The Idea of Freedom
THE IDEA of freedom is a tricky one. The word has been used to mean many different things, and it is seldom that it is made entirely clear which meaning is intended. It is, in fact, often used as a buzzword, like such words as “equality” and “brotherhood,” with the implications that inquiring too closely into its meaning is tantamount to impiety. But the idea is an important one, and we should have a clear understanding of it, in all of its aspects.
Let us approach this understanding by beginning with a very simple and general definition: Freedom is the absence of restraints. Thus, a man restrained by chains or a prison wall is not free. The restraints prevent him from going where he wants or doing what he pleases. But if the chains are removed or the prison door is opened, is the man then free?
Obviously not, in an absolute sense. He still is restrained from going a great many places and doing a great many things. He cannot fly to Mars, no matter how badly he may want to go there. He may not even be able to drive to the next town, if he does not own an automobile and has no money to buy one. In fact, he may be restrained even from thumbing a ride to the next town by a law against hitchhiking. There are always natural restraints and man-made restraints acting on every person to limit his freedom.
It is clear that freedom, as we have defined it, is always relative, never absolute. We may attempt to refine our definition by specifying that freedom is an absence of a certain type of restraints — man-made restraints, say. Thus, we may call a man “free,” if no other man restrains him; the inability to fly to Mars then is not a limitation of freedom.
But how do we decide which restraints are “man-made”? Certainly, chains and prison wall are. But what about poverty? The conventions which prevent a man from acquiring goods or services unless he has the money to pay for them have been determined by men. Liberals are inclined to agree with this line of reasoning and to regard poverty as a limitation of freedom. Conservatives are inclined to reject it and to say that poverty is not a real restraint, because a man can overcome it by working. Of course, one might offer the same argument against many other apparent restraints: even prison walls can be overcome by someone willing to do enough midnight work with a file.
A lack of money is not the only lack construed by many as a limitation of freedom: the organized and very vocal lobby for handicapped and disabled Americans considers the failure of government to provide special facilities for its constituents a denial of their freedom; if special devices for hauling wheelchairs aboard city buses are not installed, then wheelchair-bound persons are not permitted on the buses, it complains.
Every man-made law is a limitation of freedom, although, again, this is an arena of disagreement among the various ideological factions. Ronald Reagan likes to draw a distinction between the Soviet Union and the United States based on the supposed absence of freedom in the one country and its presence in the other. But the arbitrariness and insupportability of this distinction are immediately evident. Soviet citizens are prevented by law from doing some things that Americans are not — and vice versa. A Russian may not publish a newspaper without government approval. But no Russian is forced by law to send his children to school with Blacks. Nor is any Russian forced to finance the Jewish terror in Occupied Palestine with his taxes.
And, although every law limits freedom in some way, the absence of laws clearly can limit it even more. The libertarian may long for a lawless society, with no government to tell him what he must and cannot do, but there will always be someone to assume that function where the weak are concerned. The strong, at least, may gain greater freedom in the absence of laws, but a weak person can be “free” in this sense only on an island by himself.
Even in a supposedly lawful society there are more forms of man-made restraints than the laws themselves and such questionable restraints as poverty. There may be no specific law against indecent exposure, for example, or against many other things which are generally disapproved. Nevertheless, a person who feels the urge to go naked in public or to engage in other lawful behavior likely to outrage public opinion generally feels himself restrained from doing so. The tyranny of peer pressure, though it varies greatly with circumstances, can be more restrictive of freedom than any politburo or legislative assembly.
And consider again an American’s freedom to publish a newspaper without governmental restraint. This freedom may prove to be illusory for anyone who has in mind taking an editorial stance disapproved by the hidden, extra-governmental powers which control the channels of distribution with a heavy hand. If a publisher cannot persuade frightened newsstand owners to carry his publication, how real is his “freedom” of the press? National Vanguard (magazine) has been faced more than once with a crisis brought on by a printer who cancelled a printing contract after being threatened with labor troubles or the loss of other business. Only the fortunate circumstance that printing is a highly competitive industry, with many printers teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and hungry for any work they can get, makes it possible to evade this very real restraint. But for that matter, even Russians are able to evade the governmental restraints on their publishing ambitions with their ingenious samizdat techniques.
The more closely we look into the concept of freedom, the more difficult it is to give it a more precise definition than the one we first set down here. Even the distinction between man-made and natural restraints blurs upon close inspection. We attributed the lack of freedom to fly to Mars to a natural restraint (namely, gravity), for example, but we could have attributed it to poverty instead, because a man willing and able to spend $50 billion for the privilege could indeed make the flight.
And what about restraints on the mind or the spirit? Is the man whose mind is manipulated by his church or by the masters of the controlled news and entertainment media, so that he is afraid even to think certain forbidden thoughts, really a free man? Does not the stupid man, the unimaginative man, the superstitious man, have less true freedom than the man with a keen inner eye, a clear mind, and courage, regardless of laws or poverty?
If we look at freedom in a more positive light, if we define it as the presence of opportunity, of potential for action, instead of as the absence of restraints, we still reach very similar conclusions about it. It is always relative, never absolute, and it is of questionable value to try to make sharp distinctions between different types of limitations on it. The strong man always has more freedom than the weak man, other factors being equal, because the former has a greater potential for action. The rich man is likewise freer than the poor man. The courageous man is freer than the coward. The intelligent, imaginative man is freer than the dull, unimaginative man. The open-minded man is freer than the prejudiced or narrow-minded man. The educated man is freer than the ignorant man with the same innate intelligence. And the disciplined man is freer than the man who has not trained his will.
These last two examples, the freedom-enhancing values of knowledge and discipline, illustrate a very important principle: In order to maximize our freedom, we always must make choices which involve voluntarily accepting some restraints. The man who has control of his own mind and body and is able to utilize all of their resources in accomplishing his will has a greater potential for direct action, for achievement, for the attainment of goals — and, therefore, more freedom — than the man who is subject to his whims, his fears, his passions, his passing moods and appetites. But one gains self-discipline only through the acceptance of restraints: first restraints imposed by others, and then self-imposed restraints. Likewise, one gains systematic knowledge only through the exercise of self-discipline.
The freest man is the man who makes his choice of restraints most wisely.
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From the National Alliance Bulletin, February-March 1986.
Source: National Alliance