Free Societies

Defining freedom in a culture of pluralism and polarization

Defining freedom
Brad Lips

Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network

With hats over hearts, baseball fans are accustomed to cheering as “The Star-Spangled Banner” reaches its “land of the free” crescendo. But are we cheering the same thing? What does freedom mean in 2015 to a polarized population?

This topic was discussed at a recent event of the National Constitutional Center, which has ambitions of creating a new holiday, Freedom Day on April 13, to kindle conversation and interest in this core American concept.

With speakers from across the ideological spectrum, this first Freedom Day witnessed both respectful disagreements and some sincere efforts to find common ground. The principal divide — at Freedom Day, and within our politics today — occurs between those who champion freedoms “from” government interventions of various kinds and those who champion freedoms “to” enjoy desirable outcomes.

The dilemma, of course, is that you cannot have both at the same time. When government is active in engineering outcomes, it requires resources and it demands compliance in ways that violate the more libertarian tradition of freedom from compulsion. By the same token, observers on the left argue that, if government were to limit its role to protecting freedoms, we might see more discrimination, less equality, and fewer opportunities than otherwise.

Disagreements on the first Freedom Day seemed to zero in on the controversy surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The idea that it might be difficult to obtain enough pizza for a wedding seems trivial enough that it’s tempting to conclude our real problems must be small, if this is a rallying point for our most contentious debate. The silliness of the example, though, underlines an important reality: American society is hurt when we litigate every disagreement. The culture wars might be defused — and, perhaps, our political class would make progress on more substantive issues — if more people reflected on the spirit of pluralism and tolerance that has made the United States so unique.

Alas, that is the purpose of Freedom Day. That is also why it seems important that Freedom Day become a worldwide — not just American — phenomenon. When we look abroad, we too often find societies where systems of caste still limit one’s choices, where freedom of expression is strictly limited by government, where women and minorities of all types face cruelty and persecution, and where property rights and the pursuit of one’s happiness can be stifled by corrupt administrations and backwards economic policies.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute suggested during his remarks on Freedom Day that we use the occasion to work for the “freedom of others.” It was a line that called to mind a favorite quote by a Brazilian abolitionist of the 19th century, Joaquin Nabuco: “Educate your children, educate yourselves in the love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and have the courage to defend it.”

This could be a good slogan for Freedom Day, so we remember not to take for granted freedom’s blessings — and remember how we contribute to a more perfect union by appreciating all of the creative, wonderful, and oddball ways people exercise their national liberties in our still mostly free society.