Deconstructing Freedom

Deconstructing Freedom


I see the word freedom everywhere these days, and I got to thinking: What a big word it is, Grandma, and how seldom we take it apart to see what’s inside.

It struck me that you can define freedom in two ways. The smaller definition would be:

You don’t have to do what you don’t want.

Slavery is the ultimate antonym of freedom in this sense. So are developed totalitarian societies in which the state makes important life decisions for citizens, such as where to live, and what work to do—the Soviet Union comes to mind. So does ancient Egypt, where slaves had to do something: haul boulders, build temples.

But there is more to freedom than the mere absence of slavery. You can also define freedom positively as:

You can do what you want.

Most people I know carry this notion of freedom in their heads, even if they don’t make it explicit. “What do you mean I can’t ride my motorcycle without a helmet—is this a free country or what?”

By the second definition, however, no society is completely free. Even in America, you’re not free to drive through a red light, shout “Fire!” in a crowded dance club, or even take a call on your cell phone at the movies.

In short, you’re never free to break the law. In countries like America, the opposite of freedom is not slavery but prison.

What’s more, it’s not just governments that limit people’s freedom. Social norms do the job too and more pervasively. There may be laws against public nudity, but if all those laws were abolished tonight, you wouldn’t wake up to a world in which nobody wears pants.

People often romanticize so-called “primitive” societies, but incorrectly. The ancient Hawaiians, for example, didn’t just surf and work on their tans. They were bound by intricate rules ranging from daily life (men and women couldn’t eat from the same pot) to social politics (commoners whose shadow fell across the sovereigns had to be executed.)

“Can’t” Versus “Must”

America, it seems to me, does very well with the “you-don’t-have-to” version of freedom. There is very little that the government makes American citizens do. Yes, children have to go to school, and adults have to pay taxes, but that’s about it.

As an American, you don’t have to vote. You don’t have to marry anyone in particular or pursue a particular vocation. You don’t have to work at all, if you don’t mind starving. You don’t have to join the army. You don’t have to report your whereabouts to the state. You can live where you want if you’ve got the money, and the landlord will rent to you.

The American government rarely says, “You must.”

It regulates society by saying, “You can’t.”

What Ought to Be a Crime?

But then, every society has laws, and every law restricts freedom. It’s just that too many restrictions finally add up to “you must.” In this society, for example, one could argue that “you must have a job.” Once you get a job, your freedom is restricted by your employer.

The real question, then, is which freedoms ought to be restricted? Which ones ought we to protect? The mere question exposes how radically Americans differ in our notions of freedom.

  • Some, for example, say burning the flag should be outlawed. Others say it’s not a free country if you can’t burn a piece of cloth.
  • Some say landlords should be free to throw out tenants at will. Others say landlords’ freedom should be fenced by tenants’ rights.
  • Some say business owners should be free to make what they want as they see fit. Others say they should be regulated by environmental, social equity, and other laws.

And the list goes on.

The Philosopher of Freedom

Many of these particular disagreements can be sorted, I think, into two broad schools of opinion. One seeks wide latitude for business but restrictions on individual conduct. The other seeks wide latitude for individual conduct but restrictions on business.

This division goes back to the very origins of the United States.

The men who wrote the U.S. constitution were deeply influenced by the European philosophers of their day, most notably the English liberal John Locke. Like many of his contemporaries, Locke analyzed society in contrast to a “state of nature” that (supposedly) existed in the past. In that staet, the theory went, every person roamed the world alone, and life was a competition of all against all. Freedom was cheap, security precious. A man’s life, as writer Thomas Hobbes put it, was “nasty, brutish, and short.”

The Social Contract

Therefore (the philosophers theorized) people agreed to give up some freedom in exchange for security. They agreed to live under rulers and obey laws. French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau called this “the social contract.”

Never mind that the “state of nature” never really existed. (Even before governments emerged, humans roamed the world in tribal bands, obedient to the norms of their group.)

Even on its own terms, in 18th century Europe, the social contract idea was in trouble. A few folks enjoyed delicious luxuries, but most people knew way too much about life being “nasty, brutish, and short.” European kings with absolute power could order anyone hauled off to prison without explanation or announcement. French kings even gave their pals blank arrest warrants which the pals could fill in later to get rid of people they disliked.

Apologists for monarchy such as Hobbes said, “Whatcha’ gonna’ do? Without all-powerful kings we go right back to the state of nature.”

Inalienable Rights

Locke, however, thought that that there was a middle way—that a government could get its authority from the active consent of the governed, not just some blanket consent in the mythical past. Locke coined a familiar phrase—well, almost familiar. He said people were born with certain “inalienable” rights—rights they could not give up, even voluntarily. He listed these “inalienable” rights as “life, liberty, and estate.”


Estate? Yes. This most influential philosopher of freedom, thought government existed mainly to protect the ability of each person to own and “enjoy” property.  And what he meant by “enjoy” was: “do what you want with your land and possessions.”

By the time this filtered through the American temperament and came out the pen of Thomas Jefferson, however, the three inalienable rights had turned into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Freedom to Do What?

“Estate” versus “the pursuit of happiness” —this division still runs down the middle of American attitudes about freedom.

Both formulations raise some questions, however.

If freedom is chiefly the right to do what you want with your property, what does a free society offer a person with no property?

Locke thought the whole point of government was to stop the strong from victimizing the weak. He was probably thinking of big ugly thugs named Bluto taking lunch money away from bandy-legged wusses named Wimpy. But when wealth equals strength, what’s to stop billionaire Wimpy from taking Bluto’s lunch money?

French novelist Anatole France once said that in his country rich and poor were equally at liberty to sleep under bridges. In a society with vast disparities of wealth, is it fair to say that all the people are equally free? Not if freedom means: “You can do what you want.”

Beyond the Pursuit of Happiness

On the other hand, defining freedom strictly in terms of the right to pursuit happiness leads to problems too–especially if it’s a right belonging to “each individual.”

Is happiness like a possession, something each individual can gain, irrespective of what others are doing? That’s the question. What about the person whose happiness depends on living in a certain kind of community, a social milieu? One person can’t create a social milieu. It takes the cooperation of others. Every culture has its own way of building such cooperation. When freedom erodes such cultural bonds, don’t some people end up less free?

Social conservatives, for example, want to live in a world free of sexual license, public drunkenness, images offensive to their sensibilities, and expressions of contempt for their cherished values.

They perceive, correctly, that if everyone is free to do exactly what they want, a few will choose public drunkenness, ridicule of other people’s cherished values, and conduct offensive to some. Even a few, however, can transform the entire social milieu—there goes the social conservative’s freedom to live in the kind of society he or she wants.

Elsewhere in the World

The same dynamic holds true around the world. Muslims who want to live in a conservative Islamic society can’t really do that once their world interacts with the industrial west. The values and attitudes of individualism permeating their world erode their preferred social fabric, no matter what they (or anybody) wants.

Indeed, every would-be traditional society faces this problem when individualism comes along. How many times have we seen the story of the young person growing up in a traditional society who falls in love with an outsider? The culture says, “Obey your parents.” The parents say, “Don’t marry the outsider.” The happy ending is always, “And the parents realized how wrong they were.”

The problem is that an unrestricted, society-wide pursuit of happiness by sovereign disconnected individuals is not just freedom—it’s also a culture.

Even in one society, freedom is a complicated stew. Stretching definitions of freedom across different cultures multiplies the ambiguities. At some point, the question comes up: freedom from what, and freedom to do what?

These questions, I submit, will never be obsolete.

Letter From Afghanistan



Letter from Afghanistan


My friend (and fellow Reed College graduate) Paul Overby has been in Afghanistan since Sept. 30. This was his second sojourn to the country in a year.  Here is his report on his journey  to the heart of Taliban-controlled territory along the southeastern border.



I was unhappy again. However you diced it, I was getting nowhere. So I decided to force my way to the center of the problem. The Big Problem in Afghanistan is the Taliban so I decided to go to a place where the Taliban could not be missed.  Khost.

The Taliban swarm around Khost. It is the capital of Khost province, on the Pak border, in the area called the South-East. One of the most fearsome Taliban commanders, Siraj Haqqani, was said to be the governor of Khost in the Taliban shadow government.

The only way to get there (apart from official helicopters) is by bus or taxi. I took the bus, airporter size, 25 passengers, about $6. It is normally seven hours, but this time a grueling ten-hours on a rocky and chokingly dusty road in the Zadran Mountains because we were delayed behind a US convoy. These convoys travel quite slowly—and you can’t pass them. Afghans hated us just for that–I’ve heard them say it.

Two weeks in Khost, one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan. What was it like?

Khost doesn’t look dangerous when you first see it. The same crowds in the streets and the same confusion of cars, motorbikes, donkeys, wheelbarrow-transport, green Ford Ranger Afghan police pickups; the small shops with their goods crowded around the seated merchant and ascending toward the back of the store like bleachers; slick billboards from the cellphone companies with a few words in English.

But everyone tells me different, that it is not normal. In a low voice, gently taking me aside, they beg me to listen: you can be kidnapped or killed at any time. They assure me that the Taliban are here, in the bazaar, in the city, and especially all around the city, and they are watching right now… As an American I shouldn’t talk to anyone, shouldn’t leave the hotel room.

And in fact that’s just what Barry did.  Barry was a tight-ass Texan who rumbled down to Khost looking for “contracts” in September, two months before I came, at the invitation of his Afghan partner, who put him up in space he owned in a new glass-fronted office building-shopping mall- hotel. So Bear didn’t leave the building for two and a half weeks. At night he edged out onto the inner balcony and cautiously looked down at the shuttered shops on the ground floor.

My approach was different. Khost was so dangerous that I knew I couldn’t hide, and that if I tried, I would lose. So I decided to use the exact opposite strategy: be totally out front. Admit I was an American and what I was doing. It’s true that in some situations, transient situations—on the bus and walking in the street—situations that were more likely to spin out of control since I had less opportunity to shape the reactions of the people I met, I did keep my mouth shut. In these casual encounters I wanted to escape attention as much as possible. I would be just another speengeeray, graybeard, in local clothes. In my out-of-date (styles do change, even in Afghanistan) baggy pants and long shirt and my worn vest and white pillbox hat and winter cloak I looked like just another old dude, a rather pious and traditional one at that. The white beard really clinched it.

I reckoned that I could be open because of what I believed politically. I thought that politics were existential to the Afghans and that they would listen to what I said and that it would make a difference, perhaps the critical difference, between surviving and going under.

The politics that I believed were these: that American policy in Afghanistan was seriously flawed and had to be changed. Most importantly: American troops should be withdrawn massively and quickly. I said: the Taliban are not my friends, but they are not my enemies, either. The enemy was Al Qaeda for the very simple reason they were trying to kill me and every other American. American soldiers—and other foreign troops should be withdrawn—especially from the Pashtun areas—but economic aid should continue. Aid should be delivered and monitored by a small corps of Americans who spoke Pashto, understood Afghan culture, and respected Islam.


It was dark by the time we pulled into Khost. I tried the two numbers I had, but both people said they were in their villages outside of town and could not help me. They didn’t want to move at night. I turned to a few passengers still hanging around the bus, and they pointed out a hotel straight ahead down the dimly lit street. I often felt like Candide, innocent and clueless, dependent on the good will of the Afghans–and they almost always came through. That is why I loved them. 









I trudged up the steep, uneven concrete stairs of the hotel and looked around the reception area: everything ramshackle, askew, filthy, disordered. In these situations I always had a sinking feeling that I had stepped into hell, into the world of <Blade Runner.> I asked for a room, using my minimal Pashto to make an obvious request. “So paiseh? How much?” Two hundred kaldari, very good, about $2.35. “Kaldari” are Pakistani rupees, used almost exclusively here, since Khost is only 10 miles from the border—one of the reasons everyone said it was so dangerous. Pakistan was a sanctuary for the Taliban, they took R&R there, then returned to fight some more in Afghanistan.

The staff and hangers-on gathered around and gawked at me in the faint light of a single small bulb. No foreigners came to the hotels in Khost any more—if they ever had. Pakistanis did not count as foreigners. Someone spoke to me in English, a student at Khost University, clean shaven, respectful, unreadable. A poly sci major, no less. The way they welcomed me was a good sign: if they had been cold and suspicious I would have reconsidered on the spot. But they were OK, and I felt OK, and I slept that night.

In the morning I ventured out; I marked the turnings carefully. No one seemed to be watching me. I still had no idea what the city would be like. Not far from the hotel was a large, divided street lined with new construction. Even here, I thought: buildings were going up all over Afghanistan, it seemed. A sign of hope superficially, but the source of this development was probably the war economy, the huge amounts of cash being poured in by foreigners–and by the opium trade. In a rubble-strewn lot boys were playing cricket.

I went out again in the afternoon—looking for an internet shop, interested to see if there was one. Sure enough, just around the corner, in the basement of a kind of mini-mall populated by electronics stores, I spotted a dozen pairs of shoes in front of a door. Take off your footwear before you go into a home or store or office. I went in and began talking to the proprietor. These shops were always islands of the modern, the secular, of English. And indeed several people began talking with me, but one in particular soon took over the conversation.

He was a doctor, he said, Dr. Shafrak Shinwari, as well as a journalist. My sudden new friend was a compact man with a very dark beard and an insinuating manner. He kept glancing at me from under his brows, grinning, his mobile features in constant flux, watching me. He had immediately launched into a long rap on the suitability of this life only as prologue to the real life in Heaven. I had heard this before, of course, but for an internet shop it was unusual. I strained to listen or appear to listen but finally tired and managed to stop him by saying—again– that my main interest was politics, not theology, and that, in fact, I was in favor of getting the Americans (or most of them) out of Afghanistan.

That may have interested him, because he took me upstairs to the office of a friend, another doctor. This guy’s office was unbelievably small, perhaps 8 feet by 8 feet, just room for a desk and two chairs and an examination table behind a curtain. There was a small space left over at the foot of the table to pray. After tea and sweets we went to another doctor’s office, this one larger though no better organized than the first, and drank more tea. The new doctor was large, bluff man, who asked me some pointed questions about why I was in Khost, expressing some doubt about whether someone would come all this way and to such a place without an ulterior motive and only to add a few lines to a book. I shrugged and gave him my stump speech: Americans out, blah blah, and my true enemy was Osama…

At this the big man, said, seemingly without reflection, and sounding hurt, “But he is our friend!”

But Dr SS immediately cut in: “No, no, no! Not our friend–bad man,” and the big physician went silent. But his reaction had seemed so natural and SS’s intervention so much like an attempt to shut him up that my guard went up. Virtually everyone I’d talked to in the last three years, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, which meant hundreds of people—perhaps because of my being an American and perhaps because of my full-body criticism of US policy–agreed with my criticism of Osama. OBL’s supporters were precious few—in the circles I frequented, anyway.

SS asked me for my phone number and address, and when I left I had only one thought: who was this man?

Paul Overby