I read a couple of good quotes the other day. One was from some philosophical hack or other, and it basically went, “A man is free at the moment he decides he is.” I suppose I could look up the author, but I suppose if I’m free, then I’m free to be lazy.
I have, in fact, decided to be free.
It’s not an easy thing to wrap one’s mind around. After all, one has to live somewhere, and virtually every place you can live has rules of some sort. I had an old friend, classic anarchist, who used to complain that he couldn’t live anywhere as a sovereign being, because anywhere he chose to live would force him to work and earn money. How do you mean, I ask. Well, because every piece of land that’s “owned” requires taxes, and taxes require money, and money requires work. “So I’ve gotta shackle myself to the man even if all I wanna do is just live.”
And I think that was the salient point – he would have to work. Some folks, God bless ’em, just don’t feel like working.* And they confuse the requirement of working with a kind of enslavement. But if that’s so, then we are enslaved by being born. Every creature must hunt its dinner. Some do it with a bow and arrow, some with a fishing net, some by pretending to be too crazy to take care of themselves, some by running a corporation.
The only ones who are exempt from work are invalids and the truly disabled. But they don’t get to enjoy it.
What about “welfare mothers” and criminals? Believe me, both are occupations. Those lifestyles take time and effort. I’ve known enough of both variety.
But I have decided to be free, and I think what the man meant was that our only prisons are the ones we build for ourselves (another stolen quote – this one from Doris Lessing, I believe. But you look it up. I’m free.) So freedom is a matter of organizing one’s life in such a way that the necessities of life don’t infringe too much on a person’s human sovereignty, if at all possible.
If I have to work, I should work at a job that doesn’t make me feel like an indentured servant. Think I’ve got that covered. The job isn’t glamorous, but it lets me be me. (Read John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Company Man” to get an idea why I’m not more ambitious here at the ol’ office. In brief: we cannot help actually becoming the role we continually play — stole that from Kurt Vonnegut.)
And I should never have to say anything I don’t want to say, right? Only slaves watch their mouths. Yet, with age we come to realize that the mouth is a weapon, and kindly, responsible people wield it responsibly. Think drunken rock star on a trans-Atlantic flight. Sure, he can shoot his mouth off and make an ass of himself and not care for the consequences (since there aren’t likely to be any). But he’s still an ass. Better to balance the right to free speech with respect for the ears of others.
And I can come and go as I please. I don’t have to tell anyone where I’m going or, God forbid, ask permission (sound of “pussy whip” cracking in background.) But, again, with age we come to realize we’re building relationships that go beyond the casual friendship or pretend romance of youth, and we have people who depend on us. I suppose I could, for the sake of argument, take off for a few days without telling my family. But of course they would worry tremendously, and I don’t want that. So I make sure I tell them my whereabouts. It’s the human thing to do.
“But the government! The damn government!” Ah yes, the damn government. My response is another quote, this one from that sandal-wearing sage we all know and love. When he responded to the man who asked how it is possible to be true to God’s will while living under the yoke of Roman tyranny, he hit it right on the head. “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” In other words, accept that free people always have to live within the borders of so-called “nations” run by those who seek to make their mark on history, which often involves an attempt to curtail individuals’ rights to be left alone. The only way to remain relatively free is to allow the world’s “leaders” to play their overgrown chess game while attempting to stay out of their way as they rage around the world with their wars and laws.
The government does not “provide” freedom or “guarantee” freedom. No. No government in history has been the least bit interested in issuing the power of true freedom to its subjects. Quite the opposite: governments use every power at hand to attempt control over their subjects, balancing the desire for control with the threat of rebellion should the methods of control go too far. (An example today is the so-called militia movement. The government would prefer to simply wipe these people out and remove the threat, but that would simply stoke the rebellious spirit of the ones that get away, causing more problems.)
And yet, no government in history has been successful at a sustained denial of freedom. Those governments are upended by free people who will not stand for it. Or they are crushed under the weight of their own corruption. I’m no Pollyanna, I’m aware that despots and crooks are “in charge” all over the globe. But what are they really in charge of? Money, borders, bullets, but not people. They don’t own souls. So the trick is to live in the nation that doesn’t get on your back too much, if you can, and don’t get too cozy with the power structure. And maybe try to help those who live under the more oppressive regimes, if you can (though I have to stress that doesn’t mean killing them in order to “free” them from tyranny.)
In the end, I believe freedom is an overblown, overused concept. We don’t think that much about being free. We think about being happy, and our happiness is a byproduct not of our freedom but how we manage our lives as inherently free beings. When we do it in a way that honors our natural status as sovereign beings, we are as free as birds in spirit even though some inhuman government may imprison our bodies. When we don’t, all the freedom in the world will not release us from what amounts to a self-imposed confinement based on willing submission to the rule of others.
*Quote from Ned Flanders, The Simpsons