The problem of freedom

The American faith in freedom is unconditional and untroubled by doubt.  We never ask what outcomes freedom might bring.  To be free is a good in itself, a transcendental state approaching the divine.  Richie Havens, forced to improvise at Woodstock, belted out an old church hymn — but instead of “Jesus” he sang “Freedom.”

The same sacred power attaches to democracy, which we consider interchangeable with freedom.  Beyond partisan politics, we are all Jeffersonians in this regard:  we believe democracy leads to peace and happiness, and more democracy makes for a better world.

I have just returned from a trip overseas, and am fascinated by how quickly these assumptions come into question in every country but ours.

Freedom is a lack of constraints.  It can mean liberation — the American mind moves to this conclusion effortlessly.  But it can also mean exploitation, the freedom of the powerful to abuse their advantage to bully, defraud, oppress.  And it can mean self-indulgence, debauchery, disloyalty:  the freedom of a mother to abandon her children, of a husband to cheat on his wife.

Freedom, being a negative quality, a lack, becomes a moral problem.  What ought to fill this space?  The history of the world is not identical to the triumph of virtue.  Outside the US, people fear the dark predatory impulses of our nature, which freedom will let loose and, in a sense, absolve.  They care far more passionately about the ought — the behaviors necessary to sustain community life — than the means by which it is brought about.  If right behavior requires a schoolmasterly government, so be it.

Democracy, too, is viewed by many as hollow political machinery, easily manipulated toward undesirable outcomes.  Popular but unscrupulous persons can seduce the electorate for private gain.  The majority can persecute dissenters, pocket other people’s money, shrug off the call of duty.  Party politics can tear countries apart.

In most nations of the world, people feel that hell is other people.  If one can’t lord it over one’s neighbors, one at least hope for justice, which comes from family, friends, and tribal relations, rather than impersonal processes like elections or checks and balances.

Confronted with the problem of freedom, a traveller begins to discern the strangeness and originality of the American story.  We mistrust all formal power structures, and embrace informal — or free — associations.  The salvation of the average American is left in his neighbor’s hands.  He therefore requires of his neighbor, as his neighbor requires of him, a strict code of behavior that justifies such an astonishing existential gamble:  a morality of freedom.

When Americans bow before the altar of freedom, they do not worship an empty space, a negative quality, a barbaric lack of constraint.  Our faith is in each other, in a web of voluntary obligations made possible by personal sovereignty.  Freedom is filled by virtue, and can’t exist without it.

Democracy is a device to keep state power, and the unwholesome cravings it arouses, at bay.  The individual is a free citizen only when he accepts the part of moral agent in both public and private life:  because of our fondness for association, we tend to blur the difference between the two domains.

Beyond our borders, people find this story incomprehensible, if not hypocritical.  They hear us sing endless anthems to freedom, and deduce a hollowness at the core of the American character.  To other nations we appear in the guise of a conflict, a contradiction; we are often portrayed as both unrestrainedly selfish and paralyzed by middle-class convention.  Our actual behavior, needless to say, surprises the world, and always will.

That freedom and virtue are inseparable was a trivial truth to the Founders.  We latter-day Americans, explaining ourselves to ourselves, have become dazzled by the romantic panache of our freedom, and rarely recall the moral strength that gives it life.  In so doing, we confuse our own identity, and persuade others of our insincerity.


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