• Jennifer Barnick

What is Freedom, and Can it Be Realized through Government?

In an article by Bret Stephens (April 4, 2017, Wall Street Journal) entitled, "A World Unsafe for Democracy", there is an intriguing statistic: “The year 2016 ‘marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,’ reports Freedom House in its latest annual survey. ‘A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains.’” Now, in Mr. Stephen’s article he goes on to further investigate this ‘loss of freedom’, and then offers up theories as to why this might be happening. In this essay, I want to climb a bit higher up the reason ladder and ask what is freedom and can it even be realized through government?

What is freedom? The most intense system I can think of that actually sees freedom as its endpoint would be Buddhism. Freedom for a Buddhist is to be absolutely unattached to existence, period. However, that is pretty intense and not a good set point. So how about we try Merriam-Webster: “Definition of Freedom 1. The quality or state of being free such as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Perfect, that sounds like freedom to me, and it sounds pretty awesome until we unpack it a little. “Absence of necessity” is impossible for a biological human being. We have to eat; we need clothes; we need shelter; and actually, many would argue that we need love and purpose too. “Absence of coercion, or constraint in choice or action” -- for this little cluster I'll use sex as an example. In dealing with a large mammalian species that has a potent sex drive for reproduction, pleasure, and hierarchy it would be impossible to ever really realize the “absence of coercion, or constraint in choice or action” when sex is involved. So, while we can as an animal think of, define, and even hold up as an ideal the concept of freedom as biological beings we can never actually realize it. This is not unusual: humans do this all the time. Humans love to think of and define and even hold up as an ideal, concepts that are impossible. Think of the concept of heaven—good everyday actually eliminates good—without a little bad how can good exist? Heaven is one of the most horrifying proposals ever (at least for this sinner). Yet, humans love (and have loved) it all across cultural and millennial lines. So, in answering “What is Freedom?” I would say that it is a heaven that we would get sick of really quickly.

Now, can government actually deliver this freedom to us? I decided to punch into my search the words “Democratic Freedom” just to see what happened. There were articles on blogs and encyclopedia sites (including Wikipedia), however, I thought “why not go for a more accurate display where these abstract ideas are being actualized into laws that can put people in jail if they do not follow them?” I chose the Ethiopian Embassy’s site where they list out their country’s stance on Democratic Rights—kicking it off with—Article 29. Article 29 lays out their policy on Right of Thought, Opinion, and Expression. At first it really feels like a super cool mega freedom plan for us humans, but then we kind of hit a snag, and then it feels more like a logical merry-go-round instead of a highway to heaven: “6. These rights can be limited only through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of youth [Socrates got busted for that], and the honor and reputation of individuals [people can be touchy—especially powerful people]. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity [define human dignity—I assign two Right-to-lifers and two Pro-choicers to answer that question] shall be prohibited by law.”

So essentially, all of the idyllic freedomy phrases before number six could be modified by new laws? Yes, and in defense of Ethiopia, of course, because freedom is a fairy. Perhaps wanting freedom or heaven is stupid. Perhaps there are better things to want like dignity and kindness? Freedom is an abstract concept that is not possible for a biological being. No, the government cannot provide something that is not fundamentally possible. However, what if we stopped seeking or demanding or fighting for some kind of heaven, rather, we sought out rational policies from education to tax code that worked for more tangible, reasonable human needs and ideals?

Taoists despise over-lording governments, and they spend a lot of time explaining why. In Tao the Watercourse Way Alan Watts stunningly sums up the Taoist perspective on government (pp. 81-82 paperback edition):

“When it comes down to it, government is simply an abandonment of responsibility on the assumption that there are people, other than ourselves, who really know how to manage things. But the government, run ostensibly for the good of the people, becomes a self-serving corporation. To keep things under control it proliferates laws of ever-increasing complexity and unintelligibility, and hinders productive work by demanding so much accounting on paper that the record of what has been done becomes more important than what has actually been done. About this one might go on and on—but in the current anxiety concerning overpopulation, pollution, ecological imbalance, and the potential disaster of nuclear fission, it is only seldom recognized that governed nations have become self-destroying institutions paralyzed and bogged in their own complications, and suffocated beneath mountains of paper. The Taoist moral is that people who mistrust themselves and one another are doomed.”

Believe it or not that was written in 1975.