue that the existing four barbers are the victims. The town is too small to support more than four barbers and the fifth barber would take business away from the four, making them unable to earn a livable income. So a fifth barber would be interfering with the freedom of the four to make a living.
That is, not to put too fine a point on it, false. Freedom gives one the ability to act. Freedom is not a guarantee of success. Using my example above, you are free to flap your arms as fast as you can. You are not free to break the laws of aerodynamics.
The town may or may not be able to support more than four barbers.
- If it can, there is no cause for concern.
- If it can’t, that is because of natural restrictions — in this case, the economic law of supply and demand. If a fifth barber arrives, some or all of the barbers might struggle until, finally, one closes up shop and moves or takes up a different trade. Which of the five that would be is strictly up to them; it could be the fifth barber or it could be one of the original four. Presumably, it would be either the barber least able to satisfy his customers or the barber in the worst location. It really doesn’t matter which one decides to leave.
(There are other alternatives. The arrival of a fifth barber may cause the other four barbers, who have had a fairly easy go of things so far, to re-evaluate their situation. The barber in the worst location may decide, rather than quitting entirely, to move to a better location. Now the situation has changed again and all the barbers go through yet another evaluation. Rinse and repeat until relative stability is reached.)
I’ve spent a bit of time on this one example but it is illustrative. To any perceived problem, there are generally many, many solutions. Freedom allows everyone affected to choose which solution is best for them. The law (limiting the number of barbers) arbitrarily establishes one and only one solution as the “allowed” solution. It does this by restricting the freedom of everyone who might consider becoming a barber.
The purpose of law is to protect freedom, not attack it.
Interfering with someone is not the same as interfering with someone’s freedom. We all compete against each other. Whether for a customer, for space on a crowded highway or to buy that dream house on the corner, we can each interfere with the hopes and dreams of each other. Someone will come in first, someone will come in last, and the rest will fill in all the slots in between. As long as force is not being used, freedom is intact.
Life is, always has been, and always will be, a struggle. Freedom does not eliminate the struggle. That struggle is what gives human life purpose and also the reason we need freedom.
This may strike some as a fatalistic, cold-hearted, let-the-chips-lie way of looking at life. But a free people make for the happiest, safest, most meaningful societies.
Next installment: the downsides to freedom.