Kent Penwarden: Civilized society needs some constraints within our ‘freedom’
When two or more people get together in community, compromises are made and some personal freedom is given up or lost, as responsibilities toward the other(s) emerge. Formation of a society necessarily restricts the freedom of the individual members of that society.
In the column, “Freedom and its responsibilities,” in The Union, July 16, Kathryn Lopez sets forth very romanticized and not very useful definitions of freedom. What is offered here is a more basic, primal definition of freedom. Complete freedom, in physics and mathematics, is random movement, chaos. Molecules in a gas are free to move about, to interact with each other, but must be held within the walls of a container to keep them from uselessly escaping into space. At the other extreme, movement of molecules within ice and crystalline rock is completely constrained, totally lacking freedom.
In politics, complete freedom is anarchy. No one wants to return to live in the fear for one’s life in the anarchy of the wild west. But, neither does one wish to live in a prison or in the confinement of a totalitarian state. The ideal society lies somewhere between anarchy and prison. There, some constraints, limiting personal freedom, must exist in order to provide for a safe and civilized society.
Freedoms (rights) are privileges granted to its citizens by the state. For instance, in the USA, the Bill of Rights lists the privileges we citizens can expect. Actually, our Constitution, with the Bill of Rights and the derivative body of law, is an elaborate container that both defines and limits our freedom. We are free to move about within this container, within this established boundary of law, within this, our Republic. Crossing over this boundary subjects us to the consequences of many perils … police, courts, fines, jail, loss of personal freedom, and even death.
However, if we stay within the boundary defined by the laws of our Republic, we are free to create and live our lives. With knowledge of the constraints imposed on us by our society, our educated self-discipline keeps us from crossing over the boundary, and we feel free. Therein, freedom becomes the privilege of self discipline within the rule of law.
In America, citizens are free to speak out against the limits to their personal freedom, as imposed by societal customs and laws; and are able, through the American democratic process, to participate in forming or changing these customs and laws. Our system of democracy provides the process for adjusting the “walls of our container,” i.e., our rules and laws, in order that we, citizens, may enhance and safeguard our personal freedom.
However, we, as individuals, are not alone in adjusting these laws, for our fellow citizens are also seeking to increase or protect their personal freedom. One citizen’s increase of personal freedom may cause a reduction of another citizen’s freedom, or come at the expense of the environment. Conflicts occur. Consequently, in America, the process of negotiating acceptable compromise becomes an essential key to achieving a working democracy, to forming “… a more perfect union.”
Within the dynamic society of our Republic, we teach and inspire our citizens to attain sufficient degrees of self-restraint, as well as global awareness of others, and knowledge of the democratic processes by which we govern ourselves. Acquiring such understanding prepares our citizens for freedom.
Throughout the ages, philosophers have discussed the concepts of freedom. As John Locke stated, “Freedom is as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’” Rather, “In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it.”
The famous song lyrics from the movie, Frozen, “… let it go, let it go … no rules for me, I’m free!” sound a romanticized ideal of no responsibility, no community, no restraint or limitations of any kind, that led the heroine, Elsa, to become stranded and stuck all alone, free, but sad, in a beautiful ice castle.
Elsa’s hope for happiness seemed unattainable, until love came to the rescue, melting away her isolation … and bringing with it the inevitable loss (gladly surrendered) of some personal freedom.
Kent Penwarden is a retired Silicon Valley electronics engineer and manager. He lives with his wife in Grass Valley.
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