The Surprising Roots of Liberty
Connecting the Dots
I came across this Calvin and Hobbes strip not too long ago:
I don’t know if Bill Watterson intended any type of social commentary by this, but I found it quite relevant to our current individualistic way of thinking. There is this universal desire to lead wonderful, happy, successful lives with all the freedom we can get our hands on. Because of this, we tend to despise rules, social structures, and institutions with the understanding that they are restrictive of our individuality:
Much like Calvin, we are attempting a connect the dots picture without following the directions. Doing things our own way is highly preferable to a satisfactory image that requires submission to constraining processes.
So if a free society is a connect the dots picture, the entities providing the instructions and guidance to make as clear a picture as possible are our institutions—and right now we need strong institutions more than ever.
Those on the political right tend to shake their fists at these types of assertions because institutions to them mean big government and high taxes. Institutions are bad, they claim, because they are an attack on our freedom.
On the flip side, the political left is upset by statements like this because they think this will doom women to a life of subservience and that we’re gonna start passing out chastity belts to all our teens. Institutions are bad, they claim, because they are an attack on our freedom.
Both sides of the political aisle tend to miss the point of institutions because of a subtle, albeit common, misunderstanding of what freedom actually is. Whether it is liberty from government interference or personal autonomy sans social judgement, freedom is seen as an ultimate end in itself, when it needs to be seen as a means to achieve social welfare.
Freedom is only valuable insofar as a given society not only possesses a shared understanding of morality, but on whether or not it can sustain these collective moral sentiments as time goes on. A culture in which individuals each pursue their own wanton desires according to their own feelings with no fear of moral consequence demands authoritarian intervention. As Ben Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Liberty, the championed cornerstone of the American Idea, is a crucial and beautiful thing. But it is something that hangs in the balance. It is under constant threat, not chiefly from power hungry politicians or religious fanatics, but by our lack of understanding of what makes freedom possible in the first place.
In one of my favorite quotes, Thomas Sowell says, “...each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late” (162). If, God forbid, the death of freedom should arrive, its death will be a result of our refusal to civilize these little barbarians. Our downfall will begin with our fear of infringing upon their personal autonomy, and our playing into the individualistic American gospel that says we must be free to choose our own path, find our own morality, and speak our own truth.
Let’s flesh this idea out a little bit more. Freedom has been able to exist because of a generally shared understanding of right and wrong. For example, the vast majority of people in this country, regardless of worldview, would agree that it is right to love your neighbor. As a society, we value things like altruism and self-sacrifice.
Now on a practical level, we sort of despise these things. Come on, admit it. We all know you’d much rather watch Netflix or lounge by the pool than help your buddy move into his new place this weekend. But odds are, you’ll find yourself emptying your sweat glands under an unnecessarily large couch in an unnecessarily narrow stairwell instead of indulging in some much needed “you” time.
But why is this? Call me a cynic, but I’m going to say it isn’t because you’re a furniture-moving enthusiast. Rather, you have had instilled in you since childhood that serving others is the right thing to do, whether you want to or not. And if you are like most people, you probably strive to do the right thing—even if it means waking up with a sore back the next morning.
Recently I was on Twitter, which everyone knows is essentially the modern day Mars Hill complete with thoughtful, well-reasoned discussions. An individual I had never heard of angered a good number of people by saying, “...People who aren’t having children now because they prefer brunch, dog parks, Insta vacations with their friends & all the other pathetic effluvium of late teenaged American life wouldn’t change their minds if we had paid family leave.”
This was a pretty aggressive accusation. I’m not sure I can back up what he says about paid family leave, but what I would like to draw your attention to are the types of responses he received. One person wrote, “I think it’s [expletive] up to say that getting married and starting a family is somehow more important or superior to someone’s happiness in their single/childless life. Not everyone wants [children].”
Said another, “People would rather go on holidays and spend their money on themselves and have a bomb [expletive] life instead of dedicating the rest of their life to wiping someone else’s [expletive], always stressing about money. I cannot believe people are this dumb, kids suck.”
These comments are the perfect embodiment of modern American individualist ideology. Regardless of whether or not people should have children, what is incredibly dangerous is the reasoning people use to decide against them. What these statements illustrate is the American gospel in a nutshell: Life is all about me, what I can get from it, and how it can make me happy.
This may seem harmless at first. When applied to personal choices that don’t seem to affect anyone else, who cares? But when this mindset is so deeply embedded in us that it essentially becomes part of our DNA, why should this thought process not be applied to our understanding of morality? If, as these people believe—consciously or not—that life is all about the individual, about finding pleasure and happiness however each person wants, why should we not simply choose our own value systems as well? Hey, maybe tomorrow I will think loving my neighbor is wrong. What are you to say to that? On what grounds do you believe you can impose your own, specifically chosen moral beliefs on another person who found their own truth?
This is where freedom breaks down. With no system, no standard, no universal moral code, no objective value structure, we slip into lawlessness. The only response to this? More force than before.
So here’s a nice bitter pill that everyone (myself included), whether or not we want to, has a very hard time swallowing: Life is not about you.
A New Statue
Life is not about you.
Sorry, I just think this is a dead horse that must be beaten over and over. Just think of all the ways this individualistic culture has overtaken us. Is there anything that we do not approach with consumerist motivations?
For example, let’s examine a certain piece of social living that seems to rely heavily on altruism: dating. In evaluating prospective partners, our approach has become a completely inward-focused process. We ask how the other person makes us feel. We think of the ways the other person completes us. We ask whether a relationship with a person fits in with our lives and our specific goals. The dating game is a search for the fulfillment for our needs. It has become consumerized to the point where our nation’s singles are literally shopping for their partners on smart phones by swiping left or right on their prospects’ photos.
Consumerism permeates the way we approach our church as well. We assess the congregation: Were there people my age? Are there plenty of programs for me to be involved in? Did I like the music genre the band played? Are the sermons relevant to my life?
It is very much in vogue to criticize individualism and consumerism, but in practice we are far too attached to our own freedom of personal choice to ever give them up. Trying to limit their effect on society would require moral accountability—and any attempt to influence another’s sovereign decision making is seen as taboo. But freedom necessarily requires certain obligations. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist who authored Man’s Search For Meaning said:
Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast (185).
If our free society is to be salvaged, it is necessary for us to understand that it must be accompanied with responsibility, the framework of which held together by strong institutions. Starting most importantly with families, then extending to our churches, and finally to our schools, we must support freedom by collectively committing to a shared moral standard.
Responsibility to What?
So all this talk about rules, morals, and responsibility has led us to this: what standard should we live by? The answer is incredibly simple to answer, but impossible to perfectly put into practice: God’s holiness is the standard. We know that we are called to “Be holy, as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Of course, in our fallen state this is an unachievable goal. But Christ in His mercy lived the holy life we could not live and took the punishment for sin in our place.
In calling us to be redeemed in Him, and in saving us by His grace through our faith, it is our obligation to live in obedience to Him. We must love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as ourselves; we must also go unto all nations and spread the knowledge of this gospel. This is the ultimate objective standard we are meant to live up to.
Finally, to sustain this calling, we are in dire need of strong institutions. It begins with the family: humbly led by a husband and wife who serve and sacrifice for each other, followed by their children in obedience to their authority. It continues with the church: a body of believers committed to exalting God together, using their diverse gifts to serve one another, and spurring each other on in pursuit of Christ and His glory.
Institutions are the bedrock of a free society. We are easily made wary of them because of the way power has been so grossly abused in the past. Scripture is quite clear that anyone in a position of leadership, be it over a church or family, is called to lead humbly and graciously, willing to serve. It is leading by example that so clearly demonstrates the moral standard we are meant to live by. It is the adherence to these principles that makes the liberty we enjoy possible.
Works cited from:
Watterson, Bill. Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. 1992. Print.
Sowell, Thomas. A Conflict of Visions. New York: W. Morrow, 1987. Print. (iBooks version)
Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Print. (iBooks version)