What Does It Mean to be Free?

(This was orginally written as a column for the Star-Exponent.)

What does it mean to be free? I believe that freedom is the ability to do certain things. To speak as I wish. To think as I wish. To do business as I wish. To medicate myself as I wish. To go where I wish. To spend time with whomever I wish. You get the point.

Somewhere along the way, and many people trace it to FDR but it goes back further than that, the definition of freedom was bastardized and became for many not freedom to do things but freedom from certain things.

Though the effort to twist the meaning of “freedom” goes back before Roosevelt, it is he who popularized the idea that “freedom from want” was equal and perhaps even superseded the rights in our Bill of Rights which places fundamental limits on the power of the government.

In an address to the nation in 1944 FDR outlined an alternative “Economic Bill of Rights.” He claimed that that the original Bill of Rights had failed and that it had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

Thankfully FDR died before this was officially codified. But the Economic Bill of Rights which included the right to a job, to housing, a living wage, medical care, and education (all good things by the way) is basically the essence of FDR’s New Deal experiment which has defined American politics for the past 70 years. The ideal of “small government” died (or rather many thought it died) with the emergence of the FDR mandate.

In the wake of World War II people wanted security at almost all cost, which is entirely understandable. World War II, and before that the Depression, had traumatized the western world. People sought a solution, and politicians who offered a solution.

In an environment where information was limited to a local newspaper and maybe the radio this made sense. Most people were poorly educated and so placed great trust in their perceived “betters.” If the big shots in Washington say that it’s a good idea, well then I guess it is.

There was some dissent of course. Ayn Rand emerged as a force during this time of very heavy-handed government control. And there were others. But most Americans accepted a strong government as a necessity. As something “modern.” Freedom as defined by the Bill of Rights had become passé for the New Dealer, a faded relic of a less enlightened time.

Centralization was new and forward thinking. Big governments, big corporations, this was the way ahead. Top down was what defined the post war era.

But something very interesting happened with the emergence of the Internet. Almost overnight the centralized organization model became a liability not a strength. Whereas up until very recently it was an advantage to have a strict hierarchy which could disseminate orders from on high, now such a structure is a distinct disadvantage. Organizations still need leadership but leadership’s role for the most part should be to inspire the participants in an organization, be it a business or a government, to do their best, not to micromanage products or services. The world just moves too quickly to have an omnipotent king. Now the serfs have the power.

Businesses are quickly realizing this, though leadership is reluctant to give up the reins of power. Government however continues to act as if nothing has changed. It still believes a strongly centralized model is the best way to run things. The world is telling it otherwise but it refuses to capitulate.

This is largely because of the culture of New Dealism that runs through American government (and beyond) to this day, a culture defined by FDR’s Bill of Economic Rights. The government still believes that it should (indeed that it can) grant us rights. Many of us however, and the number is growing every day, would prefer to enjoy the natural rights which stem from our very humanity, and in the eyes of some, from God. We don’t need the blessing of Washington; in fact for the most part Washington just gets in the way. Many of us just want the freedom to be left alone so we can get on with things.