THE BLOG

Freedom

09/30/2010 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I recently saw a TV commercial in which British redcoats were routed by a company of revolutionary soldiers and a handful of Dodge Challengers. The voice over at the end said 'here are a couple of things America got right: cars, and freedom'. My mind was so scarred by the commercial that I can't faithfully report the contents, but I seem to remember that George Washington was driving one of the Challengers. Whatever the details, what is more disturbing than the commercial is that my first thought was "oh, they are trying to sell to the Tea Partiers". I understand how this happened. In every other picture of a Tea Partier I see a sign that says 'Freedom'; after a while one starts to associate the movement with the word. But by what right do the Tea Partiers claim this word and are they really for freedom or are they deeply fundamentally opposed to it?

I agree with the Tea Partiers that government can be a threat to our freedom and that any consolidation of power by the government should be questioned. But government isn't the only threat, or even the most pressing.

In the 19th century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote a book entitled On Liberty, but he might as well titled it On Freedom. Mill was very careful to emphasize that threats to freedom need to be resisted wherever they come from. Loss of freedom need not be at the hands of a government. It could be at the hands of a corporation or even at the hands of social mores and attitudes.

Mill saw that in his day that much of the oppression in his society did not come from governmental force, but from social attitudes. I doubt that such oppression is less severe today. Religious and social attitudes can constrain one's sexual and artistic freedom as well as other forms of personal freedom. Corporations can constrain our freedom to speak freely or even to move about in a safe and healthy environment, and aggressive intellectual property laws can constrain our ability to share and remix the products of our culture (a point driven home in numerous books by Lawrence Lessig).

Presumably, in a suitably indoctrinated population no laws or police or jails would be necessary, but would such a population be free? While we typically think of indoctrination as coming top-down from an Orwellian government this certainly need not be the case. The mores could be emerging bottom-up with no institutional control at all, but this does not mean that the mores cannot threaten the freedom of the people that are subject to them.

When we sometimes advocate government power, it is not because we are opposed to freedom. Sometimes the government is our last best hope for protecting freedom. In the case of a foreign attacker this point is simply obvious; we need a strong government to protect our freedom from foreign invaders. But what happens when the threat comes from within and it takes the form of cultural attitudes which strip people of their freedom because they happen to be another religion, or not religious, or ill, or gay, or black, or brown, or a woman? In these cases we call on our government to protect the freedom of these individuals.

In cases where people resist government action they are really saying that they want to be allowed to oppress or take advantage of other people, or that they do not want to contribute to the extension of basic freedoms to other people - that they don't want to pay the price of extending freedom to others. And here lies the key point. A true advocate of freedom seeks freedom for everyone, not just for themselves and their peer group. Resisting government action to bring freedom to others means that you are an enemy of freedom, plain and simple.

Governmental force can take away freedom, but it can also protect it. We need to make this clear. We also need to make it clear that threats to freedom can often be moral and social.

We have always had to fight for freedom. But now it seems we must also fight for the meaning of the word 'freedom'. The term 'freedom' has been politically and commercially appropriated and bleached of meaning to such an extent that it can be appended to an image of George Washington driving a Dodge Challenger and supposedly mean something. That isn't what freedom is, and that isn't why we fight for it.