Russell Madden is a communications instructor at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“A man was either free or not free. . . . Freedom was indivisible. . . . To talk of ‘several freedoms’ is to use the language of Europe, not of America; it is an abandonment of the basic principle on which the United States was founded.”
—Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine
Every semester I have my communications students define three abstract concepts: love, justice, and freedom. Inevitably, it is the discussion of freedom that generates the greatest amount of controversy and disagreement.
Many of the definitions the students offer contain some suggestion that freedom means acting without limits. You can be free, they imply, only if you are able to do whatever you want or desire. Even if “whatever” includes doing violence to other individuals, even killing them? Yes, they say.
These same students then contend that society could not survive without imposing limits on people in the form of laws, rules, and regulations. Since this is the case, they conclude that we cannot truly be free. The whole notion is a pleasant fiction but wholly impractical.
Many other students believe that people can only be free when they are free “from” something: hunger, fear, disease, want, or worry. Echoing many of our politicians, this group suggests that since these are undesirable conditions, society should do everything it can to eliminate such unpleasant factors from the lives of citizens. Only when all negative conditions are purged from our culture will people finally be “free.”
This approach is, of course, an example of what is called “positive freedom.” Such “freedom” requires that individuals be provided the means to achieve whatever goals and values they choose to seek. Those who champion this idea usually interpret the words “to promote the general welfare” in the Constitution as justifying the redistribution of wealth from one segment of society to other, less fortunate groups. Here, “need”—however defined—creates a claim on the property of others. One obvious problem with this approach is deciding who will define the degree of “need” that is dire enough to warrant the seizing of one person’s property in order to give it to another. Ultimately, this translates into the strongest and most ruthless coalitions—the winners—imposing their will on the losers. As history readily reveals, essential human “needs”—such as health care, food, or shelter—may begin at the subsistence level but gradually rise until nearly every aspect of life becomes a “need” that must be satisfied—not through one’s own effort and earned property but through the effort and wealth of someone else.
If a student objects that this notion of freedom infringes on the desire of one class of people—the “haves”—to keep and use their property, and favors the desire of the “have-nots,” a classmate may reply that the right of one person to be “free” (in the sense of being entitled to his “well-being”) is more important than the “freedom” of certain others (in the sense of doing what they choose). In this view, one may, indeed, violate the second type of freedom and impose obligations, but only to a point, that is, as long as the “giver’s” well-being is not, in turn, reduced below a certain level. Using force to make people act in preferred ways is permissible in the name of freedom as long as that vague and fluid line of “need” is not crossed.
Other students attempt to avoid this problem by talking about different types of freedom: economic freedom, political freedom, moral freedom. These freedoms are hierarchical in nature, they say: moral freedom trumps political freedom, and political freedom then takes precedence over economic freedom. Thus, acts of moral choice—such as declaring oneself a “conscientious objector” during a war—are most important and deserving of respect. Political freedoms—such as freedom of speech and religion—are broad freedoms that must be protected as much as possible. Economic freedom, however, is viewed as less worthy of recognition, as when a distinction is made between personal or political speech and commercial speech, which can be subject to extensive regulation for the good of others.
Freedom, however, is not a smorgasbord from which one picks and chooses. Freedom is not whatever society agrees that it is. And most particularly, freedom is not some idealistic illusion, unobtainable and irrelevant to one’s daily life.
Freedom is of one piece. It is absolute within its proper context. For those who raise such specious examples as traffic lights “limiting” freedom, it is not the concept of freedom that is lacking but the critic’s understanding of when and where such an idea is, in fact, relevant. In a social and political context, freedom “has only one meaning: the absence of physical coercion” (Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal; emphasis in original). Often labeled “negative freedom,” this concerns not the ability to do something but rather the situation in which one’s actions are not interfered with by the initiation of force by other people, especially the government.
As for traffic lights, the above definition of freedom explains why such signals and the police power behind them do not imply a limiting of one’s freedom. If a driver believed “freedom” meant the right to pass through any intersection whenever he desired, he would pose an immediate physical danger to other unsuspecting drivers using those same roadways. But no one has the right—the freedom—to expose other individuals to the risk of physical harm without their permission. Such an action would constitute an “initiation of force” and thus be incompatible with freedom.
To state this from another perspective, a driver has the freedom—the right—to travel the highways without interference from someone deliberately engaging in behavior that poses a real physical threat. The same reasoning also demonstrates why no one has the freedom to “drink and drive.” This behavior creates an objective danger and is outside the boundary—the relevant social context—defined by the concept of “freedom.” Such “anti-freedom” actions are—and correctly should be—prohibited by the government, just as it prohibits more obvious examples of coercion such as murder, assault, and rape.
As long as people are not subject to the initiation of physical force, they are free. One does not trade one freedom for another. My freedom does not conflict with yours. Freedom is not “nice in theory but impossible in practice.” It forms the essence of proper social relationships, the foundation of a benevolent society, the only way to establish the foundations of morality. Voluntary action leads to personal confidence, individual well-being, and tolerance of differences. Forced action leads to personal doubt, individual degradation, and exacerbation of resentment, envy, and hatred.
One cannot be “partially free.” Freedom in a social context is all or nothing. One is either free or one is not. What is possible to discuss in terms of degrees is slavery. Once coercion enters the picture, principles vanish. Our “freedom” today is ours by permission, revocable whenever one group or another grows strong enough to impose its will on the rest.
An Impossible Mixture
In a very real sense, calling our economic system a “mixed economy,” that is, an economy of freedom and controls, is a misnomer. A mixed economy promotes the mirage of an orderly and lawful society but ultimately leads to chaos and conflict. In an essay titled “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?,” Ayn Rand noted, “There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept ‘just a few controls’ is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights and to substitute for it the principle of the government’s unlimited, arbitrary power, thus delivering oneself into gradual enslavement.” (The essay appears in The Virtue of Selfishness.)
One can describe “political,” “economic,” and “moral” freedoms just as one can describe a person’s head or arms or legs. But attempting to separate one segment from another, to pretend one aspect can exist unharmed and in isolation from another, is to do violence to the very concept in question. Politicians may encourage the fiction that they can regulate economic freedom while leaving political freedom intact, but both logic and history prove them wrong.
Freedom is a necessary condition for those who would live a truly human existence, and property rights are how we implement that freedom. One can no more detach the two and still say freedom exists than one could detach a head from its body and say the person still lives.
Americans need to remember that each and every one of us has a right to be free. There is and can never be a right to enslave, not even a little bit.