Everybody seems to agree that freedom is a very fine thing. “Conservatives” love talking about it. Libertarians get terribly excited by the idea. But what exactly does freedom mean, and are we quite sure it’s always a good thing?
If freedom means being able to do whatever you want then it seems to me that the only people in our modern world who are completely free are the billionaires. They are not constrained by financial necessity, or by the government (they own the government) or by the law (they own the law). A billionaire can wake up in the morning knowing that he can do absolutely anything he chooses to do that day.
For most people waking up in the morning means having to go to work, more often than not to a job that they hate. If you’re a wage slave you don’t really have freedom.
Free marketeers think economic freedom solves everything. The free market is kind of like magic.
Libertarians think freedom is great, unless one person’s freedom infringes another person’s freedom.
The problem is that libertarians, and most liberals, do not understand how society works. It’s all very well to say that everything should be permitted unless it directly harms someone else but that overlooks the fact that so much of the harm done is done indirectly. If homosexuality is celebrated and children are taught in school that being homosexual is fun and liberating and cool and absolutely healthy and natural then how exactly am I going to raise my kids in such a way that they will recognise the dangers of what is actually a profoundly unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle? If every TV show and every Hollywood movie as well as the schools pushes the message of feminism how can I protect my daughter from a poisonous ideology that would condemn her to a life of anger and misery?
Freedom isn’t straightforward and it isn’t always good.
Do people even want freedom? Today every child is free to choose any one of fifty-seven gender identities. When I was a child there was no such thing as gender, except as a grammatical term. There were two sexes, male and female, and whichever one you were born into you might as well make the most of it because it couldn’t be changed. In this case freedom just leads to insecurity, confusion and unhappiness. Maybe people are better off without some freedoms.
Today everyone is free to choose to indulge in a wide variety of sexual perversions. Strangely enough those who choose such perversions don’t seem to be particularly happy. They have high suicide rates and high rates of alcohol and drug abuse. Perhaps this sort of freedom is not a good thing?
Of course we have political freedom and no-one doubts that that is a good thing. If we don’t like the way Tweedledee is governing us we can throw him out and put Tweedledum into office.
On the whole I’m pretty dubious as to whether people really want freedom. What people want, more than anything else, is to belong. In order to belong they want to conform. This is in fact perfectly natural. Traditional societies weren’t very big on freedom but they were very good at giving people a sense of belonging. Not just belonging to a nation state but to an ethnicity, to a regional community, to a local community, to a religion, to a family. It seems to be the case that the more freedom you have, the less sense of community you have. Freedom tends to weaken social bonds. The entire history of liberalism is based on the belief that freedom is more important than social cohesion. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I’m inclined to think that freedom is a rather tricky thing. Sometimes it turns out to be an illusion. Sometimes it comes at a high price.
Looking at our society today, maybe freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose.