What does freedom look like?
To Americans, the concept of freedom is easy: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These words, inscribed on the Declaration of Independence, define the ethos of the “Land of the Free.” When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to wonder at the up-and-coming nation, he praised the extensive forms of “self-government” he encountered.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if Tocqueville hopped in a time machine and arrived in today’s United States, his impression would be far different. The liberty he witnessed in the farm fields and small towns did not subside as America industrialized. The country is still home to a great deal of freedom. It’s just that the modern version of freedom is radically detached from what was once a well-ordered tradition of civic and familial obligation.
A recently uncovered video demonstrates my point. Shot some years ago, the video reveals a large, rotund woman receiving news that she is approved for government assistance. Upon reading her approval letter, she proceeds to shout uncontrollably while giddily clapping her hands. Her kids celebrate, and the family rejoices as they join the dole.
For taxpayers, the video is aggravating. Here, an obese woman is flipping her lid over free money. She’s not physically fit, but she’s not immobile either. She could work if pressed to do so. But now Uncle Sam – meaning those of us who have their paychecks fleeced every other week in the form of taxes – will pick up the bill for her and her family’s living expenses.
The picture doesn’t engender a whole of sympathy.
But then look at the woman’s face as she realizes her cost of living is fully covered. Her countenance is of pure joy. No longer does she need to worry about finding a job or working long hours for little pay. Instead, she’s free. She’s free to pursue her happiness without fear of losing her home or letting her children starve.
Like it or not, that’s a form of liberty. It’s the “freedom from want” that Franklin Roosevelt spoke to as the country emerged from Great Depression. It’s the freedom Bernie Sanders invokes when speaking before thousands at college campuses. And it’s the freedom a majority of Americans believe they’re entitled to.
Notre Dame University professor Patrick Deenen sees the folly in the conservative defense of liberty. The freedom most Americans seek is not the Tocquevillean self-rule of yore. Rather, it’s a carefree independence, which is “backstopped by a government that is a more reliable provider for the experience of individual autonomy than the unpredictable and more unforgiving market.” “[L]iberalism,” Deneen writes, “has an equal, if not greater, claim to provide liberty.”
For the Left, liberty “is achieved when it protects us from any particular obligations, responsibilities, and duties.” And the best means to guarantee said liberty? An all-powerful state that takes the role of family, community, and country.
This vision of liberty is antithetical to the conservative ideal of freedom. The welfare mom encapsulates what is the liberated form of autonomy. Now, compare her beaming face to the quiet dignity of Ann McClamrock.
Ann was your ordinary American woman. Mother to two boys and a devoted wife, she kept a well-functioning Dallas home – until one of life’s many random tragedies struck.
During an ordinary football practice, her son, John McClamrock, suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He never walked again for the rest of his life. For over 30 years, Ann tended to her bedridden son, feeding him, cleaning him, massaging his bedsores, and giving him enough attention to ward off depression. Through the many heartbreaks that followed – her husband’s passing, the death of another son from a previous husband, John’s failing health – Ann remained stalwart in her role as caretaker. The only reprieve she allowed herself in all those decades was the occasional perm at JCPenney.
Mrs. McClamrock was not afforded many breaks. The demands of her son John overrode the chance for a normal life. Her husband’s death took away her, to borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien, companion on a shipwreck. But she carried on, never retreating into victimology, until she saw her son off to heaven in March of 2008. Eight weeks later, she joined him, leaving behind a model of what it truly means to be a person. She left our world being free in the truest sense: She fulfilled her duty without fail and with love in her heart.
That kind of liberty – what colonial era preacher Samuel West defined as “obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to the natural law” – is hardly visible today. We live in a highly individualistic age, where the almighty Self and personal preference are seen as the highest ends in life. The classical idea of freedom isn’t just seen as an anachronism of a time long past, but as a hateful, bigoted worldview. Freedom, we’re told, is supposed to mean happiness and acceptance of all. Anything that interferes with someone’s bliss is viewed as anti-freedom.
The truth is that not all liberty is preferred. And not all happiness is good (ask a pedophile if you aren’t convinced). In order for freedom to be virtuous, it must be tempered by moral demands. Getting blotto on bottom-shelf liquor and hiring a posse of call girls Charlie Sheen-style is an exercise of personal freedom, but it’s immoral and unhealthy.
Liberty without limits eventually goes off-road into the ditch of depravity. A daughter marrying her father; disturbed people voluntarily blinding themselves; letting boys call themselves girls – these are examples of self-destructive freedom. Risking your life to save your child; dedicating yourself to your ailing son; selling your property and living among the poor – these are examples of freedom that are oriented toward the ultimate Good.
As a country, which kind of freedom should we really be known for? The sinner or the saint?
Liberals have already made their decision. Conservatives should take more care in making theirs.