Freedom as Religion

Whenever a libertarian is called upon to justify how a fringe ideology can win a major election, they always resort to the same riff. “Most Americans are libertarians” they argue. “Most Americans prioritize their freedom when they consider how society should operate”.

This sentiment is very much the correct one. The word “freedom” is on the lips of almost every American — no politician could hope to win election after asserting that freedom is not the highest good. Indeed, the American psyche is consumed with the idea that we are a free people, and that our freedom must be kept sacred.

It comes from our very Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — the three most important freedoms: that to live, to mind one’s own, and to seek out the best for oneself. Jefferson’s hypocrisy notwithstanding, his words have animated the American spirit throughout history. Americans, from every political ideology, from every state in the nation, from every class, gender, race, all believe in this mystical conception of “freedom”.

Yet what the average libertarian who argues that most Americans are like him forgets is that there are many different interpretations of freedom. Take gun rights, a question I hope to delve into greater detail about later. Should I be allowed to own a semiautomatic gun if that same gun can be — and is by certain people — used to kill others in a mass shooting? Many Americans disagree as they prioritize the freedom of life over the freedom to own a weapon designed for mass killings — yet others argue that the right to self-defense or the right to revolution should be prioritized over the ultimately small number of deaths that happen as a result of “assault weapon” (a term that has no actual meaning save as a rhetorical device by both sides) ownership. This argument continues across all areas of public life in the United States: what freedoms are more important?

Americans usually seek follow the Platonic understanding of justice: each minding one’s own. But when our owns come into conflict, we try and prioritize freedoms to achieve specific goods. While we argue for many different goods, most fall into two categories: liberty (the freedom to mind one’s own) and welfare (the freedom to live a good life). These are not necessarily two separate freedoms, and in many cases an easy agreement between them can be reached — however, the nature of mankind makes certain questions of human liberty and human welfare naturally opposed to each other.

Those who seek to prioritize liberty are normally found on the American “right”, though there are notable pockets of them in the “left” as well; the reverse is seen with those who prioritize welfare. I dislike the terms left and right when applied to the idiosyncrasies of the American system — on any standardized spectrum each of the two parties has a number of stances that align more with the classical left/right; as I will discuss in a future post, America has no real rightist or leftist factions — rather, the two parties usually argue for competing interests that occasionally ally with actual rightists and leftists.

Freedom has typically be characterized by Americans as a negative right, i.e. freedom from others’ actions. Yet the times are changing. In more recent years, Americans prefer to use the laws to try and create “positive freedom” by putting the force of government behind rights to build them up past what they would be in a more “natural” state. While many on the right decry this type of legislation, they are still prone to use it whenever the left pushes them too hard on a specific policy point. This is not a uniquely American idea by any means: South Africa’s constitution is actually based around the idea of the government’s role in creating positive freedom.

Rousseau argued time and time again that the state had to be mixed with some form of religion in order to ensure that it was maintained as an institution and to keep it from falling into the grasp of tyranny. The success of that idea in America is best shown by the fact that two of the most “extreme” fringes of our political consensus frame their arguments in the same vein: as a positive good for freedom. That libertarians and socialists both conceive of freedom as being the highest good is the great victory of American ideology; even welfare, the opponent of freedom in Communist and Fascist ideology, is subsumed into the American cult of freedom as itself being a riff on that highest ideal.

American ideology is often full of holes and internal contradictions which lead to expensive arguments, yet it is rare to find an American who does not consider freedom to be the absolute highest good — it is only when asked the consequences of that freedom that divergences from the orthodoxy begin to appear.