Who is free is 21st Century America?

If you read a lot of old books, one thing you notice is that we don’t understand freedom in the same way that people used to understand freedom.

In the past, freedom was understood to have two sides.

On one side, freedom entailed fewer restraints on your behavior. On the other side, freedom entailed additional responsibilities. In the past, people believed that freedom required both sides. In other words, fewer restraints without additional responsibilities was not an increase in freedom. Similarly, additional responsibilities without fewer restraints was not an increase in freedom. It was only proper to hold someone accountable for their actions if they were relatively unrestrained. Similarly, lack of restraint without responsibility was indicative of childhood, not freedom.

In 21st Century America, our understanding of freedom is much less nuanced. The first side is now the only side recognized. In other words, lack of restraint is the only dimension of freedom that is currently recognized.

One thing to note is that what we currently call freedom was, in the past, recognized as a form of unfreedom. What old writers thought was indicative of childhood is now considered the apex of freedom.

This analysis raises an interesting question: by the old standards of freedom, who is free in 21st Century America?

I’ll leave the answering process to the reader, but in short, my answer is that the same group that was originally allowed to vote in America (plus some Asians and maybe some Indians) are still the only free people in 21st Century America by the old definition. On closer examination then, the mainstream historical suggestion that freedom in American has expanded dramatically in the last 150 years would seem to be over-simplified. At least in part, this expansion of freedom is simply a shift in the definition of what we mean by freedom.

Finally, I think this difference in the meaning of freedom explains the differences between some sects of libertarianism.


7 Responses to Who is free is 21st Century America?

  1. Handle says:

    I think what you are getting at is more consistent with an “independence from government through self-reliance” aspect of “freedom”. Can only really be “free” if one is dependent on the grace of some other single entity (i.e. no competitive alternatives) for even life’s essentials or if one must seek permission to change their life circumstances? I would say no.

    I think it is better to understand freedom from a marginal perspective (that is, to ask “more or less free?” after some other change). Sorry, it’s the Economics – a parasite brain meme if there ever was one, but occasionally useful.

    Consider the difference in one’s legal capacities the day before and after the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Prohibition of alcohol in 1919, and then consider the repeal only 15 years later. (By the way, people forget how amazingly popular the 18th Amendment was at the time, 46/48 states eventually supported it).

    Now, in my sense of the term, even as I understand how it was used historically, the era of Prohibition was “less free” than that which proceeded it and that which followed it. This is a matter strictly of license, being “at liberty” to consume alcoholic beverages and with no reciprocal or concomitant duties arising thereby. A choice allowed or an option cut-off.

    On the other hand, Obamacare, for a borderline-“poor” American, undoubtedly expanded the range of potential medical care he can receive given his limited means. In reciprocity, it commands the duty to hold insurance, pool his risk, and make subsidized regular premium payments.

    He can have things he couldn’t before, coupled with more duties. That might be consistent with the explanation you offered above – the Left will certainly say so when they talk about “Real Freedom” or “True Freedom”, as they constantly did during the Progressive and New Deal era.

    But is he actually “more free”? No, because he has no choice about what he has. He can always choose to reject the medical attention he has to pay for, but he can’t choose to exit the system and fend for himself.

    Hayek wrote a good deal about this precise question of the concept of “freedom” in his (dense) but highly worthwhile and rewarding book, “The Constitution of Liberty”. I recommend it.

  2. sardonic_sob says:

    Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is often referred to (occasionally by himself) as a dictator and a tyrant. As one character puts it, “Ankh-Morpork has a system of One Man, One Vote. Vetinari is the Man: he has the Vote.”

    One of his favorite expressions, and one which he mentions whenever “freedom” is discussed in his presence, is that no one is free unless they are free to fail.

    He is always King Log, never King Stork. He takes no official action that he is not absolutely, positively required by circumstances to take, and it is always the minimum possible action* (to the point where it’s often not obvious to most people that he’s done anything at all.) His family motto is Si non confectus, non reficiat. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”) However, as another character observes: “In Ankh-Morpork, things that don’t work… get broken.”

    His preferred solution to any and every problem is to find someone qualified to deal with it, give them the authority to do so, and make it clear to them that Failure Is Not An Option, at least not an option consistent with continued health and happiness on their part.

    He actively wants people to succeed, he hates war and waste and bureaucracy with a cold passion. While of course he has the advantage of being a favored fictional character, he is pretty much the perfect example of a Moldbuggian-style executive. I know this was a bit of a tangent, but I like to plug Terry Pratchett when I can. Lord Vetinari is a character in his Discworld satirical fantasy series, although he doesn’t really take shape until several books in. Guards, Guards is probably the first book where we see his mastery complete, and Going Postal is by far the best illustration of his approach to problems.

    *He does have his little foibles. For instance, while there aren’t a lot of rules about what one can and can’t do to earn a living, all street mimes are summarily rounded up and thrown into a scorpion pit with a large sign on the wall: “LEARN THE WORDS.”

  3. Jeff Singer says:

    Freedom is correctly understood as the freedom to serve God 😉

    As one of your faithful (double meaning!) Catholic readers, I’m sure you can appreciate I would say that. But of course you are right about older Western writers who understood freedom differently. Albion’s Seed author Hackett Fisher talks about the “freedom ways” of the four different American folk-ways and there is no question that the Puritans agree with me — they thought of freedom as “ordered liberty” or “soul liberty” and in Hackett Fisher’s words:

    “Soul liberty was freedom to serve God in the world. It was freedom to order one’s own acts in a godly way — but not in any other. It made Christian freedom into a from of obligation.”

    I think the Catholic understanding of freedom, especially in a political context is very similar to the Puritan understanding — see especially 1740 (from the Catechism):


    1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”26

    Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.27

    1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

    1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.

    1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.”28

    1734 Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.

    1735 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.

    1736 Every act directly willed is imputable to its author:

    Thus the Lord asked Eve after the sin in the garden: “What is this that you have done?”29 He asked Cain the same question.30 The prophet Nathan questioned David in the same way after he committed adultery with the wife of Uriah and had him murdered.31

    An action can be indirectly voluntary when it results from negligence regarding something one should have known or done: for example, an accident arising from ignorance of traffic laws.

    1737 An effect can be tolerated without being willed by its agent; for instance, a mother’s exhaustion from tending her sick child. A bad effect is not imputable if it was not willed either as an end or as a means of an action, e.g., a death a person incurs in aiding someone in danger. For a bad effect to be imputable it must be foreseeable and the agent must have the possibility of avoiding it, as in the case of manslaughter caused by a drunken driver.

    1738 Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.32


    1739 Freedom and sin. Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.

    1740 Threats to freedom. The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything. It is false to maintain that man, “the subject of this freedom,” is “an individual who is fully self-sufficient and whose finality is the satisfaction of his own interests in the enjoyment of earthly goods.”33 Moreover, the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions that are needed for a just exercise of freedom are too often disregarded or violated. Such situations of blindness and injustice injure the moral life and involve the strong as well as the weak in the temptation to sin against charity. By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.

    1741 Liberation and salvation. By his glorious Cross Christ has won salvation for all men. He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage. “For freedom Christ has set us free.”34 In him we have communion with the “truth that makes us free.”35 The Holy Spirit has been given to us and, as the Apostle teaches, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”36 Already we glory in the “liberty of the children of God.”37

    1742 Freedom and grace. The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world:

    Almighty and merciful God,
    in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful,
    so that, made ready both in mind and body,
    we may freely accomplish your will.38

  4. aretae says:

    But long before that, freedom was much simpler:

    No man is entitled to order me about…and if he tries, I am entitled to gather my kin and kill him.

    In philosophical terms…there are 3 different discussions of freedom:

    1. Contingent freedom
    2. Negative freedom
    3. Positive freedom

    You’re discussing contingent freedom. Unfortunately, most notions of contingent freedom are highly unpersuasive to anyone with options. If you have a homogenous society, or what you want is to force everyone into your moral pattern, contingent freedom is lovely. Elsewise, it sucks. The reason freedom is no longer discussed this way is because it was rightly recognized not as something inherently connected to freedom, but rather as a social control scheme.

    • Foseti says:

      I’m not sure what this freedom is contingent upon, beyond being contingent on living in a decent society.

      The modern conception of freedom – the freedom of the child – is also not strictly analogous to negative freedom. For example, we’re basically not free to judge people’s crappy behaviors (hence both of us blog anonymously). Freedom from being judged is a positive freedom that seems to modern freedom fit the “freedom of a child” example better than the “negative freedom” example.

  5. […] make the example more concrete, in response to one of my posts on freedom, Aretae wants to categorize freedom and to draw clear distinctions between freedom, […]

  6. […] – “Who is Free in 21st Century America?“, “Gender Roles“, “On Regulators from the Left and Right“, […]

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