Fixing our Definition of Freedom

It has seemed fashionable in America for quite some time to point to freedom as our guiding principle and liberty as a be-all-end-all for what we should seek to achieve. I think this is truly a good thing. I consider myself to be a libertarian in this sense, and I think that the United States has a history that is immersed in this principle of attempting to maximize potential freedom for its entire people (while, admittedly, exterminating, enslaving, and indenturing various “other” peoples). I want to highlight the fact that freedom is a vague word, and the Ayn Rand “conservatives” of today have hijacked the term for their own usage.

I find it instructive to at least briefly go over political history and the classical meanings of words. “Liberal,” in the classic sense, is a word that actually describes more accurately the beliefs of the modern day Ayn Rand conservative. I specify the Ayn Rand variety because I think there is a huge gap between them and a group which I think melds much better: moderates and neoconservatives. This Ayn Rand variety of classical liberalism typically adheres to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and champions the cause of freedom most loudly. The freedom they speak of, though, is very anti-intellectual. I would argue, in fact, that it is a form of doublespeak which is truly very anti-freedom as well.

Meditate on that word for a moment. Freedom. What do we mean when we say that word? I personally like to envision broad horizons, the removal of chains, the open spirit, and a requirement of discipline for success. While a classical liberal (which I now use as synonymous for “Ayn Rand conservative”) might agree with this picture on a shallow level, but I would argue that they directly oppose that view. Freedom to the classical liberal is much more narrow and, if I may be so bold, is an immoral view directly opposed to the true meaning of the concept of freedom. Freedom, to the classical liberal, is very specifically the removal of power from those who do not have money (money is viewed as the equivalent of success, intelligence, and deserved power) to those who do have money. Therefore, governmental institutions are illegitimate in most of their pursuits, because they must take money from those who should rightfully have power. In other words, the “invisible hand” of the free market should guide the economy and government of a society, because those with more money are taken to be more deserving of power and more likely to use it properly.

I hope that explanation is explained well enough, as I could easily write a book on this subject. I find it extremely interesting. To make it simple, I will say that classical liberals believe that short-term, or absolute, freedom is the best application of the concept of freedom. My freedom to do as I please with what I own is more important than my ability to exercise that freedom at any point in time. A proper libertarian view is, I think, much more sophisticated and a more moral view of how to run a society. It is also easier to explain. Quite simply, the libertarian view is that of consequentialist freedom, rather than the absolute freedom, should be the benchmark for laws and societal norms.

Let me briefly explain what I mean by consequentialist freedom. As many of us understand, consequentialism is the popular moral philosophy stating that an action should be judged as moral, amoral, or immoral based on its consequences rather than an absolute standard. This system allows for me to decide that despite the law and moral norm that I should not kill a person, I may kill an intruder who is threatening my family in order to save my life and theirs. Absolutist morality would forbid all killing regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. Similarly, consequentialist freedom would take into account the practical implications of a law or policy rather than its strict rhetorical meaning. In other words, does a law, as far as best estimates show, improve a given person’s freedom to do as she wishes with her life? Does this law negatively impact another person’s ability to do as he wishes with his life? Does a poor person gain more freedom than a rich person loses with a given poverty program? Does this policy increase the level of “springboard equality”? (I use “springboard equality” as a term to describe the fact that some people, by definition, are less likely to become successful simply because their “springboard” was lower on the success scale due to poverty or other circumstances.)

Let me summarize. The modern day classical liberal (think Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and the folks who agree with them) believes that absolutist freedom is more valid than consequentialist freedom. They believe that freedom should be judged in a theoretical sense (if I had money, I could accomplish a wider number of tasks). Consequentialist freedom, the view of many progressives and more traditional libertarians, is the tradition of viewing freedom as a practical measure. My freedom to accomplish a task should be defined by whether or not I can actually accomplish that task in reality, not whether I could if I had money. Consequentialist freedom, therefore, is the most moral, most intellectual, and best benchmark for how we should proceed forward as a society. The debate ought to be how to accomplish that, and it is a valid debate to have. We cannot progress as a people if we continue to allow the debate to be over selfish, backwards absolutism over a more thoughtful, reasonable, and moral approach to improving our world.

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Fixing our Definition of Freedom

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