The Price of Freedom

Home Writing Politics Vita Teaching



How to fight the politics of racism
Those Who Can Teach
The Price of Freedom
It's Not All Negative
Grading Papers by Computer
For Cherelle Parker


Defenders of liberty are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no God." But, while liberty has never had as great a champion as Jefferson, this statement misleads us about the price of freedom

Consider some of the burdens of freedom. First, there is the expense of protecting the exercise of liberty. Unpopular groups engaged in political protest require police protection. Their rallies and protest meetings make demands on sanitation departments, too, as do those of the more popular groups that oppose them.

Second, our security is, on occasion, compromised by the exercise of free speech. More than once, we have seen our most sensitive secrets broadcast on nationwide television. Both international terrorism and street crime are easier to control where there is no freedom. A police force that can subject citizens to the third degree may be terrifying to those who value liberty. But it is likely to be more effective in deterring crime.

Third are the political costs of liberty: Freedom makes for political conflict. And political conflict sometimes prevents our government from quickly responding to domestic and foreign problems. Moreover, freedom allows everyone to express their views, including those who hate free speech as well as many of their fellow citizens. German Nazis and Italian fascists could not have attained political power if they had not once lived in a free country. Racism would be easier to eliminate in America if we denied racists free speech. The Oklahoma City bombing would never had occurred if free speech had been denied to the leaders of radical right militias.

We tend not to think much about the costs of liberty I have just listed.. But they are real. Still I do not offer this  catalogue of the costs of liberty to call our freedoms into question. Rather, I wish to remind us what living in a free country means. Freedom rests on our willingness to ignore certain costs. We can rightly complain when our neighbor directly hurts us or our property. But, in a free country, we have no recourse to the injuries that result from our neighbor’s exercise of freedom of thought, speech and conscience. To live in liberty, then, is to accept the burdens of liberty.

Why accept these burdens? In part, because we believe that, over the long term, the benefits are worth the costs. Freedom allows us to choose the path best suited to our own ends and ideals. And it enables us to discover what ends and ideals we really should embrace. Freedom, however, is important for more than its consequences. For we believe, with Jefferson, that human beings are endowed by "nature and nature’s God" with the right to liberty. Our right to freedom follows from the fundamental features of our nature: our free will and our capacity to act on the basis of reason.

Understanding what freedom means will, I think, help us deal with another cost of liberty: its effects on the character of our people. Most of us are concerned with the possibility that bad and evil speech will lead some people to threaten our rights and the rights of our children. But, even more, we want our children to choose well for the sake of their own happiness, not to mention for the sake of their souls. So we worry about the effects of the low, vulgar and materialistic ways of life portrayed in the media. In this way, what our neighbors say about God can injure us..

These costs of liberty explain the efforts of conservatives in America to stamp out pornography and other forms of speech that they, rightly, think will harm the character and souls of children in our country. Many liberals ridicule these efforts. But, liberals often express concern about the impact of the sexist images of women portrayed in the media. And both liberals and conservatives decry violence on TV and in the movies.

Some defenders of freedom today deny that what our children see, hear and read will sometimes lead them to make destructive choices. But this flies in the face of common sense. And it is not a good strategy in defense of freedom. For if we are willing to defend freedom only when it is cost free, there will be very little freedom left for us to defend.

So what are we to do about the effects of freedom on the character of our children? There are many ways to minimize these costs. We must be vigilant in guarding what our children see, hear and read. And we can and should expect government to help us do this by, for example, requiring all televisions sets to have a device that would enable parents to block certain types of programs from the eyes and ears of their children. But what we cannot do, without betraying our principles and our heritage, is to call for censorship. We must pass on to our children two most precious gifts: a free country and the character to withstand some of the dangers of freedom.

Despite the sentiments expressed in the quotation with which I began this essay, Jefferson certainly knew that freedom has its burdens and that we had the responsibility to accept them. He once wrote that "The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave." Riding those waves is the price we pay for the glory of being in the open sea that is freedom.

Home    Writing