Citizens of the United States have been proud of their freedom for many generations. It has become a shorthand—we are admired for our freedom, hated for our freedom, we need to preserve our freedom, fight for our freedom… the list goes on. But, inspired by Dr. Rufus Fears’ interesting lecture on the topic, we thought it would be helpful to provide a clear definition of our “freedom” in the U.S. We’ll start by referencing Dr. Fears’ categories of freedom, then provide our own analysis of how they play out in American society.
As Dr. Fears points out, there are basically three types of freedom: national, individual, and political.
National freedom is the independence of a political state—freedom from occupation or other foreign control.
Political freedom is the right of citizens of a political state to participate in government (through voting or acting as a representative) and to have a fair trial.
Individual freedom is the freedom to do and say what you will so long as you don’t hurt anyone—freedom of speech, assembly, religion, freedom to choose where you live or what job you do or don’t do, freedom to make money and spend it as you please.
Of all these freedoms, national is the oldest and perhaps the most widely accepted. It’s hard to find a country, city-state, or any other unified entity that has not placed self-preservation at the top of its priorities. Historically, it has been the only freedom that is universally honored; that is, while many states still do not grant full individual or political freedoms, it’s hard to find one that does not stand for national freedom. Only completely failed states like Somalia or Sudan cannot and do not provide national freedom to their citizens.
Political freedom is about as ancient as national freedom; just about every society has a “ruling class”, whether it is Iron Age priests, medieval lords, or modern representatives to Congress. Rulers—kings, presidents, etc.—have almost always had political bodies advising them, managing the government, and/or curtailing the ruler’s powers. Extending political freedom beyond the top 2% of the population to the lower 98% of the people—granting real democracy—has been rare in human history. The concept of a fair trial has changed over time, and been infrequently offered.
Individual freedom—the rights Americans are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—is the least common type of freedom. Very few societies have been willing to let their citizens do whatever they want so long as no one is hurt. Individual freedom is a result of true representative democracy, which has been rare in human history and is still not the type of government offered by most nations of the world. The only way for a tiny minority—sometimes just one person in the form of the ruler—to control millions of other people is to strip them of their right to complain, to move away, to become rich, etc. They must remain completely under the control and at the mercy of the ruler/governing class, whose power is exercised by deciding what is legal and what is not and finding that most things are illegal.
So where do we stand in the United States when it comes to these three freedoms? We are in the unique position of enjoying all three of these freedoms, a situation that is almost unparalleled in human history. The Founders worked unbelievably hard to create a government that was strong enough to protect the state (national freedom), offer fair representation before the law and equal participation in the government (political freedom), and give its citizens complete personal liberty (individual freedom). The latter is especially important; in fact, we as Americans believe national and political freedom cannot really exist without individual freedom.
This is what makes the United States unique and admirable, but it does create some problems, which we’ll get into in the next post.