What Good Is Freedom?

In the United States (and beyond), freedom is often treated as a foundational good. The Declaration of Independence puts it right there with life and happiness in the form of liberty. New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die.” We are known as, “The land of the free.” And it is one of the few things that is celebrated by both the left and the right. But are we right to celebrate freedom the way we do?

I feel like I should start with the obvious. Freedom doesn’t mean just one thing. Rather than list every type of freedom, it’s easier to split them into two types: positive freedom and negative freedom. Positive freedom is the freedom to do something. Negative freedom is freedom from something. Freedom of speech is a positive freedom, you are free to speak. Freedom from illegal search and seizures is a negative freedom. It doesn’t allow you to do anything, it prevents the government from doing something to you. Liberals tend to favor positive freedoms and conservatives negative freedoms, but that’s just a general observation. There are plenty of exceptions.

My second point ought to be just as obvious as my first. Freedom, whichever kind, can’t be a foundational good. There are just too many other goods that would win in a trade. Would you trade your life for freedom? What about happiness for freedom? Contentment? Security? Justice? No one would choose a one for one swap to get freedom for any of those things (Well, the wicked might choose freedom over justice, but being wicked, they aren’t good guides to behavior.). What would be the point of freedom for a dead person? What good would freedom be if it made us perpetually unhappy? Clearly freedom is a contingent good, it gains whatever good it has from something else.

If my two points are correct, it means that Freedom can’t be judged on its own. We need to look at the particular instance of freedom and which good it’s using to determine its worth. Some, like freedom of speech, wind up looking very good. Freedom of speech gives us happiness, justice and security. But even freedom of speech isn’t an unqualified good. We need to protect people from slander and libel and putting others in dangerous situations. This particular freedom needs limits to be good. Other freedoms, like freedom of information, are even more of a mixed bag. It sounds nice. It can help keep the government accountable, but there are certain things that should be kept secret, like the D-Day plans. There’s also a big difference between public information and private information. If it were all free, it would lead to many injustices. So freedom of information needs a lot of restrictions to be good.

Since even the best freedoms are only good with limitations, any system, like libertarianism, that is based on Freedom is going to have major problems. The fact that freedom’s value is constantly in flux depending on context makes it a lousy base for anything. Freedom needs the more fundamental goods. Without them, freedom is nothing to brag about.

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