If freedom is fundamental to America, we must understand it fully in order to preserve our nation. So let’s ask ourselves: What is freedom?
Mr. Webster tells us that freedom means the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in one’s choice or action. The essence of freedom is having a choice. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: The essence of freedom is having a choice. Freedom is having—to quote Mr. Webster again—the power to do as you please or not being subject to another’s will, not having to ask permission. A person is free to the extent that he or she can exercise choice. The opposite of freedom is coercion, subjugation, involuntary servitude, bondage, imprisonment, slavery.
In America, freedom of choice is regarded as our fundamental condition and inalienable right. We Americans speak of the right to live our lives as we choose—the right to self-determination, the right to create our own destiny. The American way of life means freedom from arbitrary or despotic control; it also means the exercise of social, political and economic rights and privileges. It means the unhampered right to pursue the opportunities of life. We ask our children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because, unlike so much of the rest of the world, they have the freedom to choose a way of life for themselves.
However, rights always carry responsibilities; otherwise, liberty becomes libertinism, which is the abuse of rights. James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution, observed, “Without Liberty, Law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without Law, Liberty loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.” Rights exercised without regard for responsibilities can become wrongs. Choices must be responsible choices, ethical choices, moral choices so their consequences do not harm others—that is, they do not violate the rights of others. For example, someone may drink to the point of intoxication, but if that person then gets behind the steering wheel and drives on the highway, that is choosing irresponsibly, as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others who have lost loved ones in DUI accidents can attest. Similarly, someone may perform activities which generate toxic waste, but if that person then disposes of the waste improperly, that is choosing irresponsibly, as former residents of the Love Canal, New York area can attest.
Freedom and responsibility are therefore inseparable. Think of the connection as one person put it: freesponsibility. Freedom without responsibility is lawlessness; responsibility without freedom is slavery. Freedom is never license to do as we please, but only to do as we ought. In other words, freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong.
(To be continued)