It’s a common expression, often uttered in support of the military, that “freedom is not free.” What is meant by that of course is that the freedoms we enjoy in various forms comes at a cost, the cost of human effort and even the sacrifice of lives to protect and preserve the freedoms we enjoy in our country from those who would take it away.
But there is another meaning to that expression. Quite simply, what we often think of as freedom is something else, and in fact even the opposite. For example, we seek and delight in what is promised as economic, political and theological “freedom,” but we could be deluded into traps that are actually costly, captive and corrosive.
Take economic freedom. We are taunted with coupons and ads and other offers of getting something for nothing, a “free” this or “free” that. But something truly free in an economic sense means there is no exchange, nothing given first to get what is offered for free, no fine print. But all of these things are usually part of the deal.
I was just alerted that I have a “free” coffee waiting for me at Starbucks. But I paid $125 to for other coffees in order to get to the level where I “earned” a “free” one. At work I was teased with an opportunity to download a “free” white paper or report on a topic of interest to me. All I had to do was fill out a form, giving up my personal contact information. This is quite a common scenario these days, in which our personal privacy is the cost of getting something for “free.”
We also must think about the folly of economic freedom in a large scale, systemic way. For example, promises of “free” health care or “free” college must include consideration of the fact that someone pays something. The recipients of free services may “get what they pay for” in reduced quality or freedom of choice. Or they must consider that someone else is paying. The old adage is true in an economic sense: there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Political freedom is closely related to economic freedom in this sense. Freedom is a hallmark of democracy, in the United States and elsewhere. People often associate political freedom with rights but discount the associated responsibilities.
I’ve written about this before in these pages. A right is not a claim on something that belongs to others. A right is only that which is extended to all equally without impinging on others. So we have a right to move around the country freely. But we do not have a ”right” to receive anything from the government that others have paid for. That may be a compassionate benefit, but not a right. In the end, to get things for free from the government is to become dependent, which is closer to slavery than freedom.
Theological freedom is another dangerous path. Freedom of religion and to worship as we please is a wonderful aspect of our country. However, free will can be dangerously misinterpreted as the ability to do as we please before God because “He made us that way.” However, freedom theologically does not mean self-indulgence. It means the opposite: obedience, self-control, denial and sacrifice. Only then are we free of temptation and the controlling consequences of sin. It is counter-intuitive, but proven repeatedly, that submitting to God is what brings freedom, not submitting God to our desires.
There are other delusions of freedom. Freedom of thought is one that is common in this era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” although it is really nothing new. Freedom of thought is wonderful if done honestly, but too often there is a slippery slope into thinking what we want and not what is true. Again, if we do this we are fooling ourselves and not free but captive to our own constructed illusions.
Social media and technology are another false freedom. Oh, a mobile phone is a wonderful thing and liberates us in many ways in terms of communication access. However, they also have an addictive quality that has robbed too many of the freedom to have a leisurely face-to-face conversation without interruption. Another freedom lost is the ability to go home and be away from work until returning to the shop or office the next day.
We still do enjoy many freedoms in this country and in our society. But whether we are really free depends on us and whether we think about freedom honestly.