A Letter to a Friend- What is Freedom?
Well, ever since my political evolution began in earnest, I have never particularly concerned myself with that concept. One of the important early distinctions I made was the notion that every right is a power, and freedom in itself is the degree to which an entity’s power goes unchecked by other forces. They say the slave is not free; they also say the slave is powerless; are these not the same thing?
‘All men desire power,’ says Tolkien. ‘All men yearn for freedom,’ says the Jeffersonian, or otherwise American, thinker. And these two urges are one. They certainly seem to manifest themselves in different ways when observed by different ideologies and modes of thought, but in practice there is little difference observable. Power and freedom seem to be one and the same- not power in Morgenthau’s sense, as in power over others, but power in a broader sense- power over one’s self. And to have another’s services at your ‘liberty-‘ is that not to hold power over them?
An observation of liberty in free societies ought to begin with the recognition that it is essentially the individual’s power over themself, rather than some mystical cosmic good spoken by sages and prophets.
At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the savior of the Union’s right hand and left wrist rest upon pillars of fasces- the Romans’ symbol of unlimited political power.
In a sense, all entities are free, and all are enslaved. The areas in which they are either, and the degrees to which they are either, seem to vary on sliding scales, and are probably best seen as relative to various situations. For example, if freedom were measured by a woman’s power to choose to have abortions, then the claim that North Carolina and Texas oppress women is assuredly true, at least in comparison to California and New York. But if freedom were measured by a business entity’s power to do business and keep the highest percentage possible of its earnings without fear of high taxes, then the claim that California and New York oppress businessmen is assuredly true, at least in comparison to Texas and North Carolina. And if freedom were measured by an individual’s power to speak ill of their government, then certainly all citizens of the United States would be free, and all citizens of China and Russia oppressed. And if freedom were measured by an individual’s power to work for their government and defect to a foreign government and release the secrets of their government for the world to see, certainly there is not a free patch of territory on this Earth!
You will note that all of the above definitions of freedom depended on the particular laws of their particular circumstances. And indeed, by the modern definition of freedom, such is a necessity. For were there no laws, then freedom would be indistinguishable from power, and the Hobbesian struggle for eminence and dominance would not be merely a power struggle but a struggle for individuals to liberate themselves from the oppression of other individuals directly. (And indeed- in the present courts of law, where certain conceptions of rights are argued against other conceptions of rights, is this not the freedom struggle we see every day, in democratic societies?)
I say again- freedom, in my opinion, is essentially indistinguishable from power, in a basic dictionary of political terms. Power is the ability to shape reality, and freedom is the state of lacking constraints to do so. When an individual argues for their freedom to do something, they are arguing for their power to do it. When a people fights for their freedom, they are fighting for their power. Or in a more accurate terminology, they are fighting for a removal of restraints upon their power.
So natural, so immanent is power to the human condition, that those who would wish its extinguishment in human affairs clothe it, incense it, adorn it in a cloak of many colors, rechristen it ‘Liberty,’ and proceed to oppress their nearby fellows in the name of their own freedom. But such is human nature, that those things most fundamental to our being, when possessing two sides, one good, one evil, are so hideous to us that we would prefer to forget their true nature and call them by a nicer name, all the while using them exactly as our ancestors did for all the millennia in which those very things served them well. I will be the first to say that I love liberty, and to wish it upon all Mankind; yet in doing so I do not relieve them of the dual pleasures and agonies of their existence which have plagued them since time immemorial, but condemn them to the same for all eternity.