The “problem” with freedom is that other people may do things that trouble, annoy or even anger you. In a free society, you have no legitimate authority to stop them.
Strictly speaking, that’s not a problem. It’s a solution. Throughout human history, much suffering has derived from a lack of freedom. One faction obtained government power, wielded it to impose its values on others, and then either successfully or unsuccessfully made its imposition stick through violence or intimidation. Another faction, aggrieved, eventually obtained power of its own, and the cycle of strife recurred.
Freedom is necessary for living together peaceably in a world of conflicting values.
If you are free to worship Baal and I am free to worship God, one of us is likely to be in dire moral peril. But at least I am not also fearful of being tyrannized or killed for acting on my beliefs, and you can say the same. Moreover, in a free society I have more than just the right to worship as I please, I also have the right to attempt to evangelize you, just as you have the right to try to sell me the full Baal-believers benefits package.
Of course, in a free society, there’s nothing that says one has to listen. Therein lies the “problem.” In my experience, liberty lovers fail to appreciate how difficult it is for most human beings to be confronted with the fact that others are doing something self-destructive or wrong but can’t be enjoined from continuing. It can be excruciating. Yielding to the temptation to use government coercion to make this pain go away is wrong, but surely one can understand why it happens.
It has become fashionable to attribute this behavior primarily to religious conservatives, typically portrayed as puritanical busybodies or hypocrites. But I find at least as much willingness among groups on the political left to use governmental coercion to impose their beliefs.
On public university campuses, they restrict free speech and require participation in tendentious diversity training. In legislative bodies and regulatory agencies, they seek restrictions on advertising, either because they don’t like the products being sold or don’t think consumers are smart enough to understand the claims made. They claim the right to impose restrictions on wages, prices, working hours and other conditions of employment regardless of what the parties to an employment contract may seek or think is fair. They think it’s OK to force taxpayers with strongly held moral or religious views to fund obscene art or social-justice activism but think it’s outrageous that taxpayer money goes to educational institutions and social-service nonprofits that teach or adhere to traditional views.
Freedom isn’t easy. It requires us to be grown-ups, to settle for living in a society in which some people, no matter how hard we try, just aren’t going to do what we say or believe what we believe. It requires hippies to respect the rights of fundamentalists, and those who have less to respect the rights of those who have more, and gays to respect the rights of straights, and pacifists to respect the rights of hunters. Yes, it also means the reverse in each case. It works both ways.
Yielding to the temptation to coerce inevitably creates a more serious problem than learning to live with daily annoyances and outrages – just as yielding to a strong temptation to drink or overeat can make one feel good in the short run but cause severe harm in the long run. I guess it’s time for a new 12-step program.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.
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