Discussions about freedom in the 21st century tends to be about individual liberty, the type of freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. People have the right to speak freely, to protest, to openly practice their religion, to own guns, to avoid restrictions imposed by the actions of other people or by government agencies, or at least to enjoy due process protections before government impositions are applied. There are many disagreements about how these freedoms should be defined and how they should be guaranteed, but even in disagreements freedom is most often expressed as a series of personal rights. We believe that we are, or should be, “free” to live the lives we want.
In 2020 and 2021, the years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of individual rights has been expanded in response to a variety of restrictions imposed by public health orders. Many people have declared their right to refuse to wear a mask and the right to congregate in large groups in bars, in sporting events, and in churches. These are not framed as isolated concepts; they are tied to several elements in the Bill of Rights under freedom of movement, of speech, of religion. Individuals are claiming the right to oppose reasonable government efforts to control the spread of the virus, as if the rights enumerated in the Constitution were absolute and inviolable. And in almost all cases the opposition is expressed as a defense of freedom against the tyranny of an activist government.
But this individualistic interpretation of freedom is a relatively new development in the continuing evolution of human relationships with the powers that control their lives. The movements that fought government power in the eighteenth century, the ones that broadly promoted freedom and the rights of humans, were primarily focused on the liberty of the masses. They were objecting to traditional forms of hereditary rule. The goal was to create a government that was responsive to the governed. Freedom was visualized as freedom from arbitrary and autocratic rule; the ability of the populace to control the activities of the entities that affected their lives.
The French national motto is instructive. It calls for “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” The emphasis is not merely on freedom (liberté), but on equality and brotherhood. The goal of the French revolution was to create a government that treated citizens not merely as a loose collection of “free” individuals but as a community, a mutually responsible collective. Admittedly, that revolutionary movement degenerated into the tyranny of the Jacobins, a self-appointed violent leadership, and eventually into the Napoleonic empire, but the unrealized intent was to replace an autocracy led by a hereditary monarchy with a fully democratic and socially responsive government. In their view such a government was seen as an essential device in the goal of emancipating the citizenry. It took the French another 80 years, through yet another monarchy and another empire, but they succeeded.
Meanwhile, across the pond there was a nascent example of the kind of government the French theorists wanted. In fact, the 1776 American revolution against the English monarchy served as inspiration for the 1789 French revolt, among others. And after the English colonists chased the representatives of the King out of the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast, the leaders who formed the Continental Congress busied themselves with creating a new government based on the same theories that were popular with the French, and although their own motto was simply “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) their primary intent was also to create a democratic government responsive to the citizenry. For many of those leaders, one example was the Iroquois Confederacy, a stable social organization governed largely through consensus. The United States of America may have begun with a failed construct in the Articles of Confederation, but they replaced that in 1789 with a governing Constitution that defined a democratic federation. Their desire was to create a lasting government that would be controlled by the people, or at least by those white men who owned property. Individual citizens were to be represented and protected, but individual rights were not a priority. In fact, to the writers of the U.S. Constitution the Bill of Rights was an afterthought. That list of individual rights that we so often use today to define “freedom”? That was something they threw in at the last minute after they had created what they wanted, a government constituted of, and responsive to, a free people. Yes, there were still strict limits on who “the people” were, but we’ve been working on that since then.
The larger world has also been working on expanding the collective concept of democracy as freedom. That concept helped inform the collapse of the Ottoman empire and varied European colonial empires, assisted by the chaos of two world wars and by yet another theoretical framework animated by yet another significant revolution, this one in Russia around 1917. Again, not all of the anti-colonial movements have succeeded in building functional democracies, but most European and Asian countries have, and the continents of Africa and South America would have contained more successful examples but for the repetitive interference by the powers of the first and second world.
The growth of democratic collectivism generated a backlash. It was begun by conservative theorists in Europe as a reaction to the ideals and upheavals of the late eighteenth century and, immediately after World War II, to the memory of the populist upheavals that led to fascist states in Germany and Italy. But it has gained much of its modern popularity from opposition to the growth of the welfare state. In the United States a well-funded anti-tax, anti-regulation campaign and the election of Ronald Reagan helped promote the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, and that individuals are responsible for their own fate. To diminish the role of the state they emphasized self-support, self-defense, and the identification of freedom with individual rights rather than popular enfranchisement.
It’s not just political life. Our economic system has also become consumed with individualism. Corporations increasingly regard their employees as isolated individuals. Salaries are offered and negotiated with minimal reference to those of any other employees, and unless employees are represented by a union, which is now rare and something corporations spend millions to avoid, workers receive few if any benefits. The most extreme form of this trend is the arrangement in which employees are hired as independent contractors, removing any legal obligation the corporation may have beyond paying a salary or, at worst, a stipend based on output. Corporations have increasingly rejected any form of loyalty or other obligation to the people on whom they depend. They regard individuals as replaceable, disposable. Even workers recognized as employees are not guaranteed any minimum number of hours or a reliable work schedule. Business representatives continually argue for, and lobby elected representatives to achieve, minimum wage levels that are as low as possible and the removal of regulations that protect employee rights and safety. They recognize the fact that government can be a positive force in the lives of ordinary citizens.
Somehow, our current combination of political and economic individualism doesn’t sound much like freedom. The United States has certainly made progress in the two centuries of its existence, gradually moving closer to the ideals phrased in our founding documents. Slavery is no longer legal, every citizen has the legal right to vote, and citizenship applies to everyone born in the country. Admittedly we haven’t progressed enough. Just how free is someone who has to work two jobs to barely survive, who cannot seek medical attention for fear of bankruptcy, or who lives with constant fear of violence from the police or other representatives of the government? How much political freedom does someone have if their elected representatives consistently vote for the policies preferred by powerful economic interests rather than those preferred by their constituents? It may be difficult for someone facing those problems to think that government may be the solution to their problems, but it is even more difficult to think of any other entity that could create progress. Certainly not the economic system, much less any vague principles based on individual rights without any effective entity to protect them. We need not only to recognize, once again, that government can be the guarantor and embodiment of freedom, but to work to make sure that that promise will be fulfilled.