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Volume 13, Issue 2: Flotasm

Freedom Isn't

Nathan D. Wilson

One of the areas in our society where various citizens are the most dogmatically opinionated is the area of politics and government. Specifically our political system and our government. Tired ideas are always being rehashed in never ending battle against other tired ideas dressed up as innovations. On any given issue there can be a thousand sound bytes from a thousand different mouths all promenading on the national news, and all sounding alike. Words like justice, fair and freedom are tossed around as if we all were as familiar with their referents as we are with our primary colors: red, white and blue. But what are we talking about? When we argue that the government is propagating injustice, or encroaching on our freedom (and words like propagate and encroach are reserved for the use of those with talk shows, and the occasional senator), what exactly are we saying? Can we define our terms or defend our semantics before we get caught up in the "nuh uh, yuh huh" of political debate?

What is freedom? Not just political freedom, but freedom itself. To what do we refer when we call upon that most sacred word? In all such cases, when the crux comes we find it more difficult than first expected. But this is normal. Life is not a math problem and answers to questions like this one are never formulaic and are typically organic in that they, in their definitions, are primarily a convoluted growth of negations or declarations of what a thing isnít until a description of what remains standing is attempted. In other words, perhaps it is better to begin with what freedom distinctly is not.
One of the most common and fallacious definitions of freedom is found in philosophical discussions of free will. Make a trip to a coffee shop, bring the subject up and listen. Everything said will be about the lack of outside influence on the will, a removal of restrictions upon the will, as well as the non-existence of a chain of logical causality upon the will. To put it in normal speech: for the will to be free it must be completely without influence, restriction or inevitability. This sounds as lovely as can be and seems to be a workable definition, but it quickly reduces into nonsense.
This definition removes the question of motive. If a person were "truly free" in this sense of the word then one could never ask "why?" of their actions. If there is an answer to the question, then there was no freedom of will at the root of the action. Free action, must be action without motivation, without foundation. If an action is performed because of a commercial, a parental restriction, or because of the baggage of early childhood, then there would be no freedom. But, what is more, if the options presented to the will to choose from are restricted, then freedom has also failed. A boy restricted by gravity lacks freedom in the same way as the boy restricted by his mother. A man who cannot choose to fly is as much a prisoner as the man who cannot choose to leave his cell. A man limited by the boundaries of space and time is also restricted and is not free. All of humanity, finding their wills limited by their own physical and mental constructions, given to them at conception, whether these take shape in deformity or normality, lack of imagination or brilliance, will in turn discover that they have no more freedom than their dogs. They wish to read Kafka for the same reason the dog wishes to sniff excrement, because, at the very freest, they feel like it. But even this is slavery. Even here the will is not the First Mover, and cannot be free. It is shaped first by feeling, and where lies the origin of felt? God Himself is not free, for He is confined in His will by His own nature, and His action can be confined by His word. And if He cannot be free, then freedom does not exist. But if freedom does not exist even on the most fundamental level of the will, then why do we so staunchly claim to be a free people politically? How can any state be full of free citizens if not one citizen is free in his own mind? We must look for another definition of freedom, one that does not first shackle all beings and then march on into oblivion. But there is more that freedom isnít, or doesnít.
Free action does not imply successful action. This is a point of confusion within our current state. Our laws against monopoly, while founded with vague references to fairness and equality, do not ensure freedom. They restrict it. Freedom is not necessarily comfortable. We should have the freedom to build our own houses as well as to build them poorly. In an attempt to help me succeed the government has instituted codes to protect me from my own failure. They have confused the definition of freedom. They no longer think in terms of free action, but successful action. Those who built the Pyramids, and built them well, were successful slaves, while those responsible for the Leaning Tower of Pisa were free men.
We are free, as men, to try and swim like fish and drown. We are free to flap our arms off cliffs and fall. I am not free to be a fish or a bird, but I am free to try. When a government attempts to ensure the success of its citizensí pursuits it has left the defense of freedom and has become the mother calling a Little League coach making sure little Leroy gets to play too. This is far from the defense of freedom; it is the removal of it. While the state cannot guarantee success, when it attempts to it must remove it from those who have succeeded. All the little boys are free to go out for the team, but equal distribution of success is the removal of it from some, to give to others. This opposes freedom; it restricts the successful. Our government has left the pursuit of freedom and gone into the business of equality. But equal what? Success? Or Freedom?

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