Six Tricky Things About Freedom
It's really difficult to celebrate the Fourth of July without noticing its clichés and platitudes.
Yet because everyone is celebrating and carrying on, it's an unpopular time to discuss how meaningless certain "American" phrases have become.
Strap in, because we're hammering one of them anyway.
Now, let us say this first: we love America, we wouldn't choose to live anywhere else, and we consider ourselves lucky. Let us add that Code&Quill as you know it wouldn't be possible without some of the opportunities America provides.
But let us say to our fellow Americans: please think more carefully about "freedom" and what it means.
It is true, for instance, that there are fewer restrictions on your behavior here. More importantly, there are fewer restrictions on you, as a person—far from utopia, sure, but it's a good spot, overall, to let your freak flag fly. America is a good place to create yourself—and to create whatever living you want in your own image.
But places like America aren't perfect, and even its freedoms cause other difficulties. The main challenge of societies like ours is reconciling YOUR freedom with everyone else's.
This isn't just politics; it's culture, creativity, commerce, every way that people interact. Sometimes, the blend can get a little strange here.
So this week, as we celebrate America's Independence Day, we're calling out six places where freedom "rings" in unusual ways.
Enemies can still be peaceful neighbors.
No matter what kinds of groups someone could call "enemies" within America—whether ethnic, racial, religious, or political—there's one thing that keeps the peace.
Everyone's freedom has limits.
You are allowed to be and do what you want, within reason. But so is everyone else. If you don't like the differences and can't resolve it peacefully, tough luck.
Maybe it sucks that some people dislike each other, but that can't be changed. But respectful peace is fair, and it's a baseline everyone can live with (literally). Hopefully neighbors, by becoming more familiar, can eventually become friends.
The harshest critics can make the best patriots.
On the subject of "whoa, chill with the freedom"—
Maybe you've seen the opening scene of HBO's The Newsroom, where Jeff Daniels delivers a searing monologue against American exceptionalism:
He doesn't "hate" America, despite what some people might say. Towards the end of his speech, he's not even angry anymore; he's sad, tired, disillusioned. He knows America can do better—and he delivers the news this way because it's how he can help.
You're not a businessman; you're a business, man.
Peaceful trade is a good thing. That means: whenever people agree to exchange one thing for another and then honor that trade, BOTH parties benefit.
If you think about it, that's magical. Good trades are about as close as we can get to literally making something from nothing. You could even say good trades make the world a better place.
Again, this is business as made easier in America—wouldn't be so doable in many other places. Even better: in places like America, we're sometimes thrilled by trades because of the unique qualities and variety possible in a free market. If you've ever eaten delicious things from a food truck, you have some idea of what we mean.
Freedom is wasted on the free.
Ever heard the expression "youth is wasted on the young"? You can vary it endlessly and it's usually still true.
The boundless opportunity, variety—and yes, freedom—of a place like America are delightful things. But they do not guarantee that you'll be happy. As David Foster Wallace observed in "This Is Water," the kind of freedom people chase nowadays often ends up isolating people from others, if not also from themselves.
More broadly, the "progress paradox" of human history is that modern people, who have more freedom and safety than anyone before, don't know what else to do with it. If you're staving off famine and watching winter approach, you'll be focused—but if you've got a house, a job, and the conveniences of modern life, what's left to worry about, much less fight for?
Equals eventually abide the Golden Rule.
Everyone knows some version of the Golden Rule. (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is the one we learned as kids.)
It's a little trickier with, you know, law. How do you make fair rules for government?
A Harvard professor named John Rawls had a good answer, and he called it "the veil of ignorance." It poses the following question: how would you design the world if you didn't know who you'd be within it?
Sure, it'd be great to be King of the World—but if you designed the world for him and then entered it as anyone else, you'd hate it. Realizing this, you'd probably hedge your bets and make a fairer world, so that you might be happy as anyone.
In a "collective unconscious" kind of way, free countries can evolve this way. It'll never be perfect, but personal freedom is one of the things we need to even have that chance.
For most things, moderation prevails.
Aristotle made a fascinating point about people.
We think of virtues (like courage) as valuable things. More is better, right?
Not always, says the great pontificator. Too little courage and you're a coward. But too much courage and you're Leroy Jenkins (or George Custer).
If you think about it, it's the same for other virtues. In life, the right amount is a moderate amount: not too little, not too much.
Liberties are no exception. Too few and you live in a police state; too many and you live in anarchy. Freedom, in other words, is like money: everyone needs it to some extent, and everyone enjoys having more of it, but it distorts you if you get too much (or too fast).