Traditionally, we Americans on Independence Day celebrate freedom. In particular, we remember our freedom from the tyranny of King George III and his imperious Red Coats and taxes. More generally, though, we call attention to our capacity to live out our lives freed from undue coercion. Freedom conjures the image of chains being broken, and so it is natural for us to focus on what we can be, say, or do as a result of leaving behind the iron grips of yesteryear. It is forward thinking and oriented toward action – freedom to journey, to create, to imagine, or simply to be alone and contented in our own skin.
Freedom without restraint inevitably veers down a dark path. This is because people are imperfect. A Christian might say that every man falls short of the glory of God. A modern thinking psychologist might say that every man is inhibited by some neurosis or delusion that clouds his judgment. A philosopher might say that every man is inclined too much to his passions, which in time will override his reason. However we describe the ailment, there is general consensus that unrestrained freedom leads toward destructive anarchy, which in turn invites authoritarian repression in the service of law and order. This is the vicious cycle born from the excess of freedom.
There are two restraints on freedom: One is authoritarianism; the other is liberty. We all know what authoritarianism is. Much of human history is one version of authoritarian control replacing another.
There is the authoritarianism of the mob (demagoguery), the state (fascism), an elite class (corporatist oligarchy), an ideological struggle (Marxism), a quasi-religious feeling (cult), a coercive peer pressure (McCarthyism and “cancel culture”), or a combination of these. The authoritarians repress freedom, but they do not repress themselves. There is an arrogance in every authoritarian that proves even more destructive than an excessive freedom. The reason is that the unrestrained free man very often is hurting himself, but the authoritarian is always hurting someone else. The unrestrained free man often will burn down his own house. The authoritarian always burns down his neighbor’s house.
The other restraint on freedom is liberty. Too often, we say “liberty” and “freedom” as if the two words are interchangeable. In fact, “liberty” has a narrower definition. First and foremost, liberty is freedom from those conditions that make all freedom dangerous and excessive freedom untenable. Liberty is freedom from undue passion; freedom from the arrogance of moral and intellectual superiority; freedom from a cultish enthusiasm for any one religious or political faction; and, ultimately, freedom from sin. This last point is most controversial, for in our times we like to disassociate liberty from our relationship with God as if the first belongs to the public square and the second to our personal and private conscience. The problem with this dichotomy is that the public square consists of people, and people bring to the public square what is in their conscience. If too many of the congregants in the public square are morally, ethically, and spiritually lost, then the square is going to be a dangerous place prone to authoritarian repression. If we do not want to say, “In God We Trust,” then we are asking for the boot heel to be pressed down on our necks, for that is the only alternative.
The more liberty we have the more we may be free without concern for the excess of freedom. The more liberty we have the less we need government, or any other kind of repression, to keep us in check. If you want a free life, then first aim for liberty.