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On Liberty…

On Liberty…

What do we mean when we use the terms Freedom or Liberty?  Though a seemingly simple question, I am utterly perplexed by our notions of these terms.  From a romantic perspective the tendency is to regard them in their most ideal forms, those being that we have no restraints on our lives… that an infinite world with infinite possibilities lays at our fingertips.  As Americans we hold this idea close to our hearts and bristle mightily when our ability to make decisions for ourselves is threatened.  As evidence observe the healthcare debate or the fervor behind the current Tea Party movement.  We Americans want the power to choose… or at least we want the dream of Freedom and Liberty to stay intact no matter what our reality actually looks like.  There is no doubt that we Americans are dreamers.

            Liberty as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is “the condition of being free to choose, esp[ecially] as between ways of acting or living….”  Let us examine this definition for a moment.  If we were really “free to choose” then wouldn’t focus groups be an ineffective means to understanding decision-making outcomes?  Why would grocery goods providers spend so much time and money researching which shelf their products sell the best?  If this is so, we can’t be free to choose, right?  Of course one obvious retort might be that we are free to choose whether to buy or not.  True enough, but what if there are factors that contribute to the decision making process in this scenario too, e.g., gender, age, family, religion, political values, regional values, and/or community values.  Market research depends on these factors to shape product features and determine how they will be sold to specific groups.  You know the list of groups, we hear about them during every political season:  soccer moms (or hockey moms, if you prefer), males age 18-24 (Rock the Vote), baby boomers, etc.  These groups and many others are targeted because, whether selling goods or political ideas, research shows that predictable tendencies exist within them.  So if their choices are predictable then they are not “free to choose.”  But what about the fact that while much of the group may act in a predictable way, there are still those few who do not?  Are they the only members of the group who were “free to choose,” or, did market research just not explore enough value factors within the group?

            But when I am in the act of choosing it certainly feels like I’m free.  I mean I don’t experience the sense of being forced to choose one item or way over another.  But then market research says otherwise, i.e., that there are determining factors in how we choose.  So, then, shouldn’t Liberty really be defined as:  the feeling of the freedom to choose?  Obviously we can’t divorce ourselves from the experiences and influences that shape our lives and so be free from any factors that might cause us to choose a certain way.  Or would Liberty be better defined as:  the freedom to choose based upon an individual’s determining factors.  (Is that an oxymoron or what?  Freedom as defined by Webster’s is the state of not being subject to determining factors.)  Maybe by Liberty we mean the ability to choose by our own authority, or rather, the ability to choose according to our own determining factors.

            So, then, it seems that we, the philosophic, errr, that is, the propagandized progeny of our idyllic revolution, are not so concerned with freedom as we are with the individual consolidation of power, that power being limited to choosing based upon the determining factors that hold authority over our lives.

            Alright, well, let’s assume that Liberty means something along the lines that in particular areas of our lives we have the right to make certain decisions about the way we live.  I mean Jefferson and Washington were free to build some pretty impressive compounds for themselves.     

But are we really free to choose especially between ways of acting and/or living like they were?  What if I wanted to put a dome on my house?  If it benefits my life, and moreso my happiness, to let the grass in my lawn grow, which I own (so long as I continue to pay my mortgage), without ever cutting it again, then shouldn’t I be free to do so?  What if I want to cover my house in neon lights?  Or, what if I want to utilize to its fullest capabilities the very large sound system in my car to play the latest Jay Z song whenever I so desire.  I’m free, right? 

            Are you shaking your head yet?  What would you do if your neighbor wanted to erect a 30 foot totem pole in their front yard and illuminate it from dusk ‘til dawn?  (Oh yeah, I almost forgot… when you ask them why they did a thing like that, your neighbor’s reply is ‘just because’.)  Some of you crazier cats might not mind a 30 foot totem pole next door but most people would find it to be irritating at the very least.  So how does Liberty prevail when two individuals’ liberties are at odds; when by allowing one’s choice of lifestyle, another’s choice of lifestyle is negated?  I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on that one.

            So Liberty feels like it is free though it is determined and even if I choose to act as freely as I possibly can, there are still laws influenced by mores that diminish Liberty.  It seems like Liberty is more about limitations than it is freedom.  I don’t know about you but I’m still not clear about what we mean by the term Liberty.  Care take a crack at it yourself?

Brad Crockett


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