"Freedom Isn't Free." Discuss?

In the wake of Veterans Day, I will take the small risk of prodding a bit at the philosophical foundations of the idea that freedom can only be preserved by those who give up their own.

Please, let’s not turn this into the series of unrelated anecdotes typical of military-related threads, or the historical mudball fight typical of discussions about politics or geopolitics.

What I hope we can examine is the abstract principle that “freedom isn’t free.” Enough people have died for it that we really owe it to them as well as to ourselves. Some potential difficulties:

  • What is the price of freedom? Jefferson said it is eternal vigilance. What did that mean to people of his era? What might it mean to ours?

  • Is it necessary, on some level, that freedom must be defended by people who don’t practice it at all? For example, autocrats or tyrants? The military seems to need them on a basic level, and it stands to reason that the most effective warriors will be those who believe most deeply in war: those who are called warlike. What might be the implications for free society at large?

  • Has economic freedom taken on the same “unfree” characteristic? Is this fallacious or not?

  • When we say freedom isn’t free, what kind of freedom are we usually talking about? Is it a time to question the idea? Or is that, in itself, a kind of dishonor to those who have sacrificed?

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.Me & Bobby McGee

There is truth there. I am not free, as I have many things I do not wish to lose. Like my house. I am not free to ignore the mortgage, taxes, etc. If I do so, eventually I will lose the house. So I choose to sacrifice a bit of autonomy, and bow to the Mortgage/Taxation Gods.

I am not free to kick the asses of those that annoy me. If I do so, I will go to jail, and if convicted of a felony, will lose my license to practice law. So I generally refrain from ass kicking.

So would you say:
a) All freedom is relative?
b) Freedom is nonexistent in our society, so discussing it is a wankfest?

From those options, I’d go with option “a”. I am considerably more free than someone living in a dictatorship. I am considerably less free than Robinson Crusoe on his island.

Take it in reverse order.

I don’t know about you, but when I say “freedom” I am talking about American values - freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to vote for whoever you choose - that kind of thing.

And I for one have no problem defining economic freedom in that mix. Property rights are human rights, after all.

Lincoln put it rather well talking about the rights of blacks to be free - “the right to put into your own mouth the bread your own hands have earned.” That’s a rather fundamental freedom, it seems to me. That’s why I would include free markets under “freedom” - the right to enter into contracts with others as an equal, and to be free from coercion when you do. All this is in the context of a society that recognizes and enables these kinds of free transactions, don’t get me wrong. But the basic assumption is that one person is as good as any other, and equally capable to decide for themselves where their best interests lie.

And to leave others to decide that for themselves as well.

ISTM that the military uses that sort of “unfree” structure because it is necessary, for large scale war, that the line of command be clear in the fog of battle. There are other models - guerrilla fighters can be effective, and they are less hierarchical than the regular military - but to conquer, you need commanding officers and grunts.

The implications for society are that we have a cadre of people who are accustomed to leadership as well as loyalty. And the awareness of the rest of us that there are those among us who are willing to put their lives on the line to defend us. To serve, therefore, as a reminder of how we need to lead our lives to be worthy of that.

My son’s safety. And by God, the US better stick to its highest ideals to be worth that.


Freedom costs $1.05.

An imaginary kind that Americans verbally fellate, for reasons that escape me. Not that I don’t like living here. It’s just that the majority of American adults never mature beyond childhood in some regards.

Go with that thought, Really. I’d love to be able to respond, and I’m sure others would, too. But right now you’re leaving us very little to respond to.

That came off a little more harshly than I intended, and I’m not implying that other nations don’t do the same thing. It’s just that freedom isn’t one of “their words”.

Americans are taught from an early age that they live in the “freest country in the world”. Our patriotic songs are practically required to include the words “freedom” and “liberty” at least once each; in fact, it might be a federal law. Our politicians jabber about how the terrorists “hate our freedoms”.

It’s ridiculous. You’d think there were no other representative democracies on Earth.

Increasingly representative democracy isn’t the goal of liberty. Individual liberty (social, economic, etc.) is the goal, and democracy (political “liberty”) is just a tool to get there … and not always a particularly good tool. Quite often voting is primarily about voting to order other folks around - and in those cases, voting is not a classical-liberal move.

This is nonsensical, liberty doesn’t have any agency. Do you mean to say that representative democracy isn’t a goal for people seeking liberty?

As opposed to what?

beat me to it

I think the natural order of life is for power to congregate. It can be political power, social power, economic power, military power, etc. But when people get it and see how much benefit they can get from it, they want to keep it and they want more. So in some ways I think the natural order of civilization is to slip into oligarchy in one form or another.

I also think mentally unhealthy people will have a strong urge to gain an keep power. Narcissists, sociopaths, authoritarians, people who are overcompensting for hidden pains, etc. People who have destructive motives seem like they’d be the ones trying the hardest to gain any power and influence they can.

So freedom isn’t free, to me, means maintaining a strong system of checks and balances with a high level of transparency. It isn’t really military related.

In the book the predictioneer’s game the author talks about how king Leopold was king of Belgium and the colony of the congo. In the colony he was an autocratic, corrupt tyrant but in Belgium he presided over growth in civil liberties. The motive was that his incentives pushed him in both directions in both areas. When people’s incentives, as individuals and organizations, is to form tyrannies they will. When humane societies are in their incentives they do that instead. A president has to appeal to 51% of the electorate.

As far as freedom wrt the military, I really can’t think of many examples where they fought for freedom. And the definition of freedom varies. The American south felt they were fighting for the freedom to seceed at will. But they wanted to limit the freedom of blacks.

The domino theory happened in SE asia (Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia all went communist) but we are still ‘free’.

On another note, when China releases their human rights reports I believe they use stats like unemployment and crime as well as other factors in freedom. Living in a democracy doesn’t feel free if you are constantly unemployed and live in dangerous gang territory.

It’s clear to me that, even in an enlightened age with easy access to virtually all knowledge, various factors prevent us from learning from some already committed mistakes. We’re involved in hazy, poorly defined military struggles, just like Vietnam. We have influential people arguing in favor of the same solutions to our economic crisis that should have been cast aside in prior crises. We have people lazily demagoguing against particular groups or classes of people, despite our shameful history of similar bigotry.

The lesson is that even with enlightenment more easily attainable, you can’t discount the average person’s capacity for ignorance and evil.

As opposed to representative freedom (i.e. self-rule). athelas seems to be suggesting either that libertarianism is in vogue, and representative government isn’t doing well, or that representative freedom isn’t a very good way to get to libertarian freedom. But it’s a silly objection; the goal of democracy is not necessarily maintaining freedoms, but creating a government that is accountable to (in fact, consists of) the people who it governs. In that way, you can call yourself free, because you are bossing yourself around, through the organ of a state that is run by you (and your fellow citizens.) athelas is also wrong to feel like this is a new debate — both libertarianism and representationalism have been around literally for centuries.

To be fair, for the last while, a different form of freedom-by-lack-of-restrictions has been in vogue. Locke and the early liberals seemed to think that, once men were kept safe from immediate harm from each other, the main threat to freedom was the government. But in fact, it is easy to have the powerful within societies coercing each other in various, perfectly legal ways. Hence, the argument goes, the government may have to restrict some freedoms in order to keep its citizens from exploiting each other. At the same time, representational democracy could be doing better —in both Canada and the United States, legislatures are almost universally despised, even though they’re the most directly elected bodies.

Anyway, hope that helps.

As for whether freedom is free… has that ever been anything other than a meaningless platitude? If it’s intended seriously, I will say that keeping the government accountable takes vigilance on the part of the citizenry, and that vigilance hasn’t really happened. Or at least, it only happens when the opposing party is in power.

IMHO, that might make them good warriors, but it’ll make them bad soldiers. It is as important for a soldier to not fight when ordered - or when higher principles demand it - as it is for them to attack when ordered. Haven’t you ever noticed the distinct lack of military coups in America and certain other countries? One factor in maintaining freedom in a country is a military that is reluctant to overthrow it. For that matter, do you really want warlike people in charge of our nuclear weapon stockpile?

The goal of a warrior is to find a fight or start one; the purpose of a soldier is to accomplish their assigned task; and if that means guarding a border or serving as a deterrent and never actually fighting in his or her career, then that’s fine. Warlike people are prone to starting fights when they shouldn’t.

Economic freedom in this country often violates the “your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins” principle. Unrestricted license actually tends to make most people less free, not more.

As for what freedom is? I regard it as a combination of liberty (permission to do what you like), power (the ability to do what you like), and the legal/social framework that keeps people from oppressing or exploiting each other in the process of using the two other factors. A lack of freedom often involves the lack of one of those factors but not the others, allowing the pretension of freedom without the reality. If for example you have the legal freedom to do as you like but everything you do is constrained by economic need, you aren’t really free.

Freedom? It is a worship word. You will not use it.

<phasers Bryan Ekers>

The only thing we’re free to do is ruminate on whether we’re free or not.


And still I come. What was mine will be mine again.