For much of my adult life, especially since my retirement, I have spent hours pondering what, to me, is one of the great questions of our time. The question? Simply this… how can a people who were given so much, at so little cost, simply sit by, nurse their own petty desires in blissful ignorance, and let the great gifts of this Republic be frittered away by laziness, ignorance, greed, corruption and the lust for power over others? That is, why do most of us seem so willing to forgo our individual freedom?
In a word, don’t we all want to be free? That is to say, don’t we all want individual freedom?
I have slowly come to the realization (the shock actually) that the answer is no, we don’t ALL want individual freedom. I further realize that part of my confusion has been based on a false assumption I originally made – that freedom and liberty are the same thing. We often use the words as though they are synonymous, but are they really?
There is no question that The United States of America was established on the basis of the most rational set of laws the world has ever experienced. Of course, I refer to our Constitution and to the Declaration of Independence that preceded it.
I readily concede that, as many are quick to point out, these documents and they laws they established were not without blemish – such as slavery and limited rights for females. Yet, in the decades that followed the Founding, the truly serous blemishes were corrected, sometimes at unimaginable cost, as in our Civil War. What resulted was a nation that very quickly rose to heights of liberty, prosperity and world influence that the world had not seen since the Roman Empire. And, we did in a few decades what took the Romans a millennium.
Even with their original flaws, our founding documents established, in writing, and as law, the notion that we humans have certain natural rights, and that among them are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (I prefer Mr. Jefferson’s original: “life, liberty and property”). Whichever version you prefer, note that the premise was of liberty, not individual freedom.
Why do I make this distinction? Because, as my thinking has matured, I have come to realize that liberty refers to a physical and legal condition that can, under good leadership, be protected by the government and the laws it enacts. On the other hand, individual freedom is a mental and attitudinal condition that can occur only when the individual in question does what is necessary to secure and maintain it. Liberty can make individual freedom easier to attain, but it cannot provide it.
This notion implies that a person can enjoy liberty without being truly free. And, I think this is exactly the condition of most Americans, and of most of the citizens of the so-called “industrial democracies”. (Note that it also implies that a person might be free though deprived of full liberty.)
Think further about this. Our government, through its laws, has done a pretty good job of securing our liberty by:
Allowing us to choose our own leaders;
Making it illegal to own other humans as property;
Making illegal to restrict people’s liberty to move about, so long as they behave themselves;
Making it legal to engage in commerce with other humans, and so on.
But, it cannot pass a single law that makes us truly free or that protects our individual freedom once we secure it.
For instance, government cannot keep us from:
Conducting our lives based on what we imagine others might think of us rather that what we think of ourselves;
Trying to want what others seem to want rather than understanding our own wants and needs;
Mimicking the actions of others even when we have no idea what inspired those actions;
Taking the path of least resistance by conforming to the “norms” of “society” (the collective), even when “society” (the collective) is clearly headed for disaster.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is the widespread voluntary adherence to the nonsense we call “political correctness”, even (or especially) in institutions of higher education where just the opposite should be the case.
In fact, government and its institutions (such as the public school (or indoctrination) system) actually teach and encourage “herd-think” and, to a very great degree, government seeks to interact with us as a herd rather than as individuals.
For sure, the truly free individual learns from the experience and the teachings of others. What makes them different is that they take what they have learned and apply it to their own purposes, driven by their own rational interpretation of the universe, and tempered by their own wants and needs.
Can there be any doubt that our liberty was initially conceived by truly free people? By people who were were driven by their own thoughts and ideas and who were willing to risk putting those ideas into practice?
Do you suppose that the Founders conceived our Republic simply for the welfare of people they did not even know, for people not even born yet? Before you answer that, remind yourself how many of them owned slaves. Also, remember that slightly more than half the residents of the colonies were content to stay under the King’s domination.
I contend that what the Founders did was construct the kind and type of country they themselves wanted to inhabit, very much for their own benefit, but knowing full well that they were more likely to achieve their goal if others saw themselves benefiting as well. In other words, they acted with “rational self interest” (aka “enlightened self interest”). In the process, they created a Republic where acting with rational self interest has provided the most reliable path to the fullest enjoyment of life for and and all who have dared pursue it.
Why then is true individual freedom not more common? I offer several reasons:
1. Initially, it requires a huge, seemingly never-ending effort. One must constantly learn, one must constantly re-examine and one must constantly refine one’s thinking.
2. It involves huge risks. After all, if you follow your own thoughts, you just might be wrong about some things – you might lose your material wealth. And, who could you blame but yourself?
3. The “herd” and its shepherds discourage it. They warn that you will lose the regard of the people around you. If you have the least stumble, goodness knows how many people will immediately leap forward to exclaim “I TOLD YOU SO!”. They try to make you afraid you will fail while they are actually afraid you will not.
4. It can often be a lonely path. Not only will you have, to varying degrees, separated yourself from the herd, you will soon find that those you left behind, but whom you still care about, become harder and harder for you to relate to. And you will find relatively few you truly can relate to.
After you have discovered how easy freedom really is, you will start to become frustrated with those members of the herd you just can’t get through to. (That effort I mentioned in item 1? It eventually becomes the very purpose of your life and ceases to seem like an effort at all.)
While we do still have a level of liberty, is it OK if many people exercise their liberty by following the herd while only a few exercise theirs by striving toward their own ends? The answer must be yes because only the most brutal force could make us all even pretend to be the same and that would mean no liberty of any kind.
I am unsure how large a society could exist if it were made up of nothing but free individuals (such as in Ayn Rand’s “Gault’s Gulch”). But it is certain that some number of them are required to help guide the others along the road to tomorrow.
What then of a society with NO free individuals? I suspect it would soon wither and die. For instance, even though the former Soviet Union failed to stamp out all its free individuals, it withered and died anyway. Just as Cuba and North Korea are withering and dying – in contrast to China which is learning to prosper by allowing more and more of its citizens to act in their own self interest
So, I have started to learn, the hard way, that many of those I so vocally criticize are merely exercising their liberty, one of their natural rights. Having conceded this point, I now encounter the other great question I have long pondered… Can a lazy, ignorant, indifferent, uninvolved people be effectively self-governing? My answer to this is ABSOLUTELY NOT.
To those who would have it be so, I say that while you may have some impressive documents that say they will guarantee your liberty, those documents cannot do it alone – they must have your active support. You must insist that those you place in positions of authority stay within their constitutional confines or your liberty will slowly evaporate. Just as is surely happening at this very moment.
The ongoing success of our democratic republic is based on the notion that, despite widespread ignorance, a majority of the people will, nevertheless, tend to chose wisely when they vote. I highly suspect that this is only true when a sufficient portion of the citizenry are informed and responsible. There must be a tipping point where ignorance and corruption overwhelm the notion and the whole scheme starts to fall apart. While I do not know how to mathematically quantify this tipping point, my instincts tell me we are near it (if not already there).
My conclusion is that while there is no absolute requirement that everyone seek individual freedom, there is such a requirement that most of us do not take the underlying liberty for granted. Take it for granted and it will soon be taken away. Cling to it and you might go on to become truly free.
Troy L Robinson