The word freedom is much bandied about these days particularly by people engaged in or supporting the “freedom convoy” now occupying downtown Ottawa. I thought I’d give a shot at defining it, because I don’t think most people have a clue as to what it means or implies. I invite you to think about what you mean by it, if in fact you use the term at all when it comes to your life.
The online dictionary (the one living on my computer) defines freedom as:
The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint: we do have some freedom of choice | he talks of revoking some of the freedoms.
- • absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government: he was a champion of Irish freedom.
- • the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved: the shark thrashed its way to freedom.
- • the state of being physically unrestricted and able to move easily: the shorts have a side split for freedom of movement.
• (freedom from) the state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing): government policies to achieve freedom from want.
• the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.
• unrestricted use of something: the dog is happy having the freedom of the house when we are out.
I also looked up liberty in the dictionary. Here’s what I found:
1 the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views: compulsory retirement would interfere with individual liberty.*
• the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved: people who have lost property or liberty without due process.
• (usually liberties) a right or privilege, especially a statutory one: the Bill of Rights was intended to secure basic civil liberties.
• (Liberty) the personification of liberty as a female figure: the Statue of Liberty.
2 the power or scope to act as one pleases: individuals should enjoy the liberty to pursue their own interests and preferences.
- • Philosophy a person’s freedom from control by fate or necessity.
- • Nautical shore leave granted to a sailor.
I don’t see a lot of difference in these definitions, at least not in substance. So, to distill these definitions some, it looks like that at the individual level, if you were free or completely at liberty, you would be able to do whatever you wanted to, whenever you wanted to do it.
Let’s see if that works. Well, if you live in a society, as most of us do, this is a highly improbable and unacceptable idea. I mean, it’s possible, I suppose, for you to do whatever you want, whenever you want to, but you might end up in jail pretty quickly if you try it, or you might end up dead. Try lying in the middle of the freeway at rush hour. That’s something you might want to do, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Or you might want to ignore those pesky red lights at intersections all over the place. Again, you might get away with that a few times, but you may soon end up with a wrecked car or a traffic ticket. Do it again and you may have your license suspended. Driving in this province is a privilege, not a right, and that ‘freedom’ can soon be taken away from you. That would be a good thing for the rest of us who follow the rules because otherwise we would have anarchy. Then again, you might want to have sex with that gorgeous young barista at your local coffee shop, but you might want to ask her before you attempt it. She may not be as into it as you are.
At another level, you might want to skip paying your mortgage or your rent for a few months because you want to spend the money on a new video game. You can do that if you want, but the consequences may be that you end up living in a cardboard box under an overpass somewhere. You may not want to do that, but we are not always happy with the consequences of our actions. You may be sick and tired of your job and don’t want to do it anymore. Yes, I can relate to that, but I don’t suppose you want to starve to death either, so you have to find some way of paying for groceries. I could go on, but I hope you get the idea.
No matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you have, there will always be restrictions on your freedom. During the 1980s when Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and their ilk were the heads of government, they advocated the removal of regulation on business arguing that business wouldn’t do anything to hurt their bottom line so they would always do what their customers wanted. They argued (following the shill economist Milton Friedman) that corporations needed to be released from regulation and when that happened, we’d get the trickle-down effect because they would invest in ‘the economy’ and we’d all end up rich. In truth, give corporations the freedom to regulate themselves and you end up with the MAX 737 catastrophe, the mining disasters that keep showing up in the news (think Mount Polley for a recent example), buildings collapsing in Bangladesh killing hundreds of textile workers, plastic pollution, global warming, the depletion of global fish stocks, etcetera. I could go on. We know what happens now too when corporate tax rates are cut to almost nothing and they are freed from regulation. We get more social income inequality than ever. Corporations need to have curbs on their freedom. They cannot be allowed to do as they please whenever they please.
So, what does freedom actually mean when we live in a society with thousands if not millions of other people all wanting to do what they want, whenever they want to? Without rules and regulations limiting freedom you get a shitshow. It doesn’t make sense to allow people absolute freedom. We need a system to maintain order at least to some degree. You may not be happy about having to curb your desires and wants because of other people, but that just has to happen. You learned that as a child, or maybe you didn’t and that’s what’s making you unhappy now. Living in society means having to compromise and negotiate, and to temper our urge to always do as we please.
So far I’ve considered freedom in the context of the individual and the potential for freedom in a social context. There are other contexts to think about freedom.
Years ago, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven introduced a marketing slogan: Get your freedom at 7-Eleven! I was incensed! Not sure why except that I was quite convinced that there was no freedom for sale at the 7-Eleven in my town, just mostly fast food and other crap. So, is freedom these days just part of a marketing strategy? It seems so if we consider the evidence. The “freedom convoy” is not about freedom. Taking spokespeople for the ‘movement’ at their word it seems that they want no government interference in their lives. Or they want to become government so they can get rid of all the pesky rules and regulations governments impose on us. Good luck with that.
It strikes me that we need to think of freedom and liberty on a continuum. Nobody is perfectly free nor is anybody completely unfree. When I taught the odd course at the Matsqui Medium Security ‘Correctional’ facility, I heard one kid saying he wanted to go into solitary confinement so he could have the freedom to work on his college assignments and study for his mid-term exams. This was a month before Christmas. He got his wish. I’m not sure how he did it, but he did. Freedom in captivity. Weird, eh?
I concluded decades ago that I cannot be free unless we’re all free. If I enslave you, I’m captivated by the need to watch over you, by the need to punish you, by the need to keep you in your place. So the only way to maximize freedom is to do so for everyone. Perfect, absolute freedom is impossible. If someone tries to sell you on that idea, call bullshit on them. They are obviously deluded or disingenuous. Don’t stand for it.
*…and don’t try to convince me that Canada is an oppressive regime. Try living in North Korea.