Chris Snowdon has an article in the Spectator about how Australian health activists are trying to redefine ‘freedom’ to mean ‘safety’.
The latest example of this comes from the Australian Health Promotion Association (AHPA). Its spokesman told the nanny state inquiry that ‘to be truly free’ we need to be able to walk down the street ‘free from the fear of being run down by a speeding or drunk driver’ and without being ‘exposed to cigarette smoke’.
He objects to this sort of redefinition, saying:
It is a sure sign that a person is against freedom when they start trying to redefine it.
But perhaps one of the problems with freedom is that for all the talk about it (of ‘freedom-fighters’ and ‘freedom-lovers’, etc.) ‘freedom’ is a curiously ill-defined idea. And it is perhaps precisely because it is so ill-defined that health activists feel emboldened to redefine it.
So what is ‘freedom’? When I asked Google, it responded:
Freedom (is) the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.
And this seems to be a perfectly good place to start.
But given this definition of freedom, I might ask: Do I not always have the power to act, speak, and think as I want? Is that not a power that is invested in all humans? As I type these words, I am acting (by pressing the keys on the keyboard), and I am also speaking (making words), and I am thinking (about what words to type). Isn’t the power to think, speak, and act as I want synonymous with ‘being alive’? Has there ever been a single day in my life when I was unable to think or speak or act as I wanted?
I suppose that on those few occasions when I came down with a fever, and lay in bed with a high temperature, my thoughts became a little disordered, and I only spoke monosyllabically, and I was barely able to reach the glass of water beside my bed. But I still retained the power to think, speak, and act, even if it was in a highly restricted manner.
I have yet to be sent to prison, but I imagine that once thrown into a dark dungeon, I would still be able to think as freely as I ordinarily do, and I would still be able to speak (perhaps in whispers) to any other inmates of my cell, and I would still be able to pace about inside its confines, and perhaps scratch my name on its walls, or mark off the passing days. I would simply be highly restricted in what I could do.
When I was a schoolboy (which was a bit like being sent to prison), I was required to pay attention to teachers during classes, to keep quiet, and to write notes on what I was being taught. But it was perfectly possible to drift off into a daydream, or stare out of the classroom window, or draw pictures. So I was not actually constrained to pay attention or write notes. It was instead requested of me that I should pay attention and write notes, on pain of some kind of punishment if I did not (and some sort of reward if I paid particularly diligent attention). And anyway, out on the playground between classes, I was not constrained or required or requested to think or speak or act in any particular way. I could do more or less exactly as I liked, as long as I stayed within the bounds of the playground.
I have also been an employee of a number of different companies. This was a bit like being a schoolboy, in that it was requested of me that I devote my attention to a particular task for several hours, but with the difference that I was rewarded with a pay cheque every month (something schoolboys never get). But once again, at the end of the working day, I could do more or less whatever I wanted. And it was always open to me to terminate my employment whenever I wanted (something schoolboys are not permitted to do).
I’ve never been very rich, in the sense of having a lot of money or owning lots of things, but even the richest of rich people are constrained to some extent. They can’t extend their property into other people’s property. Even they can’t do exactly as they like.
So what might be said is that although I am always free to think, say, and do as I want, in practice this freedom is often highly constrained. A patient lying in his sickbed is free to do as he pleases, but is practically unable to do very much at all. The prisoner in his cell is able to think, speak, and act freely, but he is constrained by the walls of his cell to a tiny subset of all the things he might wish to do. The schoolboy in his classroom might be constrained to listen to a teacher for an hour or so, but he will be let out at regular intervals between classes into a playground. The employee at his workplace may be required to perform some task for some number of hours, but he will have lunch breaks and tea breaks and will go home in the evenings, and have a weekend to himself, and perhaps even paid holidays in summer. And even the billionaire owners of the company in which they, who spend their days playing golf or holidaying in the Bahamas, are constrained in small ways.
So instead of thinking of people as being either free or unfree, we might instead think in terms of degrees of freedom. And one might set individual people somewhere on a scale of degrees of freedom, so that the invalid constrained to his sick bed has a very small degree of freedom (he can just reach the glass of water beside his bed), while the billionaire on his golf course on the Bahamas has a very high degree of freedom: he can do almost anything he likes. So if a degree of freedom is seen as a circle whose area corresponds to the sum of all the things someone can possibly do, we might see a scale of increasing degrees of freedom. Or, to put another way, the circle represents the size of the cell someone lives in:
Yet even billionaires may not always enjoy the highest degree of freedom. For if a billionaire falls sick, or is sent to prison, he will have the same small degree of freedom as any invalid or prisoner, no matter how much money he has in his bank.
And equally when an invalid is cured of his malady, or a prisoner is released from prison, he does not become as free as a billionaire overnight. In reality, he merely steps up to the next level on the scale of increasing degrees of freedom. The sick child who recovers from his illness becomes a schoolboy, and on leaving school the schoolboy becomes an employee, and as an employee he can be expected to be promoted to become a supervisor or manager, and may even rise to become a company director, and a millionaire – and even a billionaire.
It can now be very quickly seen that good health is not the same thing as freedom. Health ≠ Freedom. A prisoner in his cell may be in perfect health, but he is still not ‘free’. Health is only one component of freedom. It may be the prime requirement of freedom, but it is by no means the only one.
Equally, we can dismiss the notion that freedom is identical to safety. For all safety measures are put in place in order to preserve health, and health ≠ freedom.
And what about ‘freedom from fear’? The awful ‘fear of being run down by a drunk driver or exposed to cigarette smoke’? And here we might say that fear is itself a kind of crippling disease, and to be smitten with fear is not very different from being stricken with cancer. The cancer patient cannot get out of bed because he lacks the strength to do so, but a man paralysed by fear cannot get out of bed because he dare not. And perhaps we should treat outbreaks of fear and panic in the same way as we treat any disease.
In summary, freedom is not something we have or don’t have in some absolute, on-or-off sense, like being ‘free’ or ‘unfree’. Freedom is experienced in degrees. Some people have a higher degree of freedom than others, but nobody is completely and absolutely free. And only the dead are constrained to think nothing, say nothing, and do nothing.
I have barely even scratched the surface of the matter.