‘Freedom’ and its consequences

A shallow interpretation of freedom brings progress to a standstill.

by Adam Grant

IâÄôve never been a fan of the word âÄúfreedomâÄù because of the consequences that follow once we label ourselves âÄúfree.âÄù When I think of a free society, I like to stick to a pretty simple idea: leading a life according to your ideals without threatening the lives of others and without fearing for your own safety. Thankfully, civilization so far has shown a pretty clear march toward freer societies despite periodic relapses. Overall, weâÄôre better off than a peasant in pre-revolutionary France. However, at the moment, our idea of freedom is suffering from 70 years of ideological conflict in a strictly bipolar world. With the totalitarian state of the Soviet Union and for a brief time Nazi Germany, it was easy as citizens of a liberal democracy to compare political systems. While the United States is founded upon representational democracy and constitutionalism, the Soviet Union was controlled by a strongly entrenched party system that rewrote the constitution whenever it saw fit. Clear, easily delineated and easily understood, the United States is a substantially more politically free country than the Soviet Union ever was. A different form of repression exists in the United States: the totalitarianism of ideology. Politicians and Joe Six-Packs alike are guilty of abusing the word âÄúAmericanâÄù by slapping it onto any sentence to add that nationalistic touch. The notion of individual responsibility has dramatically shifted since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay. Most founding fathers didnâÄôt live to see the shift to amorous marriages in the 1820s. Contemporary society cannot be evaluated on the same terms. The Constitution was written when Malthusian economics was new, Freud had not yet introduced the world to psychoanalysis and Marx had 29 years yet to be born. Revolutions in human thought have happened since then, yet we still throw around the word âÄúAmericanâÄù so much so that the word has completely lost sense outside of its strict definition: a citizen of the United States or someone who lives on the American continents. Why are public schools âÄúAmericanâÄù while a public health system is âÄúun-AmericanâÄù? Is being a communist still âÄúun-AmericanâÄù? Worse, throwing the word âÄúfreedomâÄù onto the beginning of a political viewpoint automatically legitimizes it in todayâÄôs discourse. After all, no one wants to be labeled as taking away a freedom, do they? Thus, the argument over personal firearms is not about safety but is instead sublimated into a selfish application of âÄúfreedom.âÄù Freedom of religion, the freedom to bear arms and the freedom from self-incrimination all make us feel nice and comfortable, but what about the freedom to own forced, unpaid labor or the freedom from an electoral system thatâÄôs tainted by the thoughts of women or the freedom from having a married gay couple living next door? These are all freedoms that existed or, in the case of the last one, unfortunately still exist. What if we decided in 1840 that our society was as free as possible and stopped there? We realized as a society that the benefits of freeing the enslaved far outweighed the economic concerns of the landowner. Moving on to todayâÄôs world, why should I feel free when the person next to me on the bus could be legally hiding the means to kill me under his jacket? Why should governors be more concerned with lowering taxes for those making more than $130,000 than with providing needed health care under General Assistance Medical Care? Is this economic freedom? Social and economic mobility have always been pontificated by Americans as one of the cornerstones of American democracy, even though the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans has grown by 176 percent between 1979 and 2004, while the lowest 20 percent have seen an increase of only 9 percent. WhoâÄôs getting richer? Whose freedoms are we protecting? Once we label ourselves free, we stop trying to change. ItâÄôs the idea of Pareto optimality: You canâÄôt make anyone better off without making someone worse off. The achievement of true freedom is an idea that we should continually push into the future; that is the concept of progress. Adam Grant, University faculty