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.

One thought on “Deconstructing Freedom”

  1. The questions freedom from what and freedom to do what can be addressed in part by the willingness to seek the good of the other person above one’s own desires. If you are seeking my good above your own desires and I am seeking your good above my own desires, which is by definition to show love or grace to one another, then we do not spend our time endangering one another or one another’s way of life. The basis of real freedom is to seek the other person’s good.

    The challenge is to be able to determine what is good. And, to be able to allow others to choose what is “good” for them; especially when it is in opposition to what is good for me. From my perspective, and, this idea has been around for centuries, there are three simple rules: First, do no harm; second, do all the good you can; third, stay in love with God. Further, how can you say you love God whom you cannot see when you do not love your neighbor whom you can see? Who is my neighbor? Anyone who has a need, whether he is like me or even if he dislikes me.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on freedom. I enjoy reading the things you write.

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