Freedom stands for something greater than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To most reasonable people, freedom means more than just ‘free to do whatever I want’. Taken literally, that approach would produce anarchy—every man, woman, and child for himself or herself. Fortunately, none of us has to live that way (unless you’re reading this in Somalia or a similar disaster area).
Certainly freedom does mean the right to do as one pleases—to think, believe, speak, worship (or not worship), move about, gather, and generally act as you choose—but only until your choices start to infringe on another person’s freedom.
This still leaves a great deal of latitude. There is a long list of things that one can say, and say freely, for example, that excludes shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
One way to think of this is the difference between “freedom of” (or “freedom to”) and “freedom from”—a point eloquently made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address delivered on January 6, 1941:
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
The Four Freedoms
Securing freedom from fear and freedom from want is very likely to entail some collective, organized action. That kind of activity is often carried out most effectively and efficiently (although, admittedly, not perfectly) by the government. If we want to live in a society where freedoms are protected and where the opportunity to exercise freedom is assured, we have to rely on some form of governance. So far, liberal representative democracy seems to do the best job of it.
Note also that Roosevelt spoke in “world terms.” He and his colleagues (including his wife, Eleanor, one of the greatest women of the 20th century) operated according to a vision in which the United States belonged to a family of nations. This family was interdependent, cooperative, and shared common values. The U.S., in their eyes, would act as a member of that family—a leading member, to be sure, but not a belligerent or domineering one.
In the same speech, Roosevelt said:
There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
- Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
- Jobs for those who can work.
- Security for those who need it.
- The ending of special privilege for the few.
- The preservation of civil liberties for all.
- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
This message is now nearly six decades old, but still rings as true today as when first spoken. We can hardly improve on FDR’s description of the fundamental goals and objectives of technoprogressive policies.
Of course, in 2009 we must take into account new issues and possible new areas of freedom—and potential infringements on freedom—that could not be anticipated in 1941.
In the next 50 years, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and cognitive science will allow human beings to transcend the limitations of the human body. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will have greater control over our emotions and memory. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power. We will use these technologies to redesign ourselves and our children in ways that push the boundaries of “humanness.”
One central mission of the IEET is to protect what we call “morphological freedom”—the right for individuals to manage, maintain, augment, and upgrade their own bodies as they see fit—so long, of course, as their actions don’t negatively impact somebody else’s freedoms.
It is interesting that in his 1941 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt spoke of heath care issues that sound immediately familiar in light of the current debate on the U.S. over health insurance reform. He said:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
The argument about health care as a human right and access to basic medicine as an important part of freedom is not a new one. Nor is the effort by opponents of expanded coverage to cast the provision of benefits as a threat to freedom.
As Thomas Frank points out in this important op-ed from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:
Conservatives of the 1930s, led by an upper-crust outfit called the American Liberty League, certainly felt that way. “That Roosevelt was a dictator there was no doubt; but Liberty Leaguers were not quite sure what kind,” wrote the historian George Wolfskill in “The Revolt of the Conservatives,” a 1962 study of that organization. “Some thought he was a fascist, others believed him a socialist or Communist, while others, to be absolutely sure, said he was both.”
Frank’s piece is titled “The Left should reclaim ‘Freedom’—The Right was wrong about FDR too.” He says:
There are few things in politics more annoying than the right’s utter conviction that it owns the patent on the word “freedom”—that when its leaders stand up for the rights of banks to be unregulated or capital gains to be untaxed, that it is actually and obviously standing up for human liberty, the noblest cause of them all. . .
Any increase in the size or duties of government, the right tells us, necessarily subtracts from our freedom. Government is, by its very nature, a destroyer of liberties; the Obama administration, specifically, is promising to interfere with the economy and the health-care system so profoundly that Washington will soon have us all in chains.
“What we’re going to end up with is higher taxes, bigger government and less freedom for the American people,” House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Fox News in July. “We’re going to have a real fight for how much freedom we’re going to have left in America.”
Today, of course, we know that the right’s tyranny-fears [about FDR] were nonsense. Most of Roosevelt’s innovations have been the law of the land for 70 years now, and yet we are still a free society.
In closing, Frank makes this vital point:
The reality of misgovernment, meanwhile, is not something you can grasp simply by donning a tricorn hat and musing on the majesty of Lady Liberty. It requires, among other things, close attention to the following irony: That many of the most destructive and even corrupt policies of the past few decades were engineered by exactly the sort of people who claim to be motivated by freedom and liberty.
During the recent horrible administration of George W. Bush, I often pleaded with people not to view Bush, Cheney, et al., as conservatives. They were clearly and profoundly not interested in conserving the liberties or the general welfare of Americans, as was their Constitutional duty. Rather, they were intent on maximizing the security and strength of powerful corporations, on whose boards they and their cohorts have so comfortably sat.
Have you ever taken the World’s Smallest Political Quiz? While it is far from perfect, it does offer a useful alternative to the traditional left-right spectrum, opting instead for a diamond-shaped depiction of U.S. political positions.
The red dot shows where I score on the quiz. I would submit that supporters of Bush-style politics, including many of today’s alleged ‘conservatives’, are really much closer to Big Government Statists. Bush, after all, increased the size of the federal deficit far beyond what any of his predecessors had done, while at the same time overseeing the most heinous incursions into civil liberties of any President since, well, perhaps ever.
Although I’ve openly stated my displeasure with the extreme positions of certain declared libertarians, I am not at all opposed to many of the tenets of libertarian thinking. I’ve even at times declared myself to be a “libertarian socialist.” Social freedoms should, in my view, be free from government restraint in almost every case.
Being a technoprogressive means being in favor of freedom. What we have to make clear, though, is that freedom stands for much more than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.
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I think of all the wars our country has fought, and still is fighting, so we can have the wonderful gift of freedom. There have been many brave women and men who have risked their lives so we can live the way we want to in the United States. We still have women and men fighting for our freedom today.
Some of my relatives have fought in different wars. My great uncle, Mel, my grandpa, and my mom's cousin, Lee, fought to defend our great country, knowing that they could be killed.
Freedom means to be able to vote for whoever you want to be in office, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, and many other freedoms that we take for granted.
To get the freedoms that we so enjoy, Americans have fought bravely and many have lost their lives. Our veterans have fought to keep our country free and we should all be thankful for that. I am glad that we honor our veterans and I am proud to be an American!
5th grade class
What does freedom mean to me? Freedom means to have the right to do and say what you like. This is how the dictionary explains freedom. Pope John Paul II said that "Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but having the right to do what we ought."
I think freedom is an amazing thing because at 11 years old, I'm able to have an education, learn to play the French horn, and learn how to sing in a choir.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we have police, doctors, firemen and women to help us when we need it. I don't have to worry about a war in Wadena.
We have soldiers fighting for our freedom. Their courage allows me to think of things I'd like to do, like care for my lambs, cats, dogs, read or draw. That's what freedom means to me.
Ariel Ronnenberg Mr. Sea's
5th grade class
What freedom means to me is not being judged by what I do and what I say. Also I would like to say thanks to the veterans that fought for my freedom.
To me, having freedom is enough to make me happy because a lot of people in other countries don't have the freedom we take for granted. I think if people realized how lucky they are they would have more respect for the veterans and more support for them. So think for a moment, are you unlucky or are you just feeling bad for yourself, think about the kids and adults who don't have freedom.
So support the veterans who have risked their lives and fought for your freedom every day.
6th grade class
To me, freedom means the right to choose. I can choose my friends, my actions, my life.
I can decide what I want to be when I grow up or where I might want to live. If all of those brave men and women hadn't fought for us in war, who knows where America would be today.
Freedom is something many, many people take for granted, even me. In some countries, people dream about freedom. They wish for it, too.
That's why we should thank all the brave men and women who've risked their lives and lost their lives, because without them, freedom would only be a dream for us, too, and not the reality it is today. So thank you to all who have seen war. Because of you, I have freedom, my family has freedom, and the country has freedom.
6th grade class
Do you know what freedom means to me? It means that I can do what I want in my country because veterans fought for my freedom and independence in the Revolu-tionary War.
Because of them we live in a country that is free. We can choose where we want to learn our own religion. We can express our feelings and not get in trouble for it. If we didn't have these freedoms, what do you think America would be like? What if we didn't have courageous people to fight for us like in World Wars I and II? Probably half of our population would be wiped out.
That means many families would be afraid to leave their homes in case they got hurt or even killed. Every night we would lay awake, wondering if this would be our last night. We don't have to worry, though. We have troops fighting for us at this very moment in Iraq. If someone said, "Who cares about freedom," what would you say? Would you go along with that person, or would you be the one to stand above the crowd and say, "I care about freedom, because of freedom, we can do what we want each day living freely, with no worries." Think about it. Freedom is a very special gift in our country that not many countries have. We are lucky to be free. Thanks to all the veterans and troops who made the ultimate sacrifice. America truly is the land of the free.
6th grade class
What did we fight for in Korea? Or the World Wars? What is worth the lives and limbs lost in these wars? What makes the USA different from other nations, so appealing to people of other lands that they come by the millions? Why do we choose how to live unlike other countries? The answer is freedom.
Freedom is the ability to make choices and to carry them out, as long as they show no unjust, unnecessary or unreasonable limits of others' freedom. Without freedom, there would be no afternoon or evening activities. In other countries, religion is discouraged or even forbidden, so there is no or little amount of freedom of religion. There's also freedom of assembly, press, speech and economic freedom, which is to be able to profit from land in America. Because we have freedom, we can speak freely and not be punished.
The passengers of Flight 93 which crashed on Sept. 11 is an example of the meaning of freedom. The brave Americans of Flight 93 and other victims of 9-11 paid the ultimate price for freedom, so we should pay them respect and gratitude. True freedom means giving as well as receiving, and the price is high.
A person's race, gender or physical limitations don't matter because we are all equal, so we receive the same amount of freedom. Sometimes we take freedom for granted, and don't think of all the little things that we get to enjoy because we are free. When you stop and think about how life would be without it, it makes you very thankful to live here and enjoy the promise of freedom. This is what freedom means to me.