Freedom To, Freedom From

The following article was written by Mark Agnini, Professor of Theology at Elmhurst College, and member of the DuPage Libertarians:


Some years ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, I had occasion to travel in Eastern Europe. At a bar in Prague, I fell into conversation with a Czech fellow who, on discovering that I was an American, jumped at the chance to try out his schoolroom English.

This was only a few years after the “brotherly armies” of the Warsaw Pact had put a brutal end to the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek, and his remarks were consequently guarded – at least initially. However, prompted by several glasses of excellent Pilsner Urquell, he began to speak not only freely but with passion. As it turned out, he might as well have been just as open in the first place, because this guy was a true-red Commie, a first-rate product of Czech government schooling. To my astonishment, he vigorously argued that it was he who was a free man, not I! Despite the danger of being denounced for an unwise remark, the youthful soldiers who, AK 47s slung over their shoulders, demanded one’s ID at hotel doors, and the fact that a legitimately elected, popular president had but recently been deposed by Soviet tanks he stoutly, even proudly, maintained that he and the citizens of the other “democratic” countries were the lucky ones; for they were free from the risk of homelessness, from going hungry, from being unable to pay for medical treatment, and from unemployment.

I had to admit that he had me there: being without work wasn’t a personal crisis but actually a crime (“parasitism”) in socialist countries. The young prostitutes who outnumbered the soldiers outside the four-star hotels, and solicited any man who looked like he might have dollars, or marks, or pounds, or francs – never Czech korunas – all, technically, had jobs. Similarly, basic health care was available free, if not quickly, to all; and enough food and shelter to meet the necessities of life were provided to those who could not work and subsidized for those who did. Under the red banner one was, indeed, free from many of the socio-economic ills with which Americans have to contend.

I am a chronologically-rich person. The praise which this tipsy Bohemian was heaping on a system that, by any measure, was repressive, authoritarian, and bureaucratically root-bound rang a bell. I remember, in my youth, hearing similar acclaim for what Franklin Roosevelt (or, at any rate, his speechwriters) dubbed the “Four Freedoms”. Very likely you recall them, too; or at least Norman Rockwell’s famous renderings of a New England town meeting (“freedom of speech”), half-a-dozen folks engaged in generic prayer (“freedom of worship”), an elderly couple bearing an enormous roast turkey to a table of eager youngsters (“freedom from want”), and parents tucking their red-headed girls into bed (“freedom from fear”); four ‘freedoms’ that Roosevelt meant to establish in opposition to the “new world order” of Fascism at which, with a highly acquiescent congress behind him, he no doubt figured he had a good chance of success.
The only question was: how to do it?

Let’s see. Imagine that you are FDR (sorry); imagine further – and this may be a stretch – that you are sincere. You want to establish freedom of speech. What do you do?

The answer, of course, is that you do nothing at all. Likewise with worship, there is nothing that any government can do to affect these innate freedoms but to impede them. Everyone was born free to say what he likes and to pray as he likes whenever and however he likes, and there is no need for any prince, power, or parliament to say so. If a government feels the need to become involved in issues of speech or worship, it is only to curtail, by the threat of punishment, words or rites that it does not like; commonly because they are perceived as threatening to its power or image. But what about freedom from want and from fear? What did you do, Franklin? You pushed through the NRA, the WPA, the TVA, the REA, the CCC, the FDIC, and the rest of the alphabet-soup of the New Deal; the most tremendous growth in the power and place of the federal government in American life that we’ve – yet – seen. No matter that the New Deal didn’t really help, that ultimately it was general mobilization for WWII that triggered the shift from the greatest unemployment the country had ever seen to its most severe labor shortage. It didn’t have to. All the fireside oratory notwithstanding, the acquisition of power is self-justifying.

When we demand that “somebody (else) do something!” about our problems, we get an eager agreement from those whose power it would enhance. My beer-soaked friend in Prague couldn’t see it, but the government that protected him from being out of work, or on the street, or unable to pay his doctor also kept him from starting a business, or buying a two-flat, or choosing his own physician. Every increase in the power of the state is, of necessity, accompanied by a loss of the power of the individual. Every freedom from some risk – whether present or only imagined – entails the loss of freedom to do what frightens, or annoys, or offends, or simply looks odd to The Authorities.

Now, notice that this doesn’t mean you can no longer do these things, only that you can’t do them freely. No law, however oppressive, can actually force compliance; it can only punish non-compliance. All that the law can do is threaten: ‘you’d better – or else’, but in that ‘or else’ lies the possibility of defiance. On the other hand, no law, no matter how well intentioned, can give anyone the power to do that which he could not do before. All that laws to permit, say, carrying firearms, or gay marriage can do is regulate and condition what is otherwise an absolute ability, or simply stop forbidding what was formerly taboo.

Take the much ballyhooed ‘Safe Haven Laws’, for instance. In every state apart from Washington DC, rather than being tossed into a dumpster, infants may now be relinquished to certain hospitals, fire stations, police stations, private shelters, and the like, without either parent or receiving facility incurring civil or criminal liability. This, of course, is the point. The only thing that ever prevented a baby from being placed into safe hands – or even on the traditional doorstep – was the probability that the mother would be prosecuted for child neglect, and the helping-hands would be liable to civil action. These laws do not provide safe places to leave unwanted babies: they’ve always been around (and more than the laws recognize still are); it merely generously forbears to punish those who now dare to use them.

Apart from the laws of nature and physics, nothing is illegal but by some action of some authority. Everything that is against the law now (and, by the way, no one has a handle on just how many things are – there are more laws than anybody knows), once was not. It is not the Libertarian view that there be no laws, of course; rather, it is that every law must be justified and limited, both in its scope and its effect, but that our freedom to do as we see fit goes without saying.

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