Friday, March 18, 2011
What's on Your Freedom Agenda?
What does freedom mean to you?
Is it being able to walk down the street or into a school building carrying a loaded gun?
Is it being able to ride a motorcycle without a helmet?
Is it having the government refrain from regulating your commercial business?
Is it being able to drive at night without fear of encountering a drunk-driving checkpoint?
Is it talking or texting on your cell phone while you drive?
All those things have been described at times as freedom issues, but none of them are what I think of as freedom. Neither is the implicit concept of freedom espoused by many conservatives, who seem to believe that freedom means the right to make as much money as you can in any way you can without having to pay much of it out in taxes.
For some people freedom relates directly to a specific situation. A teenager counting down the days to adulthood has a concept of freedom that I don’t even think about any more because I’ve enjoyed it for so long. Similarly, a resident of a nation that has been occupied or colonized by another has a specific idea of freedom related to throwing off the yoke of the oppressor.
A good point to begin any discussion about freedom would be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement of Four Freedoms, laid out in his 1941 State of the Union address. Roosevelt said everyone should enjoy:
Freedom of speech and expression.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.
The first two are right out of our First Amendment and are now taken for granted by all Americans. The latter two are considerably trickier. How, after all, do you precisely define freedom from want? And how, having defined it, do you cause it to happen in a large, complex technological society that relies for its prosperity on vigorous economic competition?
Those are questions above my pay grade, but I think Roosevelt was right to put them into the equation. Any concept of freedom in modern society has to address these security issues to some extent.
Certainly most Americans would consider it a basic, if not Constitutionally specified, right to choose a field of work and to advance in it as far as their talents can carry them. It’s a big part of the whole pursuit of happiness thing, and our identities are now so wrapped up in our work that it’s a key part of our sense of self.
If you have a job with one employer and feel stuck in it, you’re welcome to try to sell your services to another employer. But if you fear that your medical coverage might not be picked up at the new job owing to a pre-existing condition, you’re pretty much stuck. It’s a loss of freedom by any reasonable interpretation of the word, but it’s not a freedom issue that gets much attention.
From another perspective, we have the freedom to take the risk of starting a business. But if the cost of failure were years in a wretched debtors’ prison, how many people would take the chance? Liberal bankruptcy laws, which give people a greater leeway to take chances, would have to be seen in that light as a freedom issue.
Freedom, for me, is the ability to believe what I choose and to follow my star in search of reasonable happiness. That happens within a society whose laws, values and traditions lend support to those efforts. I can’t be free alone.