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Civil Rights

Why I Hate Freedom

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Conservatives love freedom; liberals and progressives hate it. My entire adult life has been filled with this refrain, a secular litany as unquestionable for true believers as the religious one. It is repeated 100 times per day on the organs of conservative propaganda, like Fox News and Breitbart. It is immune to all evidence to the contrary, as is all doctrinaire thinking of extremists on either sides of the political spectrum. It has been one of the most useful cudgels wielded freely and frequently by every Republican candidate since Nixon v. Kennedy: it makes no difference that Democratic governments brought freedom to Europe when Republican isolationists were happy to let the continent groan under Nazi rule; it is beside the point that it was the Democrats who took the decision to defended Korea, organized the Berlin Airlift, saved Western Europe from Communism through the Marshal Plan.

You know what? I do hate freedom.

I hate the narrow, dogmatic, exclusionary definition of freedom that conservatives promote. The right is mainly concerned with positive freedom, “freedom to”. Freedom to make money without government regulations protecting our air and streams; freedom to discriminate against people whose religion or skin color we find disagreeable; freedom to “live my life however I want” without care or constraint on how that might impact the rights of other to live their lives however they might wish to. What was once a legitimate and debatable point of view of concerned conservative thinkers worried about government overreach has evolved into the unthinking, reflexive support of license[1]. Too much of this kind of freedom, like too much oxygen, is a poison.

Freedom has another aspect, a negative aspect. If the positive is “freedom to”, the negative is “freedom from”: freedom from oppression, freedom from religious compulsion, freedom from want and freedom from fear[2]. The first two freedoms are guaranteed in our Bill of Rights, as well as the later amendments to our great charter. The latter two are not constitutionally guaranteed, but liberals defend and the majority of Americans support the freedom of hard-working people to a safety net when the fortunes of life turn against them through no fault of their own; and of a dignified retirement after a lifetime of labor. Conservatives are not so keen on the negative aspect of freedom, not even on freedom of religion, unless it happens to be their own faith in question.

Both definitions of freedom are important and both are necessary for a society to be truly free. But neither can be carried to an extreme. Freedoms proceed from rights, and all rights are limited. You are free to enjoy your rights to the extent that you do not violate the rights of others or abuse them in the commission of illegal acts. My right to free speech does not allow me to perjure myself under oath, falsely accuse another or knowingly slander an enemy. My right to freedom of religion does not allow me to sacrifice human babies on the altar of Baal-Pteor, regardless of how fervent my belief in ancient Carthaginian deities might be. My right to life does not allow me to murder another human being to harvest their healthy organs so that I might benefit from a transplant. These are all extreme examples; but the principle holds universally.

I have to admit that I hate rights even more than I hate freedom. There is no topic so frequently raised and so frequently abused as that of people’s rights. It is entirely non-partisan: whether on the right or the left, all people talk about are their rights. Up to a point, it is salutary: constitutions exist to enumerate and defend rights, those which have not been ceded to government for the good of society. But we Americans take it to another level and, as a rule, we fail to discuss the inherent limitations and obligations that all rights carry with them, even natural rights. We are intolerant of those limitations, which are necessary for a well-ordered society, and view anyone who tries to bring them up as reprobate.

There is another word of which I love more than “rights” and “freedom”: it is duty. Our natural rights might be endowed by our Creator, but the Creator is not usually enforcing them. President Obama said it well: “our rights might be self-evident, but they are not self-executing.” Duty must come before rights, for if no one attended to their duties as citizens, we would soon find our rights taken from us whether we wished it or not. Or we would have only the rights of the jungle, of the strong taking what they would and the weak suffering what they must[3]. Freedom is a fine thing, but I heard precious little about it while I served in the military: duty and sacrifice were the order of the day and it seems to me that, as citizens, it is as good a basis as any to think about our responsibilities to our country.

The Ancient Greeks – the people who invented democracy in the first place – defined citizenship not by what rights you enjoyed, but by what duties you were encumbered with. The first and foremost was the duty of military service – if you couldn’t fight in the phalanx to defend your people you were not a full citizen, no matter where you were born. The Athenians later extended this concept of military citizenship to include their free-born, volunteer rowers, when they realized how important their navy was to dominating the Mediterranean and making possible their empire. This concept of the citizenry in arms was so powerful, that it swept away the old pattern of the nobility and their retainers being the only ones armed: in poleis after poleis, the monarchies and oligarchies were replaced by some greater or lesser degree of demokratia[4]. Participation in the new assemblies, the ecclesia, was not particularly democratic by our standards: it still excluded to women, slaves, foreign residents, those without property and often certain “inferior” classes, such as merchants. Yet even with these restrictions, the new regimes enfranchised a substantial portion of their populations, equivalent to the percentage of enfranchised voters in the early American Republic and 19th century Britain.[5]

Military service was not the only condition of citizenship, it was merely the starting one. Citizens in Classical Greece were expected to attend public debates and vote on measures put before the assembly. They were expected to fill public offices, serve on juries and contribute to the public welfare according to their means. This was not a question of choice either: the appointment of city and legislative offices, as well as juries, was chosen by lottery from all eligible citizens, who would serve for one year and could hold each office only once in their lifetime. The newly selected members of government swore an oath: “to advise according to the laws what was best for the people.”[6] Refusal to serve was a crime, though there were some exceptions. And for the most part, the people of Greece were eager to fulfill their obligations. There is little evidence of shirking in the historical records, though opponents of democracy were never shy about pointing out any possible defect in this system of government.

The Athenians did not call their governmental reforms “demokratia” at first, but rather “isonomia”, which means equality before the laws. This is natural enough: the fiercely independent farmers who won these rights from the oligarchs viewed themselves as equal to anyone[7]. It may not have been their intention to usher in a democratic regime but that is what they achieved through their demands for political power and an equal voice. But it is a nonetheless vital distinction: democracy was not born to win freedom (all ancient civilizations were slave states) or defend rights (which the farmers already had), but rather to secure the equality which they felt they merited, with merit being demonstrated by success in farming and battle (both very dicey propositions, even today) rather than by birth.

The success of the modern republic, its ability to survive and thrive in the face of the hostility of monarchies and despotisms, has always depended on the participation of her citizens. In peace and war, it has been the people of America who have preserved and promoted the nation; no man on a white horse, no cult of personality, no national savior has been needed. Felix Frankfurter, an immigrant who rose to be a Supreme Court Justice, declared that “in democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen”[8] and this is entirely true. Every citizen must be an integral participant in our common wealth; and to enjoy the rights and privileges that being a United States citizen entails, we must first discharge our solemn duties to the people and the nation.

So before you cry out again about oppression, freedom or your rights, answer me this: have you done your duty? Have you exercised your office of citizen? That great Republican Theodore Roosevelt said: “the government is us: we are the government, you and I.” So speak no more of “rights” if you cannot be bothered to vote; cease to complain about government if you cannot be brought to participate in it.  I shall undoubtedly come to love freedom more when I hear it abused less.


Sources and Notes

[1] “freedom that allows or is used with irresponsibility” Merriam Webster Dictionary Online

[2] The “Four Freedoms” were defined by Franklin Roosevelt just before World War 2 in defending his New Deal policies. His list was freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom from economic want and freedom from fear. I have modified the first two items on this list in order to follow the format I proposed of “freedom from”.

[3] Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War”

[4] Government by the people, from “demos” people + “kratia” power, i.e. the people hold power. Contrast to oligarchy: “oligos” the few + arkhos “to command”, i.e. rule by the few, which was the other common form of government in Ancient Greece. The degree of enfranchisement typically determined whether a polis was considered a democracy or an oligarchy; no Greek city-state came close to the levels of complete suffrage of modern times.

[5] Victor Davis Hanson, “The Other Greeks,” Free Press, 1995

[6] The quoted formula is from the Boulic Oath, which was sworn by the 500 members of the Athenian Boule, or Executive Council. But all public offices required oaths sworn to the gods from their occupants and it would be strange if they varied significantly.

[7] So determined where these farmers on maintaining their rights and privileges as free-born landholders, that much of Greek law is focused on preventing the accumulation of vast estates through purchase or inheritance. And they were remarkably successful: with the exception of post-Lycurgus Sparta, Greece was essentially made up of small- and mid-scale farmers, who owned only as much land as they could work. This system lasted for somewhat more than 400 years: longer than the American Republic has been around. (Hanson).

[8] Attributed to Felix Frankfurter, but also attributed to Thomas Jefferson

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