The inescapable beauty of the drive through the Colorado mountains last July Fourth weekend caused my mind to wander to the famed lyric, “of purple mountains majesty,” and next, due to my roots in classic R&B, Donny Hathaway’s legendary “Someday We’ll All be Free.”
Well, I am fortunate enough to have Hathaway on my iPhone playlist and wisely let that ballad loose. It did what Hathaway perhaps desired. It moved me, and made me examine my own and our country’s relationship with freedom. In that examination it became abundantly clear that we have misunderstood and belittled the true essence of freedom.
The concept of freedom is now erroneously championed as “I can do whatever I want.” Freedom has been reduced to a completely self-serving ideal that proclaims because I am free I am guaranteed to do and have particular things in life. This concept and the actions and attitudes it produces are key components in the “me and mine” attitude our nation is struggling with. Many are even interpreting freedom to mean that no one should disagree with or fight their views.
Freedom has to be bigger, deeper and more than this. Freedom at its core is the ability to do what I ought, not simply what I want. I will demonstrate with examples.
Am I Free to Do What Is Right?
The father in North Korea should be able to tell his children the truth about their leader. He could better his children by explaining why persons who disagree with that leader are in work camps. He may desire to do so, and he ought to, but the price of being taken from his family means he is not free to do so.
Freedom is always exercised to benefit another. It’s not as simple as thinking the father speaking truth in North Korea simply has to be brave enough to face the punishment, and hopeful enough to believe he may spark bravery in others. Actions or speeches that improve or bring attention to only my desires at others’ expense are shortsighted and become efforts of entitlement, not freedom.
Declaring that I lack freedom because someone will not hire me due to my race is a misapplication of the term. A particular opportunity may have been taken away by one person, but not my freedom to do something that benefits others. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights ensure my freedom, because they set me free to speak against that employer’s action and hopefully plant seeds that stop the same action from happening to others. I have freedom because I can do “what I ought” without trepidation.
First, We Have to Agree on What’s Right
This catches those who claim there are no moral absolutes in a quandary. To exercise freedom, which inherently includes having that exercise protected, there must be some moral consensus on what is right, what is worth fighting and sacrificing for. If there is no consensus, there is no way to determine if I am fighting for freedoms or for anarchy and tyranny. Despite arguments from the misinformed that many Founding Fathers were Deists (who incidentally still believed in the Christian God, but made his active role more debatable), it is clear that our Founding Father’s consensus was based on Judeo-Christian tenets at the least and pure Christian teachings at most.
Even if we bring up examples in which they did not practice those beliefs—slavery, extramarital affairs, etc.—that does not deny what they wrote and affixed their signatures to. Therefore in this nation holds to a definition of what we consider sacred truths and principles to be protected. These are our reference for what one “ought to do.”
Another misunderstanding of freedom is evident when one’s “freedoms” interferes with rights of another. Your freedoms end where mine begin. Our government’s denial of this principle is a catalyst of many current social, financial, and attitudinal problems. Everyone is free to pursue higher education, for example; however, it is immoral for anyone to demand that I pay for another’s pursuit. Whether the pursuit is beneficial or morally right is subjective and irrelevant. Your desire for something cannot mandate my support of it.
Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
Let’s get our hands a little dirtier and apply this to deeper political issues, remembering the earlier principle that freedom allows me “to do what I ought and not simply what I want.” Consider abortion. Abortion is not a freedom. One may have a legal right to the procedure, but it only benefits one person of the many involved (and that is questionable).
In it, one person’s act infringes upon at least one other person’s right, that of the child to its life. It also abrogates the rights of fathers, grandparents, and other family members to provide for and love their child or grandchild. Abortion is a choice to avoid the consequences of one’s previous choices, to the detriment of another human life.
Accomplishing an act does not equal having the freedom to do it. Surprisingly, a free action can subvert freedoms. For example, people clearly have the freedom to speak publicly—let’s say against Donald Trump. However, when the government supports or allows that speech to block others from supporting him, that is subverting freedom. That act then infringes on another’s freedom to exercise the same right. Conversely, if those at a Trump rally decide no one can speak against him, they too are subverting freedom, not protecting it.
Political correctness, judicial activism, attacks on religion and exercise of the Second Amendment all fall in this category of subverting freedoms. Each ultimately punishes citizens for exercising freedoms, changing how those freedoms are practiced or unconstitutionally subverting social consensus. It becomes onerous to practice these freedoms as intended, and infringes on where another’s freedoms begin. One can practice these rights or freedoms as one sees fit, but it is a misunderstanding of freedom to insist all must practice the freedom as a small contingent deems correct.
Defining Where My Rights End and Yours Begin
Freedom is a grand and broad idea. It requires accepting others’ rights to express and practice differing ideals without forcing others to comply. That is where personal and national independence are born. I am free to choose from a plethora of opinions, practices, and actions without generated consequences. A generated consequence means results produced independent of the choice. If I smoke, I’m risking my health; the generated consequence would be someone petitioning to remove my children from my home because smoking is unhealthy.
We have misunderstood freedom. People are so sure they are right that they limit the speech of those who criticize them or their lifestyle. We have misunderstood freedom when we enact a law outside of the legal process for doing so. We have misunderstood freedom when we say I lack something and it must be because another has too much, so we must take from them.
Freedom is designed for one consequence only: to promote equal opportunity but never to ensure an equal outcome. We embrace freedom to put all in the game, but effort and preparation determine if we score, not manipulating the rules. Anything else for any reason is a misunderstanding of freedom, and it is running rampant.