When each of us talks about freedom, do we really have a common understanding about what we mean? This essay helps us think about freedom in terms of our core values--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It’s Time to Define Freedom
Too often the term "freedom" is used as though there is a universal understanding of what it means. But, unfortunately, there is no universal understanding. Many use this term simply to mean they are not in prison, and they are free to move about—physically and legally. Others think of it in Constitutional terms: to be able to speak, or to pray, or to assemble peaceably. And to still others it can mean the right to follow our dreams. There are many other limited actions that connote different freedoms that others have thought about. Put them all together and we still need a better understanding of freedom. Without an expanded definition there is little chance for knowing what each of us is talking about when we use the term, or for finding grounds from which to expand our understanding so that more and more of us can engage in all the activities that this term implies. It's worth the effort. Freedom is at the heart of our democracy; it is the essence of all our social interactions; it can promote the conditions for making all that we do a bit more worthwhile. These are important elements for living and for getting along with each other. Remember this: There is always a tyrant, or a despot, or a political ideologue who is ready to define what freedom means for him...and for all of us. We dare not let that happen.
Let's begin the discussion with the standard dictionary definition.
1.1. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
2.2. Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.
Right away we can discern two very different definitions for freedom. In the first, freedom means to be free to do things we hold dear and to make choices that affect us and our lives. While in the second, freedom means to be free from tyranny imposed by the government—foreign or domestic—and the myriad restrictions that could be imposed on us by those in authority. Each definition is important, and we dare not lose sight of either. Together, they outline what we do not want from others, and what we want for ourselves. But they do not contain anything about who we are as a society, nor do they summarize our history, our goals, or our vision of what we would like to become. A more complete definition, therefore, requires that we summarize each of those elements as well. That responsibility is clearly ours to undertake.
It is our task to set forth the context in which we wish to see these definitions expanded inasmuch as they go to the core values of our society. And that context is best set forth in our Declaration of Independence, namely, that part which states:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This passage has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language,[i] containing “the most potent and consequential words in American history.” [ii] The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln, who considered the Declaration to be the foundation of his political philosophy, and he argued that the Declaration is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted; it has inspired work for the rights of marginalized people throughout the world.[iii]
Let’s let Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln be the source of our guiding light. We could do a lot worse.
What is the Right to Life?
The right to life implies the right to be left alone, to be free from intimidation or coercion from others. It means the freedom to take all the actions required by rational beings for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of our own lives. According to the Ayn Rand Center the right to life includes:
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.[iv]
Notice that the Ayn Rand Center suggests there definitely is an economic component to the right to life. Those who work and produce, yet do not share in the products of their efforts, are slaves. This condition could be offset if the producer’s income were equal to his production, less profits and taxes. But those who produce much yet are paid only a minimum wage or a subsistence wage are slaves. They do not enjoy the right to life. In the United States this group consists of 50 percent of the population, or some 155 million persons.
What is the Right to Liberty?
The right to liberty is synonymous with freedom from coercion. It means that a rational mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to anyone’s orders, directives, or controls; it does not sacrifice its knowledge, its view of the truth, to anyone’s opinions, threats, wishes, plans, or “welfare.” Such a mind may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument. It is from the work and the inviolate integrity of such minds—from the intransigent innovators—that all of mankind’s knowledge and achievements have come. [v]
Let’s again overlay an economic component onto this magnificently worded paragraph. Think of the 155 million Americans who live in poverty with no net worth. (Forget about the official definition of poverty.) Now consider that at least 10 percent of this group (15.5 million) could have become, or likely will be denied access to becoming, mathematicians, or scientists, or physicians, or members of almost any discipline offered by society. Most are denied acceptance to colleges and universities because they haven’t got the price of admission. Conversely, think about those whose parents have the money, but who do not have the talent to absorb or to effectively apply the knowledge and skills needed in these disciplines. Are not both of these outcomes serious offenses to our collective sensibilities about our rights to liberty?
What is the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness?
This component to freedom is a lot easier to understand. The right to the pursuit of happiness means our right to live for ourselves, to choose what constitutes our own private, personal, individual happiness and to work for its achievement, so long as we respect the same rights in others. It means that we cannot be forced to devote our lives to the happiness of others. It also means that society cannot decide what is to be our purpose, our existence, or prescribe for us our choice of happiness.
It is worthwhile to think about all the migrant workers and their families, and minorities, and others who live in squalor, without the funds to attend schools or special training so they might discover or develop their talents, and who are thus denied the right to pursue their own happiness. When anyone's time is consumed by working for very little income, and with no wealth accumulation, while living in conditions that are surrounded by deprivation--with no prospects for improvement--the pursuit of happiness is a cruel joke, a bit of rhetorical flim flam.
Society does not owe anyone a living, nor do we owe anyone the means to find life, liberty, or happiness. In like manner, however, we have no right to deny anyone the opportunity to seek out those ends based on their incomes or wealth. We also do not have equal opportunity simply because we assert it again and again. When the top 20 percent of residents hold 85 percent of all wealth, while the bottom 50 percent have no wealth at all, we know that many millions of others will never be able to find life, liberty, and happiness at a level consistent with their talents or their aspirations. Such a state of affairs diminishes us all, or as Ayn Rand correctly pointed out, “it is from the work and the inviolate integrity of minds—from the intransigent innovators—that all of mankind’s knowledge and achievements have come.” To believe the opposite, namely, that all of our knowledge and achievements arise only from those who inherit wealth, or who can afford to pay for the appropriate training, is to stand logic on its head. Those who do must find refuge in a strange twilight zone where reason, logic, and intelligence cannot be found.
Inequality of wealth and incomes is a byproduct of our times. It has always existed, but it has become so extreme in the past 30 years that it now dominates virtually all we do, all that we are, and perhaps all we can be. I could cite hundreds of examples, but here are two examples that fit the issue. Lee Raymond, a former head of Exxon, walked away with more than $400 million in retirement benefits after the world price of oil skyrocketed, independently of his actions. Tim Cook, the newly appointed CEO of Apple Inc. was handed 1 million shares of stock options the day he was hired. He did nothing for them, but they became worth more than $600 million in a few months based on nothing whatsoever that he did, or created in his short tenure. Multiply these examples by a few thousand, and it becomes clear that a very small number of people profit immensely while millions of others pay for their opulence. I cannot conceive of intellectual giants from the past such as Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln, or Ayn Rand who would approve of our current state of affairs. On the contrary they would likely fight against it “tooth and nail” with tenacity. And I would gladly join them. Freedom is far too important to our survival to be entrusted to the care of the extremely wealthy.
If we are to be true to our core values, we must consider how our economic actions affect the opportunity to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. When too much is taken by the few, it follows that many others will be denied even the opportunity to share in our core values. Poverty is therefore the antithesis of freedom. Apart from its social blight, it robs us of our dreams and our dignity.
[i] Stephen E. Lucas, "Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document," in Thomas W. Benson, ed., American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism, Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989,
[ii] Joseph Ellis, American Creation, November, Alfred Knopf, 2007, 55–56.
[iv] From Principles of Freedom, Ayn Rand Center for Freedom.