A few years ago, on a rainy summer’s day, I was browsing around a secondhand bookshop on the east end of Long Island, breathing in the musty wonder of the overstuffed shelves, when an elderly man approached me. I had in my hand a first edition of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The man started up a friendly conversation about the Second World War, asking me whether I had watched a recent television documentary on the subject.
He continued talking, perhaps unaware that he wasn’t allowing me to respond. I didn’t take this as an insult. Most people prefer to hear themselves talk; this isn’t necessarily a sign of malice or rudeness on their part. I find it’s especially true of the elderly, who are usually lonelier and thus more desperate for the ear of a stranger. So I stood there and listened as politely as I could, not altogether uninterested in his views of fascinating matters like the Nazis and other dictatorships, which are subjects that I could eat with my breakfast cereal.
It was difficult at first to ascertain the man’s politics, but the longer he talked, the more it seemed he subscribed to some kind of cynical radicalism, be it of the Noam Chomsky or Ron Paul variety. Members of either group are extraordinarily difficult to talk to, mainly because they are so convinced of their own righteousness they have constructed very efficient methods, both rhetorical and mental, of avoiding outside opinions.
We turned to the general subject of freedom. The man made some kind of vague assertion that none of us is really free and that, worse, a powerful elite was blinding us to our bondage. That we are all enslaved by some pervasive, unseen force is a favorite trope of radicals. They must believe this; it is the only way they can explain why their preferred ideology, which they consider so obviously correct, is supported only by themselves and their marginalized coven of co-thinkers.
It was here that I stopped him—I had had quite enough of this—and brought up the country of North Korea, the ultimate laboratory of human enslavement. I put the following question to him: North Korea is the most comprehensive tyranny in human history, and yet even such a thoroughly controlled, isolated, and indoctrinated country as that has produced plenty of defectors. These defectors knew they weren’t free; they chose to risk their lives in pursuit of something they had never experienced but which they nonetheless knew they were missing. Does this not prove that we are all capable of knowing when we are not free, even in the face of extraordinary power and propaganda? If it’s possible in North Korea, it’s possible anywhere.
“I never thought of that,” the man said, after a few moments’ reflection. He conceded my point, and I politely ended the conversation to go pay for my books.
Later, the objection I had raised to him forced a question into my mind, one that I have been considering for a long time: Is the desire for freedom universal? Does everyone want to be free?
Like all worthwhile things, freedom is difficult to define but very easy to feel in one’s gut. We all know what freedom is, especially when we finally lose it—just as we all know what literature is, even if we can’t say irrefutably why George Eliot is a better example of it than Ian Fleming. All definitions are insufficient. We might say that freedom is the condition of not being subject to the arbitrary will or coercion of other people. I made that up just now. Sounds a bit clinical, doesn’t it? Still, it seems accurate enough, and similar to what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty.” Perhaps freedom is the ability to carry out one’s will, to pursue one’s own goals? We’re getting more abstract and metaphysical now, but maybe that’s the right way to go.
One lingering effect of the Cold War has been the relativization of the word “freedom.” Like so many other moral concepts, it has been stripped of all objective meaning and turned into a matter of culture or personal preference—no different from liking a particular type of ice cream. “Who are we to say,” this game usually begins, “that Communism is not freedom?”
Some people are convinced that “freedom” means being provided with a certain amount of material comfort by the state—food, shelter, healthcare. While that might be decent social policy, it can’t be said to be freedom. (If it were, people would be trying to break into prison.) Whether material comfort is a necessary adjunct to being free is another point of contention. If you were marooned on a desert island with no food, you would still be free in the strict sense of the word.
It is much more difficult to judge freedom in a complex society. The average office drone, with children to feed and utility bills to pay, must sit quietly if his corporate boss decides to berate or humiliate him with no justification. Can he afford to speak up and defend himself, and therefore risk losing his job for insubordination? Most people, I believe, would trade their pride for the paycheck in this case. Is our notional office worker really free, then? He is in the very strict sense. He is legally free to say what he wants; in reality, he likely will not exercise that freedom because of the social consequences. There is, then, a very real way in which he is not as free as his boss. This doesn’t mean that the worker doesn’t want freedom, however; he just realizes that exercising it at that moment might not be wise.
That many people seem to prefer material comfort or security to freedom is obvious. But even these people can only be pushed so far. On average, Europeans are tolerant of economic regulations that in the United States would be considered far too onerous, and yet many of those same Europeans were reliable anti-Communists, whether in front of or behind the Iron Curtain.
Even dictators and murderers love freedom: If one’s only goal is to take away others’ freedom, one must first use their own freedom to do so—the freedom to move, to think, to plot, to carry out an evil plan. Tyrants require freedom to practice their trade, even if it is only freedom for themselves. The opponents of free speech face a similar built-in paradox: they are speaking freely in order to argue against speaking freely. Even if they don’t realize it, those who oppose freedom in theory are usually for it in practice.