Thursday, August 29, 2013

On freedom

Fellow blogger Greg Camp recently posted an insightful piece on the Constitution.  While I'm reproducing one of my comments here, I suggest you take the time to read the original posting and the comments that followed.  WARNING: If you have no Scottish, Irish or Danish ancestors the last few comments may be lost on you.

I tell all my clients that there are two things that lead to freedom. Those are choice and accountability. Many people “shy away” from both, but especially accountability. Together, they make it clear that I, and only I, am responsible for my life. My life has turned out the way it has because of the choices I’ve made. Thus, if I want things to be different, I must learn to make different choices. I must also be willing to “pay the price” for the choices I make. If things turn out well as a result of my choices, that’s great! If things turn out otherwise, that’s also great because they were my choices and I can still change things…by changing my choices. This is freedom.
Just as choice and accountability lead to freedom, freedom requires those who would enjoy it to exercise those two things. It may be that it’s here we find the problem for those who favor group rights over individual liberty. I’m beginning to believe they fear the implications of individual responsibility and accountability, for both themselves and others. A fear that some others are unfit to exercise choice and accountability and that to allow them to do so will result in widespread chaos and social collapse. The way to deal with that? Limit choice and disperse accountability. Fewer choices means a person is less likely to make a bad one (though there is the regrettable but unavoidable result of limiting the benefit of making good choices). The dispersion of accountability keeps people from “paying the price” for bad choices (note: I’m not discussing criminal activity here) thus, their situation is more likely to be about the same as that of everyone else.
My point is this: Freedom scares some people. They are terrified of the idea that they and those around them are solely responsible for how their lives turn out. They seek the security provided by an ever increasing house of rules, laws and regulations. If others are less fortunate, then the cure is even more laws, more rules and more intrusion into the lives of others. This, too, provides security. After all, if a person born in less fortunate circumstances achieves success all or largely on his own, it asks the question “why didn’t I, born into more favorable circumstances, achieve far more than I have?” However, with a massive set of laws, rules and regulations in place, the other person’s success can be attributed largely to those rules. This may be the most subtle form of prejudice the world has yet seen.
Which brings us back to the Constitution. It serves to both define a government and to limit its power to intrude upon the rights of individuals. The point of this, I am convinced, was to maximize the opportunity of individuals to make their own choices and enjoy the benefits of good ones (and pay the price of bad ones). Certainly, this was tied to economics and finances (“property”…after all, we grew out of the Enlightenment, especially the Scottish Enlightenment), but the results were far reaching. Great Britain, with whom the United States has long enjoyed a special relationship (since the Great Rapprochement) has never been as free as the U.S. The British government started its move toward ever increasing control over its citizens (as all governments do) earlier than ours. It also started from a position of greater control, because there were in place far fewer limits on its power. This is helpful to those who will learn. Our mutual language, shared history and related cultures allow us to see what happens when those limitations are not in place…and to foresee what is likely should those limitations be removed. This is why I am so opposed to any efforts to restrict the freedoms protected by the document, particularly those found in the first ten amendments. They were written so as to place profound, some might even say severe, restrictions upon the power of government and to allow individuals to fully experience the benefits and consequences of making their own decisions.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that I'm correct.  Freedom doesn't just scare some people.  It terrifies them.  Contemplating a society that values, embraces and promotes true liberty produces within them a psychological discomfort that is completely unacceptable.  It leaves them with the feeling that they are "just hanging out there, all alone." The only way they see to combat this fear is to place ever increasing limits on freedom. Encompassed by walls of rules, regulations and laws, they feel safer and their psychological comfort increases.  Seldom does it occur to such people to acknowledge their fear and work through it so they can experience greater freedom.  That freedom could be worth the risk and uncertainty it carries is never seriously contemplated.  Freedom is, instead, an abstract concept, talked about and touted as desirable for groups of people, but not considered something to be truly experienced in very real and concrete ways.
Allow me to give an example from religion.  As a person from a conservative Christian background, I've seen this in the way many people view Christianity.  Uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity might be more about a relationship based upon a few simple principles (and even fewer rules) than it is about laws, people (both Christians and non-Christians) erect elaborate regulatory and theological structures to decrease their psychological discomfort. Suggesting that these folks, and their elaborate schemes, are wrong frequently brings their wrath down on your head because you've greatly increased their psychological discomfort. Whether branded a heretic by one group or ignorant and intolerant by another (or both, on a good day) the reason has less to do with the nature of your belief than it does the threat perceived by the other person's subconscious.  For the believer, specifically, he finds himself surrounded by an ever increasing wall of rules that he not only cannot keep perfectly, but that he frequently finds himself tempted to break.  This produces its own psychological discomfort, but it's not as great as the one produced by contemplating freedom.  Please note, I'm not arguing for the truth of Christianity here.  Rather, I'm addressing a mindset regarding freedom.  
When we turn back to the secular realm we see the same thing.  A huge mass of laws provides a feeling of security for some people, but they are accompanied by this urge to violate them at times.  "I know the sign says 65 mph.  Still, I bet I can get away with driving just a little bit faster" is a normal human response to rules.  "I wonder if I can get away with not reporting this $100.00 in income?" is equally normal.  The number of examples is endless, but the point remains the same.  Laws produce within us the urge to break them.  So, here I am, surrounded by laws which I sometimes want to break for no good reason (on a 10 mile trip 75 mph doesn't get me there significantly faster than 65 mph and for most people $100.00 doesn't make a huge difference in taxes), uncomfortable and sometimes irritated by the intrusion of government into my life, but willing to put up with it to avoid the greater discomfort of freedom.
The people who truly have the opportunity to experience freedom and the benefits it can bring usually come to love it.  In fact, they get really annoyed when someone suggests they should accept more externally imposed restrictions on their freedom.  Instead of being willing to tolerate less freedom, they actually want more.  They don't want it just for themselves.  This is my experience: The people I know who enjoy the greatest amounts of personal freedom desperately want the same for other people.  I've noticed that they frequently want it for others more than others want it for themselves.  They don't want to take advantage of other people or abuse them.  They don't want to violate the rights of others.  They want to be free and they want others to at least have the opportunity to do the same.  Sometimes they are viewed as cold, heartless and uncaring because they frequently refuse to do things that enable others to continue to live in bondage.  That's not the case.  It's just that they're willing for others to experience some hardship if it offers any hope of moving them even a tiny bit toward freedom and independence.
Freedom is real.  It's not simply an abstract idea.  It's something that can be experienced in the "real world" of everyday life by those who want it badly enough.  The question, of course, is how badly do you want it?
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts.

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