ARL Archive · Know Your Words

We All Want Freedom, But Where’s the Love?

lady libertyIf you’ve been following the brew-ha-ha over the American Health Care Act and its recent defeat as incessantly and disinterestedly as I have, then you know that a gaggle of ideologically impaired legislators calling themselves the “Freedom Caucus” helped tank the bill because it didn’t do enough to penalize the less fortunate for not being richer and repeal so-called “Obama-care” outright. This isn’t all that surprising, of course. This is how conservatives roll … heartlessly.

What is a bit more intriguing, at least from a lexicographical perspective, is the way these  lawmakers conceive of one our most culturally loaded of terms, freedom.

So far as I can tell, these folks* define freedom as the right to fend for yourself, with no assistance, helping hands, legs-up, or what have you from the federal government (and probably state governments as well). Or, to put it another way, their conception of freedom … err … frees you from any restrictions on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while simultaneously freeing you from any of the benefits that government provides: laws encouraging corporations to not ruin the environment, predatory lenders and other consumer protections, unfair labor practices and dangerous working conditions, a minimum wage, so on and so forth.**

But is this type of freedom proposed by the Freedom Caucus (FC) really what freedom is all about? To find out, I headed for the place where I feel free, the stacks of the Anachronist Reference Library. Here’s what I discovered. (Cue the Toby Keith….)

The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (WNWDAL) defines freedom as:

1. The state or quality of being free; especially a) exemption or liberation from the control of some other person or some arbitrary power; liberty; independence. b) exemption from arbitrary restrictions on a specified civil right; political liberty: as freedom of speech; c) exemption or immunity from a specified obligation, discomfort, etc: as freedom from want. d) exemption or release from imprisonment. e) being able to act, move, use, etc. without hindrance or restraint. f) a being able of itself to choose or determine action freely. g) ease of movement or performance; facility. h) a being free from the usual rules, patterns, etc. i) frankness; straightforwardness. j) an excessive frankness or familiarity.

2. A privilege held by a city, corporation, etc.; franchise.

At first glance, this definition of freedom as stated in the WNWDAL seems to mesh rather nicely with the type of freedom espoused by the FC. There’s the freedom “from the control of some other person or some arbitrary power,” not to mention the freedom “from arbitrary restrictions on a specified civil right.” Unfortunately for the FC, though, this particular saw cuts both ways. After all, what gets deemed an “arbitrary power” or “arbitrary restriction” often has a lot to do with who is (and who isn’t) calling the shots. (See, for example, Trumps actions to undue Obama’s Clean Power Plan.)

Obviously, this two-sided notion of freedom presents something of a problem. Did our Founding Fathers(FFs) intended the freedom in this republic to be so … unstable? Of course not. The architects of America, it seems, were aware that there are two kinds of freedom, positive and negative, and they were aware that tipping the scales too far in favor of one of the other would be detrimental. Mario Bunge explains this further in his Dictionary of Philosophy:

Freedom [The] Ability to think or act despite external constraints. Two main kinds of freedom: negative and positive. Negative freedom: thing X is free from thing Y if Y does not act on X. Positive freedom: Thing X is free to perform action Y if it has the means to do so. Either can be good or bad…. Of course, freedom is multidimensional (in that it is) not only cultural but also economic and political. When conceived of in this broad fashion, freedom is seen to be possible only among equals, since concentration of power of any kind restricts the freedom of the powerless. It is only when construed in a narrow way, as free enterprise, that freedom threatens equality.

490px-Liberty_by_Constantino_Brumidi,_1869Now we’re getting somewhere. Freedom, as we’ve come to experience it in the US of A, has always been defined broadly. Yes, the FFs had their share of problems when it came to equality, but clearly they were aware the powerless needed protection from the powerful.

But why? The FFs were all a bunch of rich white landowners. Why would they care about those “beneath” them? (Our current well-heeled administration obviously doesn’t.) The answer, it turns out, may lie in the very history of the word.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, which lacks an entry for freedom, but has one for free, puts it this way:

The Old English adjective freo and verb freon are Germanic in origin; related words are Dutch vrij and German frei, from an Indo-European root meaning “to love,” shared by friend.

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, although it puts a decidedly less-loving spin on it.

Free The prehistoric ancestor of free was a term of affection uniting the members of a family in a common bond, and implicitly excluding their servants or slaves — those who were not “free.” It comes ultimately  from Indo-European prijos, whose signification  “dear, beloved” is revealed in such collateral  descendants as Sanskrit priyas “dear,” Russian prijate, “friend,” and indeed English, friend. Its Germanic offspring, frijaz, displays the shift from “affection” to “liberty,” as shown in German frei, Dutch vrij, Swedish and Danish fri, and English free.

So what does this have to do with that “broad” conception of freedom discussed above? Simply put, a country divided against itself cannot stand. A nation of individuals compelled by political and economic circumstances to spend their days looking out for number one will be less apt to look out for one another, and if everyone else is seen as a rival rather than an equal — meaning a fellow citizen with the same rights and responsibilities as the next guy (or gal) — then freedom is surely threatened. As some wise soul once said, “No one is free unless all are free.”

This is NOT to say, of course, that economic competition in and of itself is anathema to freedom. It is to say, however, that just that the type of unrestrained free-market capitalism called for by the libertarian set would certainly be.

You feeling the love yet Freedom Caucus?

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Notes and other thoughts:

1.) Regarding the WNWDAL’s definition of freedom: Like any good dictionary should, the WNWDAL offers some guidance regarding the word’s current usage, particularly as it relates to the word’s synonyms.

SYN.–freedom, the broadest in scope of these words implies the absence of a hindrance, restraint, confinement, repression, etc. (freedom of speech); liberty, often [used in a way that’s] interchangeable with freedom, strictly connotes past or potential restriction, repression, etc. (civil liberties); license implies freedom that consists in violating the usual rules, laws, or practices, either by consent (poetic license) or as an abuse of liberty.

* 2.) Regarding the Freedom Caucus: oddly enough, it’s not easy to figure out what this group is for. I couldn’t locate anything close to a “platform” and the journalists who’ve written about this crew don’t seem to state it outright either. That said, it’s pretty easy to figure out what they’re against: just about anything that involves regulation and the federal government’s use of tax dollars. In short, these folks are libertarians (and news articles about them do indeed describe them as such), which means they think the government’s job is national defense. Everything else can be solved by the “free market.”

** 3.) Regarding the protections provided by government: Oh sure, if a corporation behaves badly, you’re “free” to take it to court, but then that takes money doesn’t it. A lot of money. Lawyers for the win.

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