Americans love freedom. But freedom, like so many things in life, means different things to different people. On the one hand, there is the cowboy image of freedom – an unfettered existence, without boundaries, without restrictions. I myself have been a loner for most of my life. In my younger days I sometimes took off across the countryside, exploring new places, without telling a soul where I was going or for how long. I relished the freedom of the open road and the unfenced wilds.
Over the course of my life, I have lived in more than 30 different houses, apartments, and trailers. The vast majority of that time I have lived alone. From an early age I felt that I could be quite content living somewhere in the wilderness, without the conveniences of modern life and away from my fellow human beings. But I didn’t, and that’s the point.
The thing about this variety of freedom is that it has nothing to do with community. There’s no such thing as boundless, restriction-free life in a community. It’s only because America has a recent frontier that we even entertain these notions. And when you live in a community, enjoying the fruits of civilization – air conditioning, chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, and so on – you have a responsibility.
The founding fathers of this country were intellectuals. Their concept of freedom was all about community. In a community, freedom is about RIGHTS. A loner neither has nor needs rights. The very word rights implies an interdependence. This concept of freedom says that everyone’s rights must be respected, or there is no freedom. This concept of freedom says that freedom is actually a RESTRICTION on people, a limit on their behavior.
If all of this seems painfully obvious, you must forgive me, because it sure ain’t painfully obvious to many Americans. Particularly American males, who are often supported by American females in one way or another, thanks to double standards and cultural conditioning. In many ways, women are expected to be the responsible, civilizing influence in our society, and men are allowed to play. The irony is that the 19th century, in many ways, was less forgiving to irresponsible, uncivilized men – if they wanted to live in communities. And in a way, it’s amazing that cowboy notions of freedom persist as well as they do. Because America is a very regulated society, has been for a long time.
If you doubt this, just try walking across country some time. See how far you get before you encounter a posted sign. Some years ago I actually saw signs in a PUBLIC PARK saying “No loitering.” Or try driving down the freeway at 100 miles per hour, without a driver’s license or insurance. Or buy yourself a horse and let it roam around the neighborhood.
With every new restriction, there has been resistance. Yet every new generation that grows up under the new restriction accepts it as a normal part of civilized life. Yet another restriction comes along and this new generation treats it as something spawned from the pits of hell. Eventually it becomes accepted, even demanded. Public roads. Food inspection. Anti-fraud legislation. Social security. Handicapped parking. Drug-free schools.
It isn’t regulation per se that changes. Tomorrow humanity could choose lawlessness. The police and the military would be overwhelmed. To this day there are places that suffer from rampant ethnic violence in spite of laws forbidding it. It’s people’s attitudes that change. Of course, there are those, usually male, who would argue that these people are brainwashed, that they are trading freedom for comfort and security. My response is, what’s stopping you from disappearing to the wilds of South America, or the Sahara? You can be “free”!
It’s simple, really. There’s barbarism, and there’s civilization. Barbarians allow the strong to victimize the weak, hucksters to sell snake oil to the unsophisticated, and the barrel of a gun to decide “justice.” That’s what some people call freedom, but it certainly isn’t what the founders had in mind. In a civilized society, people’s behavior is regulated, and a big part of that is protecting people from each other. It’s easy to see that, when it’s a police officer protecting you from a thug. But how is that different from a law protecting you from a credit card company, or a labor union protecting you from exploitation?
It’s hard for many people today to comprehend the scale of the barbarism inflicted on humanity in the 20th century. Multiple genocides and ethnic cleansings. Large fractions of humanity living under fascist dictatorships. As I have discussed in a previous post, about a quarter of all of the people who have ever died in war did so in the 20th century. As horrible as the atrocities are that continue to this day in parts of the world, the scale of human misery and violent death today is miniscule by comparison.
Civilization is calling, and humanity is slowly, in fits and starts, answering. There was a time that racism was widely accepted in America. It took a lot to delegitimize it – namely the Holocaust. Some nuts are just that tough to crack, and racism has certainly not disappeared. Ultimately, there isn’t any choice, because as technologies become more powerful, and the world is more and more connected, the cowboy notion of freedom means a death sentence for everyone. Individuals achieve more safety and security when others feel safer and more secure. The same is true for nations. Zero-sum thinking fails. Will we make it? I think so. But probably not without a lot of pain.