“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it, and then hand it to them with the well fought lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
— Ronald Reagan, March 1961
In those four sentences, the actor who would become America’s 40th President expressed more wisdom than the typical politician offers in an entire speech.
Freedom is a strange thing. Everyone claims to be in favor of it; no one ever dares to declare he’s against it. At election time, all candidates endorse it even if they disagree with each other on everything else. Could the freedom that Reagan spoke of in such serious terms really be so malleable that it fits any agenda? If it is, then it is meaningless.
Let’s pause, take a breath, and refresh ourselves on some principles of freedom that we may have forgotten. Here are eight of the most important:
Freedom is your birthright
It’s yours from Day 1 by virtue of who and what you are—a unique being endowed by nature and nature’s God with the right to exercise that uniqueness through the choices you make. It remains forever “unalienable” unless you forfeit it by depriving another person of his or her birthright. Freedom is an inherently universal birthright, meaning no one is granted superior status to run anyone else’s life beyond a parent’s right to raise a child to independent adulthood. Freedom is routinely suppressed and abused but that sad fact does not invalidate your right to it. It is not something you are entitled to only if politicians decide to give it to you.
Freedom doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want
It’s not a blank check. As the old saying goes, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” You’re not “free” to enslave or assault another sovereign human because doing so would violate the same right to freedom that all peaceful, rights-respecting people possess.
Freedom is not automatic or guaranteed
We live in a dangerous world full of people who will be happy to deprive others of freedom for all sorts of deplorable reasons—such as lust for the limelight or power, expediency, short-term and selfish benefit, you name it. Most people who have ever lived, in fact, lived as slaves, serfs or subjects who feared the disapproval of others in power. So achieving freedom and sustaining it demands knowledge, vigilance and courage.
Freedom can be voted away
Might doesn’t make right, which is another way of saying that a majority doesn’t sanctify wrong. Don’t use “democracy” as a cover for evil you would never endorse if your neighbors ganged up and did the same thing to you. Remember that Hitler was elected. Just as fully and powerfully as an invading army, you can wipe freedom out by what and who you vote for.
Freedom doesn’t mean you get to grab the other guy’s stuff
In one sense, this is an application of the second principle to property. It’s amazing how many people think that they’re not free unless they use the political process to appropriate what belongs to others. Freedom and private property are connected at the hip. Take one away and the other disappears with it. And if you think you’re entitled to someone else’s property, don’t be surprised if they decide to stake the same claim on you.
Freedom produces unequal outcomes
As it seeks to uphold the equal rights of us all, the law should be fair, predictable, impartial and non-discriminatory. Equality before the law is not the same, however, as equality in material income or possessions or even happiness. Differences between people are immense in terms of behavior, ambitions, talent, work ethic, intelligence, resourcefulness, savings, risk-taking, and on and on. To expect them to generate equal incomes in the marketplace is absurdly childish, and the only way such equality could ever be achieved is through brute force. Do we really want to punish success and achievement to approximate the impossible fantasy of equal possessions?
Freedom without character is doomed to fail
Benjamin Franklin warned, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Freedom requires high standards of honesty, humility, responsibility, patience, and self-discipline. No nation ever lost its character and kept its freedoms.
Freedom is what makes life worth living
Imagine life without freedom, with some Orwellian “Big Brother” spying on you, telling you what you can and can’t do at every turn, and stomping on your rights to life and property because he feels like it. You wouldn’t actually be living your life at all. Big Brother would be living his life through you, and that’s what it means to be a slave.
If this short essay motivates you to make freedom a priority, for both yourself and others, that’s great news. The world desperately needs more people who appreciate freedom’s critical importance. A lot more.