For hundreds of years now, humans have tended to believe that the best sort of government is one which leaves its citizens maximally ‘free’. We’ve come to associate good government directly and uncomplicatedly with the promotion of ‘freedom’: freedom to worship as one pleases, to publish what one wants, to dress as one likes, to love whomever one desires. In the meantime, those who have opposed ‘freedom’ have been presented in horrifying terms: they have been the wicked priests, the murderous Communists and the demented Nazis.
However, this dichotomy (freedom = good/restriction = bad) has blinded us to a vital nuance with a grave potential to derail and corrupt public life: we’ve overlooked that there are better and worse kinds of freedom and that promoting freedom above all other values may be deeply unhelpful to the long-term and collective interests of the nation. Freedom is not a baseless word, but it is in general simply too vague, ambiguous and emotive a term to guide policy or to be an ideal around which a nation can reasonably cohere. It has grown too easy for corrupt and venal organisations to operate under the banner of ‘freedom’ in order to get away with activities that covertly run sharply counter to the public good. Freedom is evidently not a virtue when it involves the freedom of bankers to offload ruinous financial instruments on an uneducated public, just as censorship – that bogeyman of contemporary politics – is evidently far from a vice when it prevents corporations from pushing alcohol on children or denying affordable housing to the poor.