Freedom is one of those topics that is constantly discussed, most discourse around politics seems in some way to revolve around concepts of freedom. It’s rarely, however, about freedom itself; instead it is about ‘my freedom’. It’s always what I want, what I want to do, and it is overly individualistic and frankly childish. It is the language of ‘I do what I want’ with no good reason or excuse; this has infected all things, from Sartre’s existentialism to the selfish hedonism of liberalism it all boils down to one word. Me.
We are obsessed with political freedom for its own sake, we deify it, praise it, hollowly chant the words that represent it as if we still know what they mean. What is good about freedom? Why do we value it? It’s a more difficult question to answer than you might assume; we are after all intellectually washed over with ideas of freedom from a very early age, to the point where we cannot imagine how it could be anything other than positive.
The only merit freedom has, really, is that is the only alternative to tyranny; it’s important I grant you, it’s why we inscribe it in our constitutions and why the concept is so dear to us, but that is all it is. Political freedom is a safeguard, a way to protect citizens, a way to avoid the Cheka and the KGB, it is habeas corpus and jury trial.
This is what I would call the limit of political freedom, coherent societies need some form of coercive power to stay together: a government, a monopoly on violence etc. It is not necessarily true that state power erodes personal freedom; it is where that power is that matters, what is it attempting to do. The state buying a steel mill or ownership of the railways will not turn Britain into the Soviet Union overnight or at all (if it did we would have turned into a Stalinist nightmare during the first world war).
So what is the difference between a good exercise of state power and a bad one? Simply put a good exercise of state power is power governed by morality bent toward a moral goal and that is successful in that goal.
The reason that we never see the state exercise power well in the modern day is that we deify freedom, anything that limits choice of any kind is shunned; politicians think the government should increase the freedom of its citizens no matter what, and the modern divide between left and right is simply that the left empathises positive freedom while the right emphasises negative freedom.
A good example is the recent legislation introduced by the government which will make divorces much easier and quicker to do, as well as more secretly. Divorce is seen as an important freedom by many, and it should be able to be done quickly. Whereas a conservative or traditionalist interested in true freedoms, ones that maintain a civilised and free society such as freedom of speech, assembly and press, would see divorce as a freedom to be exercised in only strict cirumstances- lest the important family unit is undermined.
This ever increasing march towards more freedom is simply an exercise in selfishness, it is state pandering of the highest order. The state should make moral decisions in the best interest of the country and if that means less people can own cars or that some people who earn over a certain amount of money have to pay the NHS for healthcare than so be it. True freedom is never political but personal. As Epictetus said, ‘Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire but by eliminating it’; self discipline is freedom and don’t you ever forget it. So let us not die to make men free, but let us die to make them holy.
Photo by James Frid on Pexels.
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