Everyone talks about freedom but often it is not thought through very carefully. It is a tremendous good, if properly understood and rightly made use of. But if not, it can be a real trap and lead to some very bad outcomes. It can be a two-edged sword, depending on how it is used.
Back in 1958 the Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin delivered a lecture in which he spoke about two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, or freedom from (law, authorities, etc.) and positive freedom, or freedom for (doing what is right, or what we ought to do).
Both are vitally important and depend on each other, but sadly most folks only think about and run with freedom from. They want complete liberty from all restraints and all restrictions. But that is a recipe for disaster. As Lord Acton reminded us long ago, freedom is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
The American Founding Father Daniel Webster said this: “Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.” Or as Edmund Burke once said, “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
If individuals need to handle liberty carefully, so too do nations. Most of the Founding Fathers were well aware of this truth. Consider just a few quotes:
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” -Benjamin Franklin
“Without virtue, there can be no political liberty.” -President John Adams
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” -George Washington
Or as I just read moments ago, “All freedom requires restraint, and the greater the freedom the greater the restraint and the stronger the accountability it requires” (Os Guinness). More on him in a moment, but let me mention a few more vital points to keep in mind.
While freedom is one of the defining and most important characteristics of our successful and prosperous nations, it never comes about by accident, and there is always a price to pay to achieve real freedom. The American experiment in political and religious liberty was a very costly one indeed.
And it is also quite costly to maintain freedom. Freedoms can easily be lost, so it takes much effort to preserve our freedoms. Without diligence, perseverance, and watchfulness, we can easily and quickly see our liberties recede and/or be taken away from us.
As Ronald Reagan once put it: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.”
And freedoms tend to be of a piece – they tend to stand or fall together. If we chip away at freedom of speech, we also chip away at things like freedom of conscience or freedom of religion. So we need to be vigilant about all of our freedoms.
Of course there will always be the need for some limitations here, and in a democracy there will always be trade-offs so that both majorities and minorities can enjoy liberty. While there can be no absolutes to freedom (we can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theatre), it is still vitally important and well worth defending.
Another key truth here is that a strong case can be made that the Judeo-Christian worldview really helped to lay the foundation for freedom in the West. And as that foundation erodes, so too does freedom. We see examples of this everywhere. As various activist groups and militant secular organisations push their agendas, the freedoms of ordinary Australians are being peeled away.
And it is worse when the State gets into the act. All over the West we see secular left governments aggressively pursuing progressive policies – policies which also mean the curtailment and limitation of freedoms for many. Usually special rights for various minority groups come at the expense of liberties for the majority.
We need to go back to some basics here, including taking a closer look at just what we mean by freedom and how it is becoming undermined in the West. Plenty has been said on this topic over the millennia, but let me draw upon just one resource, the brand-new book by Christian thinker Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty (IVP, 2018).
While I hope to do a proper book review of this real soon, let me just highlight a few aspects of this important volume. In it he asks ten crucial questions about the situation in America, and whether freedom still has a future there. These questions include:
-Do you know where your freedom comes from?
-Are there enough Americans who care about freedom?
-How do you plan to sustain freedom?
-How do you justify your vision of a free and open society?
His third question, “What do you mean by freedom?” is worth exploring a bit further. In it he offers various definitions of freedom, and looks at seven components of it. The third component is the fact that “freedom includes the notion of human responsibility”.
He says, “In an age obsessed with entitlement and rights, the responsibility and duties at the heart of freedom often get selective attention. . . . In sum, freedom and responsibility are inseparable and at the heart of growing into adult life and citizenship.”
As in some of his previous books, he also draws upon Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty: “Negative freedom is still only half the story. By itself, negative freedom leads only to license and would end in either chaos or tyranny. No one achieves full and genuine freedom unless they go on to experience positive freedom.”
This involves two dimensions:
“First, freedom is not the permission to do what you want, but the power to do what you ought. And second, such freedom is not individual only. Each person’s freedom is free only to the extent that each one respects the equal freedom of all others too.”
Of course that is where things get difficult, and often the freedoms of the few will conflict with the freedoms of the many – or vice versa. How we may try to resolve such dilemmas is looked at by Guinness, but I cannot cover it here – stay tuned for my fuller review.
The truth is, as Guinness acknowledges, the move by leftist governments to strip away real choice and freedom from various groups simply to maintain a radical secular left ideology at all costs is getting worse by the month. Our freedoms really are under threat. We must work to ensure that our freedoms are not continually being stripped away.
As General Douglas Macarthur once said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Or as we find on the outside of Anzac House on a busy street corner in Perth: “They only deserve freedom who are prepared to defend it”.
Or as Guinness asks, “America, America. Do you know what time it is? Do you understand the meaning of this moment? Freedom is at stake…” It sure is.
(Australians can get the new Guinness volume at Koorong: https://www.koorong.com/search/product/last-call-for-liberty-how-americas-genius-for/9780830845590.jhtml )