The Nature of Freedom

The title suggests that there might be something ambiguous about the definition of freedom. Well according to our old friends Merriam and Webster, it is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Sounds about right to me. The freedoms enjoyed by all Americans are – according to our Declaration of Independence – natural rights, inherent to us as human beings, granted to us by Nature or God, and not by the Government, but secured for us by the Government. I’ve emphasized the word to for a reason that will be clear momentarily.

OK what are those rights that I have, my possession of which is characterized by the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint? These are spelled out generally in the Declaration, more specifically in the Constitution – including the Bill of Rights – and in the constitutionally permissible laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. There is no secret here; they include:

  • the right to reside where I choose
  • the right to pursue the vocation I choose
  • the right to marry, and more generally associate with, whomever I choose
  • the right to worship as I wish
  • the right to petition the Government
  • the right to peacefully assemble
  • the right to state my opinion
  • the right to a trial by a jury of my peers if accused of a crime.

There are more of course, but note the common word to. That is not surprising since Webster specifies that a freedom entails a choice or an action – that is, things I choose to do or act uponwhich choice or action is free from necessity, coercion or constraint. And so it has been understood – from the time of the American Revolution.

But beginning in the late 1890s, catching fire in the 1910s, and reigniting strongly in the 1930s, 1960s and 2010s, a substantial minority – and increasingly, looking like a majority – of the American people have settled on an alternate definition of the word freedom. If I may be permitted the liberty, I would state the new definition as follows: “the presence of security, comfort or guarantees in state or being.”

Now let us follow on this new definition with an exact parallel to the discussion above following the classic definition. First, the folks who propound the new definition rarely, explicitly discuss the origin or fount for these rights which are to be accorded to all residents of the USA. They – like Mr. Jefferson – hold them to be self-evident; but they scarcely specify their author, originator, source or justification. Self-evidence seems to be enough – although, alas, what is evident to you may be opaque to me.

Well, what are these rights that I should have that will guarantee my well-being by rendering my state more comfortable and secure? They have been spelled out by the presidential founders of progressivism: Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson and Obama. They include:

  • freedom from want (i.e., poverty)
  • freedom from fear (i.e., anything that makes me afraid); e.g.
  • freedom from expression of opinions that make me uncomfortable
  • freedom from prejudice
  • freedom from unfair competition (esp. from those more skilled or experienced than me)
  • freedom from violence (e.g., presence of guns)
  • freedom from superstition (i.e., religion)
  • freedom from incarceration
  • freedom from armed government agents (the police, ICE, etc.)
  • freedom from xenophobia (e.g., about undocumented immigrants).

Note now that the common word is from rather than to. That is because these freedoms do not pertain to an action or choice, but to a feeling or emotion or an external force on one’s person. As with ‘freedom to,’ there are more than those delineated above, e.g., freedom from illness or freedom from ignorance. And as with the first set of freedoms, these new freedoms are to be secured or guaranteed by the Government. But unlike the first set of freedoms, these are not granted or accorded to us by Nature or God; they are not natural rights in that sense. They are simply rights that just ought to be accorded to all individuals – or more precisely – to all groups living in an advanced society.

By whose authority? By the people themselves since the rights are self-evidently manifest to any enlightened member of society. Moreover, unlike the natural rights in the Founders’ society, the rights in the modern, enlightened society may evolve and change over time. New rights may be discovered; old rights may be discarded. Finally, the people, via their primary vehicle, the Government, determine what the current set of rights are, and then enforce them also via the Government. Thus, a “Living Constitution!” Which of course implies: Obsolescence of the Declaration and Abrogation of the Constitution.

It’s not my purpose here to compare the relative merits of the two systems. Rather it is to ensure that we understand the fundamental difference between the two definitions of freedom, and to allow the reader to ponder the drastic and overwhelming changes that would ensue if we the people discard the first definition and adopt the second. I will examine some of those changes in a future piece.

 

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