In the June 2 Times-News, R. Steele Selby (“Just how free are we?) defines freedom as “the capacity to do whatever he or she wants to do” and asserts that this definition is “most likely nearly universal.”
He then argues that an attachment or bonding to almost anything limits freedom. Toward the end of his letter, he uses the lyrics from “Me and Bobby McGee” to conclude: “Thus the only way to be really free is to have nothing” asserting, additionally, that freedom “has no value.”
I find this gratuitous and disturbing, especially at this time of year when we pay tribute to those who have lost their lives protecting our freedom.
While I, too, enjoy the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” I disagree with most of Mr. Selby’s analysis, particularly his conclusions about freedom.
Indeed, a naïve definition of freedom may be “the capacity to do whatever he or she wants to do,” and, I might add, whenever he or she wants to do it.
Upon further reflection, however, most people realize that we, as individuals, put constraints on ourselves all the time yet we don’t consider this to be an infringement of our freedom. Why? Those constraints are self-imposed or voluntary.
Many people, for example, set an alarm to awaken at a certain time in the morning. They know that, at the moment the alarm goes off, they will probably prefer to go on sleeping.
They choose, however, to restrict their sleeping because, when fully awake, they value other things more than they value the extra sleep. They enhance their freedom by imposing a restriction on their sleep time.
It may seem ironic, but a self-imposed restriction on our choices can actually expand our overall freedom.
Saving part of our income is similar. Of course, saving is equivalent to not consuming now. Consequently, it reduces our current choices. We do so, however, with the expectation that our future choices will expand sufficiently to compensate us for the reduction in current consumption.
One of the reasons the Revolutionary War was fought is summarized in the phrase “No taxation without representation.” Note that the protest was not against taxation per se.
It was against taxation imposed by an external force over which the colonists felt they had little to no control; that is, the British government. This also gives insight into the concept of freedom.
Freedom may be more thoughtfully defined as “the capacity to choose one’s actions subject only to constraints which are voluntary or agreed upon.”
That is, they either naturally result from one’s previous actions, they are self-imposed, or they are voluntarily agreed upon.
As noted, a voluntary restriction on current choices is expected to enhance future freedoms. One may choose to forego some freedoms now in order to enjoy more freedom in the future.
Further, one may voluntarily enter into relationships (informal, contractual, or collective) that constrain our choices.
As rational individuals this is done if, and only if, we expect these relationships to make us better off; that is, to expand our future choices. Indeed, employment, marriage, and even citizenship itself are such relationships.
Freedom in the sense of self-rule or self-regulation does indeed have value. In fact, many Americans have not only been willing to, but have, paid the ultimate price in order to obtain and/or retain this freedom.
It is only fitting that this fact is emphasized at this time of year when D-Day is commemorated and Memorial Day and Independence Day are celebrated in honor of such sacrifices.