Carl Ostrom: Questions we should ask our politicians: The fallacy of freedom
Editor’s note: This the third in a series of columns that raise questions for politicians and the community on how government and society interact.
What is freedom? Are we really free to do whatever we want? If the concept of freedom is run out to its limits, the answer is “yes”. That is OK for one person in a solo environment, but eventually becomes anarchy if multiple people are all free act however they choose with no regard to the others in a shared environment.
There is an old adage that says, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.” The point being that freedom has limits.
With all due respect to the Founding Fathers, certain freedoms are not an inalienable right. Some freedoms are dependant on how they are exercised. It is a fine line, but there is a difference between living in a “free society” and living in a land of “individual freedom.” In a free society there are boundaries that define the difference between acceptable behaviors and actions and unacceptable behaviors and actions. The key is that society defines these boundaries and not the individual. Each individual has the right to do whatever they wish, but only within these boundaries. A free society, by this definition of boundaries, pits the desire to act at will against the possibility of that act becoming a nuisance or danger to others. This is where the arguments over freedom begin.
Freedom is not a right, but a responsibility. Freedom is earned and granted by acting responsibly. Freedom is limited or removed when acting irresponsibly. For the most part, each person is free to do whatever they want, as long as what they do does not negatively impact someone else or society at large. Each person is responsible for acting in such a way that it harms no one else, regardless of how free they think they are to act in this instance,
Society has laws, law enforcement, and judicial processes to define exactly where the boundary of freedoms and one’s rights are placed.
Usually, when complaints are made about the eroding of freedoms, it is in regard to some specific area of activity that the complaining person is being prevented from or forced into doing. That complaint may stem from a sense of entitlement where “I can do whatever I want” (It’s a free country). The person complaining perceives that a free society means that they have no responsibility or accountability to anyone else. For the most part, freedom is self serving.
Although society does need to define limits, how these limits are formed may not be fair to everyone, or they might inadvertently prevent an otherwise acceptable activity.
Should limits of freedom also extend to how certain activity might harm the individual? Should someone be prevented from taking narcotics or building a house that might not meet safety standards? Are these laws a constraint of individual freedom or a method of societal protection?
An example of this is how freedom of religion could be treated. Some religious practices are considered abusive by many people. Some may be illegal. How far should society go in defining acceptable behavior for either religious practice (polygamy, circumcision, etc.) or family practice (vaccination, corporal punishment, etc.)? How does a government protect the rights of religious freedoms when certain religious beliefs or practices are counter to the perception or will of the majority?
The truth of a free society is that true freedom is a balancing act between the perceived freedoms of one or more individuals and how exercising those freedoms affects other members of the society. Society at large reserves the right to limit the freedoms of some to protect the rights of others. It is also true that freedom is a balance between individuals and society at large. How this is defined and administered is the responsibility of government. How government acts should be informed by the society at large.
Some of the questions to politicians that involve societal benefit vs. individual freedom are:
Is freedom a right or granted through responsible behavior?
How should government manage the balance between individual rights and societal benefit or stability?
How should government balance freedom of religion and society when certain religious actions are counter to majority defined social mores?
Does the government have the right to restrict the freedoms of some citizens to minimize or prevent loss of lives of other citizens?
If so, where is the tipping point of impact to individual lives vs. impact to lives lost?
Should the First Amendment protect all speech or define unacceptable rhetoric?
What defines unacceptable rhetoric?
Carl Ostrom lives in Nevada County.
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“You’ve heard me say this before: Every acre can and will burn someday in this state” — Cal Fire Director Thom Porter.