It’s Independence Day, and that means there’s going to be a lot of talk about freedom - not just any type of freedom, mind you. The very special, one-of-a-kind, unique-to- Americans style of freedom.
There’s likely not a time of the year when the word freedom is so frequently used - save election season when a certain brand of politician wants you to know how much they REALLY LOVE FREEDOM.
Yes, we love our freedom here in America and we love to talk about how we have more freedom any other country on earth, in the entire history of any country, ever.
But what is freedom, really?
Positive freedom vs negative freedom
Ideally, we would enjoy both freedom to do the things we’d like, and freedom from being compelled to do anything at all.
But our freedom is always being mitigated in some way. I might want the fancy car that someone else owns, but that I can’t afford, yet I do not have the freedom to take it from him. I might not want to work on Independence Day weekend, but I have to weigh the long-term cost of my decision to exercise freedom today.
One can apply this to just about any decision. Traffic, work, relationships, spending - in each of these areas we have the freedom to do, or not do, anything. But there is a corresponding cost with each decision.
Every day, we self-manage our freedom, dial it back a tad, in the hope that we’ll enjoy some form of freedom for a longer period of time. Without such regulation, we’d have chaos - and quite likely violent conflicts between millions of people each day. I think we’ve historically - and recently - experienced some issue in this area - as there seems to always be a group of people who carry a sense that their freedom is the right freedom, that it matters more than another’s freedom, and that we should all live under their vision of freedom.
Freedom of the market vs freedom from the market
In the language of freedom, few are heralded as much as the freedom of the market. Ah, that mystical and benevolent free market - the cure-all for what ails the world. It is held in such high esteem, I could make the argument that we’ve nearly granted “the market” deity-like status with our unchecked worship of it.
If the famous 1970 essay by Milton Friedman is true that a business’ sole purpose is to generate profit for shareholders - then that purpose must be realized without regard to how those profits are created. And that would mean the rest of us are subjected to market forces and the goal of profiteering whether we want to be a party or not.
So a cell phone company might decide it needs to charge more to keep its shareholders happy - and I’m left with paying a higher bill or switching to another carrier.
An insurance company might decide to raise its deductibles, copays, co-insurance, etc., and I have to absorb those costs or forego health care. It might decide that my pre-existing condition is far too costly to take on, and that falls within its definition of freedom.
The company I work for might set up my retirement account with a firm that uses my money to loan funds to another company that will eventually buy us out, gut the place, and lay everyone off. The market is exercising its freedom. (This actually happened when Gatehouse, now owned by Gannett, bought mid-size newspapers across the country).
In old America, we recognized that the market, left to its own devices, would not serve the interests of the average person. The book “Freedom From the Market” by Mike Konczal, points out that the distribution of land and property was a great concern to a young America. Thomas Paine wrote about it in his 1796 pamphlet Agrarian Justice - and argued for a community ground rent to fund universal retirement and disability pensions. And a 1785 letter to James Madison from Thomas Jefferson made this astute statement:
Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate the natural right.
Some early Americans understood that the market would feed itself on land and wealth - using the proceeds of rent and production to purchase more land and charge more rent, making the wealth of land unreachable and leaving innumerable Americans further and further behind.
Where does freedom ring?
To one person, freedom might look like being able to collect as much wealth as possible. Multiple houses in multiple states. A bunch of collectible cars. Expensive art. A half-billion dollar yacht. You name it.
And if, for that person to realize such freedom, another must spend life trying to scratch out a living that is never quite enough, I don’t suspect that person feels all that free.
If I have to work odd hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet, and that takes me away from time with my children, or I miss out on holidays, kids soccer games and such, I probably don’t feel like I have much freedom over my life.
If the largest employer in my town shuts its doors to consolidate operations or relocates to another state with better tax incentives or moves out of country, I bet the people who have their lives upended aren’t enjoying the freedom the shareholders have given them.
Conversely, freedom for another might look like checking out of the economic system altogether - opting instead to get out of the rat race and find a different system to meet basic needs. There’s some evidence that we’re seeing a slight uptick in this post-pandemic. And while some are quick to blame the individuals, I would argue that we should examine the faults in a system that people are clearly saying doesn’t work for them.
And I’m sure someone viewed it as freedom by redlining minority neighborhoods and denying access to credit and insurance to people of color. But for those people cut out of the most common form of wealth creation, I’m guessing it didn’t look or feel much like freedom.
I can’t offer a universal definition of freedom - but I know that it’s not a monolith. It looks differently for different people from different backgrounds in different situations. I know that if for one group to enjoy freedom it steps on the throats of another group, that’s not liberty. If we believe what we say about America being the land of the free and liberty for all, we must also believe that other interpretations of freedom have a right to exist and flourish in this country.
That means freedom carries with it a measure of measure of mutual respect, responsibility, and a recognition that our freedom is not absolute - that we must protect it for others as well as for ourselves. True liberty, as George Washington said in his farewell address, comes from stability and security found in mutual wellbeing:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.
Freedom, to me, is like a highway - one that I want to be as full as possible. With many wide lanes with room for everyone - and on which we should always want to add new lanes. And much like a busy highway, it requires some basic trust and faith that we’re all going to follow the same rules. I might want to go 120 mph down this highway, but that will also mean I need to push a good number of people off the road. That might be fun and free for a minute. But if I can push others off the road, that means someone else and their friends can push me off the road if they, too, feel the need for a little more freedom.
Happy Independence Day!