“Freedom” is a beguiling concept that has bewitched philosophers, theologians, writers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and psychologists for thousands of years. Why do we yearn for it? Do most of us even know what it means? Before we even talk about “declaring our freedom” we should get a decent handle on what “freedom” itself is and how it can be achieved.
At first blush, freedom seems pretty simple: the ability to think and act without constraint, either external or internal. The extent to which any one of us, individually, has personal freedom, is the extent to which we are free to think the thoughts we wish to think, and to act the way we’d like to act, without other people, organizations, or circumstances limiting those thoughts or actions – and with no internal constraints on our thoughts or actions imposed by our own beliefs, desires, or fears.
Upon further reflection, though, we realize that there are many different types of freedom and that they are inter-related. It is hard to have the kind of personal freedom described above without first having these other, more foundational freedoms:
- Freedom of thought. Often we ourselves are the chief constraint of our own freedom, limiting our own thoughts because of irrational beliefs, desires, or fears. We may let what others say about us influence how we think or feel about ourselves, forgetting that it is only our own interpretation of what others say that makes us feel good or bad about ourselves; Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, noted this centuries ago and rightly observed that we always have a choice on how to think about and respond to external events and actions, and that realizing this can release us from the tyranny of other people and events, no matter how dire. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades at Robbins Island, yet retained his freedom of thought even in the face of his lack of physical, political, and economic freedom – his mind remained free though his freedom of action was severely restricted. With freedom of thought comes the responsibility to think rationally, to constantly improve the quality of one’s thought, to accept responsibility for one’s own thoughts and feelings, and to help others achieve this same freedom.
- Political freedom. While each one of us can always obtain freedom of thought (although it can be hard to achieve, especially if we have trained ourselves over the years to value the expressed opinions, beliefs, and desires of others more than our own, and if we are hobbled by our own negative “self-talk” or negative, limiting thoughts about our worth and our abilities), it is much more difficult to obtain political freedom since it depends on the system of government in the state or country of which we are citizens. There are certainly degrees of political freedom among the 300-odd countries in the world today, but at one end of the spectrum are countries like North Korea which severely curtail the freedoms of its citizens to assemble, to speak freely, to own property, and to direct their own actions; such countries place critical power in the hands of a relatively few leaders, the source of such power coming from a perceived divine right, long-standing traditions, or concentrated military or economic power wielded by a self-serving “elite” whose goals are to maintain their power at all costs. At the other end of the spectrum are democracies like the United States, whose citizens enjoy the right to assemble, to speak freely, to own property, to direct their own actions, and to seek their own happiness without fear of constraint or reprisal, with rights guaranteed by the rule of law which is above any individual citizen, even the most powerful. In between are countries and nation-states with varying degrees of property rights and the rule of law, and citizens in such countries may or may not be free to emigrate should they choose to do so.
- Economic freedom. This is the freedom to earn our livelihoods however we choose, to seek the highest personal and economic benefits from our own labor, and to retain the benefits of that labor for our own. There is no economic freedom with political freedom, for without the rule of law and the right to personal property, we cannot be guaranteed that we will not be forced by other people or organizations to labor against our will for another’s benefit and not our own (the extreme example of this, of course, is slavery, where neither one’s labor nor one’s own physical body is one’s own to do with as one pleases). The ultimate goal of economic freedom is self-determination: the freedom to labor at work of one’s own choosing, to express one’s truest self through that labor, and to sell that labor freely in an open marketplace at a fair value if one chooses to do so. In capitalist societies, the ultimate economic freedom is to convert one’s labor, over the course of one’s working life, into income-producing assets (such as real estate, stocks, bonds, and cash) which can free the individual who owns them from a life of personally unfulfilling labor, leaving that individual free to seek his or her highest purpose and fulfillment without regard to the economic benefits produced by his or her labor.
- Freedom of health and safety. Without a high level of personal health, it is not possible to achieve the highest levels of personal freedom. Eating healthy foods, exercising, getting enough sleep, playing, and socializing with others are all critical to clarity and freedom of thought, as well as to the freedom of mobility and to participate fully in those actions we may desire that bring personal fulfillment and happiness not only to ourselves but to those significant others in our lives who matter the most to us. Freedom of health will be constrained by our own physical constraints and abilities or disabilities, but we should always strive for the highest level of health we can achieve consistent with those constraints. Likewise, the freedom to be safe, from mental and physical abuse, from harm caused by other people or institutions, and to defend ourselves from those individuals and institutions who would do us harm, is critical to attaining the highest level of personal freedom. This freedom is often constrained by our political, economic, and mental freedoms, but we should always strive to develop the ability to protect ourselves, to defend our feelings, beliefs, property, friends, and family to the greatest extent possible.
I’d like to explore these and other aspects of personal freedom as I try to achieve freedom in my own life, share what I’m doing, and hear what you’re doing to achieve freedom in your life – looking forward to the adventure!