The Fourth of July is a time for both well-meaning and evil-intending people to misuse the word “freedom.”
As a political concept, the only workable definition of “freedom” is that it’s the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights. Freedom is freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Freedom is a defense of basic constitutional rights and civil liberties.
Freedom is the cornerstone of America’s value system. For two centuries, America has been defined by its commitment to freedom. One poll found that Americans believe—by a margin of 73 to 15 percent—that freedom is more important than equality. But because it’s so popular, freedom is the most misused of all political terms.
Neoconservatives have incessantly proclaimed to Americans that our participation in specific regional wars (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine) and the “war on terror” are in defense of our freedom. That’s simply not true. Our freedom is not in jeopardy—none of our foreign opponents are attempting to invade America and control our government. They are not attacking our individual constitutional rights. U.S. military and police actions might be said to protect our security, but not our freedom. So don’t accept the word freedom when discussing terrorism or military action abroad—it provides a false justification for war.
Similarly, conservatives equate freedom with capitalism. That’s simply wrong. Our nation’s market economy is not free from government control—actually, it is dominated by government. Markets are based on a dense web of laws enforced by multiple layers of federal, state, and local agencies. Businesses are not free to sell diseased meat, make insider stock trades, pollute our air and water, or discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. So don’t be fooled by the terms free market, free enterprise, or free trade, because they all support right-wing policies.
Most astonishing, I think, is the way religious extremists use the word freedom to mean the very opposite. They argue that freedom gives them the right to use the power of government to impose their religious views on the rest of us. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they work to ban all abortions, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. That’s absurd. Freedom is the absence of government intervention.
When defined too broadly, freedom becomes an empty platitude that can be wielded as a bludgeon to pummel any side of any political argument. My freedom to operate a monopoly tramples on your freedom to buy cheaper products. My freedom to drive an unsafe vehicle tramples on your freedom to travel the same roads in safety. My freedom to smoke in a bar tramples on your freedom to breathe clean air. “Freedom to . . .” and “freedom from . . .” gets progressives nowhere and fuels right wing arguments.
We have a solemn responsibility to fiercely guard our constitutional and human rights to freedom. So we must use freedom as our bully pulpit when arguing that government is out of control. We must point out that freedom is one of our most cherished values. We must remind Americans that Clarence Darrow was right when he said, “You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.”