What is Freedom?

By Robert Bernstein   |   November 15, 2022
The Four Freedoms mural previously found on the County Human Resources Department

President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) delivered his famous “Four Freedoms” speech 11 months before Pearl Harbor took us into WWII. These four freedoms? 

Freedom of speech;

Freedom of worship;
Freedom from want;
Freedom from fear.

This mural of the Four Freedoms (pictured) used to be on the County Human Resources Department. Note that the first two are negative freedoms, whereas the last two are affirmative freedoms. Freedom of speech and worship just require the government to refrain from interfering in these acts. But freedom from want is an invitation for government to guarantee that every person’s minimum life needs be met.

FDR’s list was meant to apply to the entire world. Hence “freedom from fear” was meant to include government intervention to protect people from tyranny and outside aggression.

These Four Freedoms were later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the last two were never included in our own U.S. Constitution. Most modern constitutions do include these affirmative rights.

The Philippines Constitution of 1987 includes an entire section on health care, housing, and basic nutrition as a right.

What does it mean to be “free” if one does not have one’s basic needs met? “Free Enterprise” works best when innovators don’t have to worry about their basic needs.

Libertarianism has roots back to 18th century Europe. But in modern times it is a uniquely American idea of freedom. In principle it makes obvious sense: If my behavior doesn’t hurt anyone else, leave me alone. But the devil is in the details. Is any behavior completely free of affecting others?

If too many people drive, how does this affect pedestrians and bicyclists? One car clogs traffic as much as an entire busload of people. And if too many people drive, it drains people from transit and worsens transit schedules.

Libertarians oppose regulation as an infringement on their freedom. Do they oppose traffic signals?

The flip side of Libertarianism is that libertarians don’t want to pay to support other people. More accurately, they may be OK donating for such support, but they don’t want to be “forced” to pay such support through taxes. “Taxation is theft” is their motto.

This ignores “market failures.” I discussed this in two earlier articles with regard to housing and the Climate Crisis. Markets on their own do not care if people have no housing, food, or health care. Markets don’t care if a person with no money to spend in the market, simply dies.

Some Libertarian philosophy is not economic. It is about people wanting freely to engage in prostitution or drug use as a buyer or seller. These people might traditionally be considered “liberal” and such views have been adopted in more liberal European countries.

But a strong thread of Libertarianism in the U.S. is at the core of the modern Republican Party. It is all about rejecting regulation and what they consider to be subsidies. Of course, these Republicans are happy to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year subsidizing their pet industries like fossil fuels, private motor vehicles, Big Pharma, and Big Agribusiness. They also support regulating women’s reproductive rights.

FDR was correct: We cannot be free if we lack the basics of life. And markets only work if everyone has enough money to participate in them. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated for a universal basic income in the form of a “negative income tax.” He acknowledged that this was the only way for a Libertarian market system to work.

The Climate Crisis is the largest market failure facing the world today. Tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world are facing losing their homes to flooding and/or fires due to the Climate Crisis. What about their freedom to live in peace? Many millions more are faced with losing their jobs and/or food sources from the Climate Crisis.

Our “freedom” to burn fossil fuels and cut down forests very much harms other people and restricts their most basic freedoms. Can we agree that any meaningful freedom has to include affirmative rights? And that this must include taxation and government action to secure these most basic rights and freedoms?  


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