As we approach the Thanksgiving of American patriotism, and we prepare our grills and gather enough ammunition and explosives to reenact the American revolution, there is much to contemplate regarding America’s past and future. During Independence Day parties, one word which is thrown around between explosions like a star-spangled bottle rocket is freedom. It’s used by the Left and the Right, with various definitions between them, but Independence Day is seen as a day where Americans can come together, out of their differences, and celebrate what we have in common: freedom.
But is America free? In asking this question, ironically, members of the Left and the Right will instinctively say no, at least to a degree. Members of the Left will argue that we do not have equality, and therefore we do not have freedom, and to a degree, they are correct. Members of the Right, on the other hand, will argue that we are trying to be forced to speak and believe certain things by the media and the government, and therefore we do not have freedom, and to a degree, they too are correct.
But the fact that these answers to the question of Is America truly free? are so predictable from each side of the political landscape is really a symptom of how far from freedom America has really come. If you think about these responses, they either have to do wholly with socio-economic status, or with choice and the desire to be left alone. Both of these are valid complaints, but neither of these have anything to do with what freedom is all about.
For one, a poor person may be treated unfairly and can still be a free person. Liberty is not about how much money you have in your pocket. The idea that the American dream is primarily an economic dream is a relatively new idea. But many on the Left focus on that socio-economic unfairness and they see a lack of freedom. Though injustice is often present, it is not due to a lack of freedom.
On the other end of the spectrum, even though the media and the government often persuade American citizens to believe certain things, that does not indicate a lack of freedom. Just because someone persuades you to believe something does not mean you are not still free to believe something else. It is true that this becomes more difficult in the face of a society which grows ever more hostile to the ideals of conservatism, but even so, conservatism can still be practiced. Political pressure does not directly equal a lack of freedom.
Many things can be made in response to both of the points I just made. Yes, a lack of equality means a lack of opportunity. Yes, being pressured into believing something is part of what started the American revolution in the first place. Both of the rebuttals are correct. But neither really has to do with freedom.
The true problem with the modern American understanding of what freedom is lies in the confusion between freedom and choice. A plurality of choices and the ability to make them is often what is defined as freedom on both sides of the political spectrum. Whether it be the choice of career path, or the choice of what to believe. Both the Right and the Left hold that any decrease in choices equals an infringement of freedom, and to some degree, that is true. But at the same time, though freedom does include the importance of choice, it also means much more.
My history professor once put it to me in the form of an anecdote:
Imagine, for a moment, you’re on the hunt for a new car. Imagine, for a moment, that you know everything there is to know about cars. The only problem is, the car salesman you are buying from only has two cars for sale. You know what is right, but you don’t have a lot of choices. On the other hand, imagine instead that you know absolutely nothing about cars, but instead of two, you have thousands and thousands of choices. You have all the options you could ever want, but you have no idea which choice is best. In which scenario are you more free? In the first example, even though you only have two choices, you can easily differentiate between which is best because you understand cars. Whereas in the second example, though you have all the choices you could every want, you don’t have any idea which choice is right, and because of this you find yourself a slave to the car salesman.
Both Liberals and Conservatives often find themselves on the wrong side of this question. They find themselves quarrelling about plurality of choice and not about what is right. They find themselves rightly complaining about the price of the cars, or the fact that the car salesman is pushy, instead of about what defines a good car in the first place. This is why so many Conservatives in the buckle of the Bible Belt seem to be flocking to Libertarianism. Libertarianism is really just Conservativism with no morals. They find themselves wanting to abolish the car salesman altogether so they can drive whatever car they want.
This sentiment is most often heard in the phrase You can’t legislate morality. When in reality, all legislation is moral legislation. If this were not true, then slavery should have remained up to the free market. Slavery was not abolished because of economic reasons because it is universally understood by Americans to be wrong not because of some free-market capitalist answer to the issue, but because of a moral answer.
But in the modern world, there is a different kind of slavery. This is the kind of slavery that comes when people are no longer taught about cars and then find themselves in need of one. That is, when people who have never been taught true morality are loosed upon the world. This is where you get these movements of young people who simply make choices because its what they want without giving any thought to what is right. And when these people have no idea what to pursue besides their own desires, they immediately become slaves to vice. On the news, almost every day you will see someone who has abandoned their own child, or abused someone close to them due to their absolute obsession with drugs or alcohol. Child abuse, assault, rape: these are things that not even a slave would do. Slavery to vice is far more absolute than slavery to a person. Because, when someone is enslaved to a person, they still have their mind. They can still make right choices. Their minds can still be free.
Instead, we live in a society of children, and when these children hit driving age they won’t know any better than to pick the first car they think looks cool. John Adams said that our American system is only governable for a moral and religious people, and that it is wholly inadequate for the governing of any other. Unfortunately, this is why I must conclude that America is not a free country anymore. Because we as a society focus, no matter which side of the political spectrum we fall into, on what we can do and not on what we should do.
But simply because it is this way does not mean that it has to be. There is a flipside to this reality as well. Just because the culture is going in a certain direction does not mean that you must follow it. You are free to go the other way, to ponder your purpose, and to begin asking what humanity was really made for. And maybe, if you choose true freedom, others will follow you in that choice. The tide can be turned back again, but it starts by finding liberty from whatever vices we might be enslaved to.
In a world full of suicide, drug abuse, mass shootings, skyrocketing depression and anxiety, sexual assault, alcohol addiction, and pornography, the world needs to see a dramatic example of people standing up and throwing off the shackles of slavery and pursuing true freedom. Perhaps then, freedom can ring all across America once again.