“Life is hard when you live it the easy way, and easy when you live it the hard way.” –Unknown
Dave, 42, lives and works near the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. His 2nd wife Lisa works across the street at Bally’s. The two leave their kids in the Bally’s childcare center after work so they can spend some time at the slot machines. Sometimes they win, most times they don’t. About 7 pm or so, they head home to their apartment and repeat the same pattern day after day in 8-9 hour shifts at the casino, a few hours gambling and eating at the buffet, and then heading home to watch TV a few hours and maybe help their kids with homework. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
This is freedom....
Mary, 33, wants to better her career opportunities and job skills so she can make some money but she spends too much time online. Unfortunately between Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Cosmo and HuffPo articles, she doesn’t have any free time to pursue her education and career development, even though there are many free courses available online. She also wants to lose some weight, but it’s so hard to not swing by the pizza place, or burrito or cupcake place for an easy meal after work. And those places are so cheap too.
This is freedom....
Jimmy, 51 and single for over 10 years since his wife died, wants to start dating again but can’t seem to get motivated. He wants to find a quality woman, partially to help him raise his 3 kids but he spends his minimal free time at the strip club as a regular, flirting with the dancers instead. It’s so much easier than trying to date since it’s on the way home. And it’s kind of fun too. Maybe it’s the antidepressants he’s taking but he just doesn’t feel like dating.
This is freedom....
Chanice, 22, already has $34,000 in student loans but can’t stand that she’s the worst dressed of her group of girlfriends. Plus, she loves to shop! It’s “who she is” and makes her feel so good. She loves the seasonal dresses at BEBE and getting her hair and nails done at a nice salon. So instead of decreasing her debt, she keeps increasing it via credit cards. At an interest rate of 8.9%, she will get that debt paid off when she’s 42.
This is freedom....
Sylvia, who just turned 30, got her 5th tattoo this week and it turned out well. It’s a snake that wraps around her neck. It only cost her $500. Sylvia’s parents are divorced since she was 7, and neither are very involved and never gave her much attention so these tattoos give her that sense of permanence and uniqueness. Her 8 piercings help with that too, especially the one in her nose that everyone looks at and some people ask about in curiosity. For some reason, she can’t seem to get a better job than the waitressing job she’s had for 6 years now.
This is freedom....
Johnny, who just turned 30, wants a better job, a better social life and wants to lose weight. Johnny wants to be a more caring and giving person. Johnny wants to live a life that matters. He wants to buy a house. Johnny wants to travel and to be involved in interesting things. But Johnny can’t seem to do anything that he wants to do. Instead he’s hooked on video games and drinking. He has no savings, no motivation, and takes no real action. He goes to work, comes home, and continues on, “free” to do what he “wants” to do, at least in the moment.
This is freedom?
These are cases of the type of contrived “freedom” we live with on a daily basis. We know these people because they are us to a certain extent. It’s either laugh or cry. The problem is that these situations aren’t healthy. The even bigger problem is that when these people are people we know and love and care about, or it's going through this, we aren’t allowed to “judge” these people or ourselves because that would be wrong, according to the culture we live in of liberating non-judgement. The truth is that these people are not really free, nor are we, and we never will be completely. As the philosopher Alisdair Macyntire famously stated: “A man without a culture is a myth.”
What is real freedom? What does it mean? Let's take a closer look. Freedom obviously doesn’t mean freedom from any responsibility because we will always have responsibility in one way or another. We have to stop at stop signs, we have to eat, and we have to wear clothing in public. There will always be things we are required to do and not do. One of the freest people I know is in a successful marriage, successful business, has 3 happy children, and has many hobbies he's good at. He is fully committed and he is also free. How is that possible? That is true because my friend has what is called positive freedom. My friend has the freedom to be but also to become. He is free because he is actually doing what he really wants to do. My friend has agency and power.
Positive freedom (the freedom to do things and become something) and negative freedom (freedom from certain things) are both important:
Positive freedom gives us the freedom to act, or agency, the ability to act.
Negative freedom is liberty in which we are not enslaved by human forces.
“Happiness is the feeling of power increasing.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The United States was an idea founded on Enlightenment principles of liberation. We wanted freedom from authority, from repression, from taxation without representation, from religious or cultural norms and we got it. We’ve done a good job at building negative freedom in America. We should celebrate this. We have removed the cultural repression of roles (for better or worse), but in the process we also made it harder for most people to develop positive freedom. What started as a revolution against political authority has ended up as a rejection of all authority.
Ironically, we rejected all forms of authority but it is now harder to become who we really want to because we have so much individualism and so little community that it is difficult for people to succeed and form into a healthy, virtuous, successful and mature adult. Even worse, from a health stand point, from an economics standpoint, and from a cultural standpoint, too much focus on negative freedom, freedom from interference with our own autonomous world has left the door open for us to develop into population controlled by impersonal market forces which are actually leaving us unhealthy, particularly the poorest among us.
Cultural liberation since the 1960s in the US, no matter how well-intentioned, has in effect become an implicit war on poor people as they have become less healthy and have stagnated culturally at a high rate. There’s more obesity, more diabetes, more drug and alcohol abuse, more children born out of wedlock, and stagnating levels of high poverty and poor education. Cultural liberalism moving us towards negative freedom has had the most detrimental effect in the poorest communities. More welfare and more money and more freedom has led to more misery and more confusion and more anger from the lower classes. Trillions have been spent since 1964, with basically nothing to show for it. If anything, things have gotten worse in those communities- just read the newspaper.
“If you don’t boast about your house, it will fall down and hit you.” – Greek Proverb
So this is the challenge: We like our freedom. We don’t like being told what to do. We are a nation of individuals. Trust me. I’m as individualistic as anyone. But this is not a complete picture of true freedom. This is not what a healthy person or a healthy society looks like. A culture with only negative freedom creates a nation of narcissists who never sign up, volunteer, appreciate, work, and who are never humble enough to listen, to learn, and to improve and participate. We need a balance of individualism and community.
I’m not arguing for repressive or paternal politics. If anything, I am arguing for a real and open debate about what it takes to truly build a thriving society, something no one seems willing to do right now. The left says the problem in America is structural inequality and the right says our biggest problem is cultural digression. I believe that they are connected.
Cultural digression, which statistically started in the 1960s is causing and reinforcing structural inequality. As clear evidence to what I’m talking about, consider this. Elite liberals of the left usually live very conservative personal lives while at the same time advocating disrespect for authority and undermining the authoritative role of cultural institutions in building up a healthy and free society, which in turn only exacerbates cultural, wealth, and health inequalities which make it harder for the lower classes to advance. Liberating cultural influences implicitly act as an attack on the poor. In sum, the failure of American politics, left and right, is the failure of either side to clearly identify this problem and clearly define what a thriving and healthy society looks like and to have the fortitude and courage towards pushing this vision.
The biggest question then is this:
How can we live in relative Shalom, in peace and harmony?
How can we live with Ikigai, a reason for being?
In my vision, the only way forward is to call a truce, maintain reasonable amounts of negative freedom, and then voluntarily participate in and strengthen the communal institutions by which people can truly become positively free. I’ve included a list, by no means exhaustive, of the institutions by which health is actually built in the real world and some questions prodding us in a new sirection.
- Family- How can we strengthen families? Children do better with a father and mother. This is a proven fact. How can we push back and start to expect this? Divorce is much lower in the upper classes which gives their children an advantage in education and economics. An ethic of status- conscious consumerism hurts families. How can we push back and create a more ascetic society focused on virtue versus consumption?
- Religion- Religion, when on guard and vigilant against fanaticism, is largely about wisdom, transcendence, and healthy repression. How can we leave religious institutions alone so that they can thrive and assist in building a healthy and wise culture in which people become free?
- Civic- Civic involvement is essential to a free society. Which groups are essential to our community? How can we support them?
- Schools- Why is there so little discipline and respect for authority in public schools, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods? Learning and advancement cannot take place in this environment. How can we change this?
- Sports- Sports teach grit and self-discipline. What sports can we play and encourage our kids to play, which build fitness and character?
- Government- Where can we find opportunities to reform and participate in government? How can we see government as an ally, instead of an enemy?
- Military- What are the opportunities for our young people to serve, and when they are done serving how can we help them readjust? How can we teach military values of loyalty, duty, respect, and service, to the general public? How can we inspire patriotism in all citizens?
- Trade / Craft Guilds- Should we be sending all students to college when trade work is highly paid, and in demand? The apprenticeship was a way of life for millions of people all over the world for a long time. How can we bring back the mentor and the teacher as a path towards meaningful work?
- Hobbies- What hobbies can we commit to doing which will make us better and healthier people? Fitness? Woodworking? Motorcycling? Piano?
- Physical Activity- How can we incorporate physical activity into our daily lives and into our communities, particularly if it is done outdoors? Why are our parks rarely used and who is in charge of keeping them up? Nature is real and has a mind of its own and it turn is a buffer towards the type of autistic representation of reality (casinos slot machines, video games, etc. ) we discussed in the article.
- Arts- Can we support music, museums, and writing? Are these things we should be doing as hobbies? These are activities which build a healthy culture.
"Society is not just individuals and government, but everything that happens in between.” -Yuval Levin
Finally, if you don’t like the way these institutions are run or the way they do things, you don’t have the negative freedom to change them into your own image, but you can join another organization or start another one that is more to your liking if you want. When we start recreating our institutions in our own image, instead of allowing our institutions to shape us into a vertical community existing throughout time in an ongoing conversation with our ancestors (such as in schools, churches, or trades), we’re in trouble, because the institution will in effect soon no longer exist, at least in its previous form.
We know what works and what doesn’t. A focus on building community health through institutions is a plan that would work.
The challenge is also the opportunity. We have freedom within reach but this a challenge for us to grasp and we need to take action. It’s time to build positive freedom. It’s time to allow our institutions and disciplines to shape us to become more powerful, so we can really be free.
Read Next: On Friendship
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Suggested Reading: The World Beyond Your Head by Mathew Crawford, Our Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin