Monday, January 13, 2014

What is Freedom?

In 1776 English citizens in the colonies united in revolt of the government of King George and the burdens placed on them.  This was not a universally popular choice, and many in the colonies would have preferred the status quo.  But after five and a half years of defeat after defeat, the Continental Army secured the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  On April 19, 1782, the Continental Congress ratified the preliminary peace treaty and the thirteen colonies were free to chart their own destiny.

Even in those times there was some of the mind that we should be only loosely confederated with each other and each state should operate with almost complete autonomy, while others advocated for the establishment of a new monarchy.  The society was predominately rural, and I suspect the average farmer wanted little or nothing from the government, other than to be left alone to pursue their future.  There were others who actively resisted the formation of a government and moved to the new frontiers where government did not exist.

Yet there were those who saw the need for a government to further the common good.  They proposed a government that could be controlled by the citizens and not, as it was with King George and Parliament, one that would force them into obedience.  So it came to pass that in 1788 with its ratification by New Hampshire, the U.S. Constitution was adopted.  I believe there was one thing that was understood, even at that time.  Government, and the societal relationships that come from it, must in the natural course restrict the freedom of its citizens to some degree.  Its population must conform to a set of expectations, or face the likelihood anarchy.  For most this was a small price to pay for the benefits that are reaped, therefore they were willing to sacrifice this small degree of individuality.  While true for most, it was not then, nor is it now a universal acceptance.  There are those who believe no government has the right to limit their action.

So we come back to the question, what is freedom?

This would seem to be a simple question, yet at the same time an impossible one, for it does not appear to be definable in a sense that is universally agreeable.  There is a set of common definitions that work for most cases.  “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” or “the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government” or “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.”  The list goes on, but I think the important takeaway is freedom is defined more by restrictions to it than by what it is.

Karle Marx and Frederick Engels said “only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.  In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class.”  This argues for the universal equality, but interestingly when placed into practice the Soviet Union never achieved the equality Marx and Engels envisioned, and I think it speaks to their (Engle and Marx) lack of understanding of freedom and human nature.

In Ms. Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, she focused on how children are influenced by individuals and groups outside the traditional family model.  As shown in the previous paragraph this is classic Marxist theory about the impacts of outside forces and how only through the collective could a child’s needs be met, and I assume through the fulfillment of those needs freedom would be achieved.  I think, just as with Marx and Engel, her vision is shaped by the belief a centralized collective or community is the only way to govern.

So here we are today, the role of Government continues to expand.  It really doesn’t matter if the Democrats are in charge, or the Republicans are running the show.  Since the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the strength and reach of the Federal government has grown by leaps and bounds.  

Even those Conservatives held in high-esteem, like Ronald Reagan, allowed the government to grow and extend its reach into the lives of its citizenry.  We see in our society increasing centralization, political limits placed on speech and action, increasing ad hominem attacks on those with opposing views, or ad hominem appeals to do the "right thing", mandates for population action/control, and a growing sense of reliance on a strong centralized government to solve not only the security and infrastructure issues, but societal shortcomings as well. 

Starting with our founding fathers, every generation establishes their own understanding of freedom.  As the government grows and becomes more pervasive the younger generation is taught that what they have is freedom, most accept that and when a new infringement occurs it seems a minor loss, a simple sacrifice for the greater good, a needed change to improve safety.  In this sense the concepts of individual freedom ebb away, much as daylight fades during a gray and overcast winter afternoon. 

At what point does the question change from what is freedom, to what was freedom?

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