Back to Basics (2). Freedom As a Core Value

For this post I start not with a question but a confession: freedom is one of my core values, but it clearly isn’t a core value for everyone. I wish it were a core value for everyone. But the plain truth is, it isn’t. I favor freedom for myself, and for those who want it. I am unsure how to help the rest. All I can do is present freedom’s benefits as we go along.

Several questions come up regarding freedom. (1) What is it? (2) What’s so great about it? (3) Why don’t more people want it, even those who say they do? (4) For those who want it and don’t have it, especially in so-called free societies, what is blocking it? (5) What can be done to remove whatever is blocking it? In that case:  

What is freedom?

I’m not talking about freedom in an absolute metaphysical sense, if only because if one defines free will as somehow acting outside the causal structure of reality, I’m not convinced it even exists or that the idea makes sense. Fortunately there are other senses of freedom readily available.

Here’s my layered working definition of it: the capacity to act in accordance with one’s own choices, and not those of someone else or some dominant institution; the capacity to inquire for oneself how to solve a problem, or just to follow one’s curiosity where it leads, and to write and speak about what one learns without fear of or actual reprisal; the capacity to associate with, and work with, people of one’s own choosing and not that of someone else, provide these others are exercising these same freedoms in all the relevant contexts (freedom does not include, that is, forcing your attention on those who do not want it).

Why does freedom matter?

Here I have to wax personal. I can explain why it is important to me. Others might have different (but possibly overlapping) reasons. I first realized that I was thriving when I was free, and not merely existing.

I suspect this is true of others who have had the experience.

When you are thriving, you are taking action and doing so naturally — not because someone is standing over you with a whip. Historically, did not civilization in the West rise because with the English-speaking world leading the way, we championed personal freedom of thought, freedom of belief, and freedom of enterprise? Did we not begin to eliminate serfdom and slavery? Were we not able to inquire more, learn more, and accomplish more? Did we do all this perfectly? Of course not! We did not become perfect. We just became better — somewhat. I would argue that many of us became happier.

Why don’t more people want freedom?

As I said, freedom is one of my core values. It is clearly not everyone’s core value. I find this unfortunate. Why don’t more people want freedom, even when they say they do? Writers such as H.L. Mencken, who wore no rose-colored glasses, offer us important insights and then some (this is from his muckraking classic Notes on Democracy published slightly over a hundred years ago):

The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary. As I have argued, he is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it. Liberty is not a thing for such as he. He cannot enjoy it rationally himself, and he can think of it in others only as something to be taken away from them. It is, when it becomes a reality, the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority of men, like knowledge, courage and honour. A special sort of man is needed to understand it, nay, to stand it — and he is inevitably an outlaw in democratic societies. The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.

In short, freedom goes against what appears to be one of our human default settings, I like to call them: for security, for safety, for comfort. For freedom challenges all of these. Sooner or later, having it pulls you out of your comfort zone. It demands responsibility, and in multiple arenas of living. A free society is a society of people able and willing to “own” freedom, as it were: to assume this responsibility. This includes being honest and trustworthy, creative and enterprising, also empathetic and charitable. To value freedom means to value its preconditions which come down to the willingness to stand on one’s own two feet, discern what needs to be done in a given situation — what problems need solving — and then having the responsibility to do it, without cheating or coasting.

Freedom does not mean being exclusively self-interested. It is a social value. We are social beings: we have kin, we live in communities, we form a variety of associations ranging from neighborhood groups to businesses. Freedom includes serving others. It includes sincerely caring about them, putting them first. Discerning their needs and filling them. It includes validating the people around you. Because none of us is the center of the universe. We are only centers of our universes. One’s own universe can be a lonely place if it cannot connect with that of others. Especially under even marginal conditions of freedom.

I’d be the first to say, this outlook is not for everyone. I don’t think it is even for the majority. We are left with a minority that values freedom; the rest may say they want to be free, but as always, the cash value of what they say is measured by what they do. But having said that, Menckenesque misanthropy gets us nowhere.

What is blocking freedom for those who want it?

There is more than one answer to this question. If freedom is not a priority for the majority, this alone will make it more difficult to obtain and maintain for the minority. But obviously it does not make obtaining freedom impossible because many have achieved it. You have to choose freedom over one of the many forms of servitude available out there. Freedom is not an absolute. It is not the capacity to do anything one wishes. That isn’t freedom, it is psychopathy. Freedom is the capacity, as we said, to make choices not dictated by others: to choose A over B consistently. One is not free from the consequences of choosing A over B, however, in a world governed by cause-and-effect.

There are plenty of things that can interfere with your ever being as free as you might be, even in this nonabsolute sense. I can only sketch a sampling of items here. The field is too large, and runs the gamut from the personal level to the institutional and socioeconomic level to what I will deem the global level.

At a personal level, bad parenting can do lasting damage, ranging from instilling limiting beliefs that may be subconscious and so are extremely difficult to shake, to actual abuse of various sorts. The former may have been reinforced by years of “helicopter parenting.” Parents who protect their children from the “big, bad world” do them no favors in the long run. Children have to be allowed to skin their knees a few times, to learn from mistakes. Parenting doesn’t come with any instruction manuals, which would be useless in any event because children are too different from one another. That said, parenting that is too controlling can breed fear, a sense of entitlement, and ineptitude at adulthood — even resentment and generalized anger, once discerned as such. The oppose, what could be called absent-parenting, may produce independence of a sort but also breed various degrees of disregard for rules and boundaries that are part of responsible living.

At the socioeconomic level, those born into poverty clearly have hurdles to clear that those born into wealthy or even middle-class families do not have. These hurdles have been cleared by many, though, making me suspect that poor parenting is a worse liability. Those not born into poverty face a different set of threats to real freedom from outside the home, I would argue. Parents and children usually instinctively trust so-called public schools to educate and not miseducate or simply train obedience and docility into most children. Both might tend to trust major media sources, neglecting to realize that all such sources now appear to be agenda-driven and have been for a very long time. Both are affected by the entertainment industry wing of mass media. Celebrities become celebrities because the masses identify with them in some way, want to be like them (but without the paparazzi, I presume).

The more you try to be like someone else, whoever it is, the more you hamper your own capacity to develop your own unique personal strengths, and this hampers your freedom.

Not to mention that the more time people spend pursuing entertainment, the less time they have for education — the real thing, that is.  

The top levels are conceivably both the most obscure and the strongest. We are told we live in a democracy, because we can vote to elect our presidents and representatives in Congress — although once in office they almost never represent the will of voters as has been shown by political scientists. What we have all been told at various times obscures historical truths: that “public education” is far more about socialization into obedience and indoctrination into a society’s narratives than it is about education, and has been for well over a century. Writers such as John Taylor Gatto have documented this extensively. It is well known that back in the 1800s “public education” branched off in two directions: education for the children of elite families who would join the ruling oligarchies, and training for the masses who would either farm or go to work for developing corporations (a few would go into government). It was self-evident that the children of the elites would have far greater control over their choices in life than the latter, and over society generally. However greater the complexity and societal layering, this broad continuum (elites versus masses) would continue into the 1900s and beyond into our own century when the oligarchs have basically come out into the open.

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein summed up (Notebooks of Lazarus Long):

“Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

I believe he put his finger on something massively important: the difference between those who have a “vision of society” as a whole that is more important to them than people in society as they really are, and those who have no such vision. This divides those who see people as needing to be controlled — forced down paths not of their choosing and into slots prepared for them — versus those who just want to be left alone.

The latter, whatever their conscious or subconscious views on freedom, are always the majority. But that doesn’t mean they have any power. Majorities never have power as such. While power is a topic in its own right, political power is always in the hands of an elite: in industrial civilization, what we might call the political class.

Call this the Power of the Sword. Governments make laws and enforce them with police power.

There is also economic power — the power of those with money to support specific agendas by funding them, while other agendas and ideas fall behind not necessarily because they lack merit but because they are starved of funds. Call this the Power of the Purse: the power of corporations and other private funding entities (e.g., tax-exempt foundations).

For an example, look at Nikola Tesla and wonder what this genius was working on that caused J.P. Morgan to pull his funding. Not only was his research terminated, his laboratory was raided and his scientific papers confiscated and classified, which they remain to this day. This strongly suggests that he had uncovered and was working on something the oligarchs saw as an existential threat to their dominance.

Back in the 1990s it dawned on me that a free society depends on either (or both) of two things: (1) realizing that every society contains a minority of people who are fascinated with power — they believe people need to be controlled; (2) and that one of the necessary conditions for freedom is being able to create and sustain checks of various sorts on such people. An alternative to (2) is trying to obligate them to control themselves, which has never proven all that promising. The founders of the U.S. tried to create a system of checks and balances built into the American government at multiple levels: three branches of government with different responsibilities able to check one another; state sovereignty to balance the federal level; the idea of government kept small and limited to a few carefully-identified functions; and rights against power “retained by the people” much less limited and not always identified.  

Sadly, the system contained too many loopholes, and some serious structural flaws (its compatibility with slavery, for example). With over two and a half centuries of hindsight, we have found ourselves essentially back where we started, and then some.

I turn, finally, to globalism, the ideology of those who believe humankind’s next step is to transcend the nation-state created by the Treaty of Westphal and establish, at the very least, a global-governance structure based on economics and technology with its locus of control somewhat dispersed and shared between governments and global corporations through numerous transnational, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Some argue that the culmination of this process is not a mere structure, its power somewhat dispersed, but a highly centralized world government, its power concentrated.

Some deny that such a government is possible, because of human diversity alone. Many of us are concerned that all this ensures is that such a government would be technocratic de facto totalitarianism, probably run along the lines of a combination of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. The ruling oligarchs would have a massive superstructure of surveillance-and-control technology at their disposal, and the ability to “cancel” dissidents by simply shutting them out of all livable economic activity. Under such circumstances it would be very difficult for the freedom-seeking individual to escape. Since it would have encompassed every country on the planet, where could such a person go?

But how would this happen??? Is the situation really that bad??? Some now argue that vaccine passports open the door to a digital global ID system that would encircle everyone, monitoring not a mere vaccination-for-covid status but eventually containing their entire health history, formal education history, work history, financial status, transactions, and so on. The technocratic agenda would be furthered by the reduction and eventual elimination of cash transactions since cash cannot be effectively monitored. Calling this a “conspiracy theory” is not going to cut it. It is not a theory; there is simply too much documentation, some of it from the would-be ruling oligarchs themselves, describing exactly what kind of world they want (and hence it is not a true conspiracy, either since by definition conspiracies are hidden from you).

What can you do to remove the blocks and threats to your freedom?

We come back to: freedom is one of my core values. Therefore I do not want to live in such a world, and inveigh against it regularly in my writings online. These writings presuppose this core value.

Is freedom one of your core values? Why, or why not? If it is, what are you going to do to further it? If it is not, then as the quip goes, “what’re you going to do when they come for you?”

Getting back to the personal level, you increase your freedom by understanding your limiting beliefs and “reprogramming” your subconscious mind to eliminate them. These may be beliefs about money, relationships, health, or numerous other specifics. An entire industry is built around the idea that this is possible.

You increase your freedom through designing systems that will change limiting behaviors and enhance your ability to get things done — be it write a book or start and run a small business. Programs are available to help you do this. (One of my favorites is this one.) 

You increase your freedom through education — again, the real thing! There are now hundreds of videos on every subject, readily available to anyone with an Internet connection and many of them free. You gain new knowledge (of what is true — see my post from two days ago) and build new skills (having learned that P is true and P implies I should do A if I wish to thrive, then if I do A consistently, thriving outcome B will result).

What about the societal level? It would be foolish and Pollyannish to suppose there are no barriers holding people back, or that every barrier is a product of one’s own subconscious limiting beliefs or bad decisions. There are multiple options here: (1) deal with one’s own situation (which is the choice of many); (2) struggle against it by working to change from within the institutions that create and maintain the barriers, using whatever machinery they supply (the goal of reformers); (3) struggle against it by eliminating such institutions altogether and putting new ones in their place (the goal of revolutionaries); and (4) escaping or evading them by various degrees of personal and communal separation, perhaps building a cohort outside them developing “parallel institutions” that operate outside “the system” and reflect one’s or one’s cohort’s core values.

I don’t know what to say to those who choose (1) except, you’ve made your bed and you have to lie in it.

The reformist approach of (2) has always seemed more desirable to me than (3), because revolutionism can go badly wrong very fast — as it did in Revolutionary France beginning in 1789, this being just one example. It is always easier to tear down institutions than it is to build up new ones, one of the reasons U.S. founders were as meticulous as they were.

But what if institutions (i.e., decision-makers running them) resist reform, and continue resisting it? It was the dilemma of choice between these two that one of the first great African-American philosophers and educators, abolitionist Frederic Douglass, touched on in his celebrated speech “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies” delivered to an audience in Canandaigua, New York, in 1857:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle…. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

In the choice between (2) and (3) choose carefully. Be aware that even if (2) is to be preferred as the peaceful option, sometimes (3) may be necessary.

As for (4), it is the path of secessionists, separatists, “mini-state” founders (when they are being serious), colonists (assuming people aren’t already living on land they want to colonize), and other independents. Nothing I could write on (4) would be short, but those who believe conservatives are in (or close to) a position of having to separate economically, politically, and spiritually from “mainstream America” might do well to start here. I am not writing exclusively for conservatives. The same basic principles might apply to any other group, whatever its beliefs, whose members believe their freedom is being blocked and that they have exhausted all other options.  


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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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