Now that I’ve reclaimed the word Liberal from the barbarian hordes in American television and politics, I thought I should expand the topic so that we are all equally confused again.
Liberal, we agreed, comes from the Latin liber, meaning free. It is a philosophy of freedom. Nuff said.
Actually, no. There are so many ways of thinking about freedom that it quickly makes your head spin.
Political, national and personal
In this course, Rufus Fears, a professor I quite like, distinguishes between political, national and personal freedom. You can have personal freedom without political and national freedom (colonial America, Hong Kong within China) and national freedom without political and personal freedom (post-colonial Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, in my opinion).
Negative and positive
Another way of thinking about it is negative versus positive freedoms. Negative freedom is about being left alone by somebody powerful, probably the government: no confiscations, intrusions, invasions of privacy, etc. Positive freedom is the opposite: an intervention by somebody, probably the government, to improve your life. Among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”, the third one is a positive freedom:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
Existential and spiritual
Then there are the likes of Gautama Siddhartha, aka the Buddha, and Soren Kierkegaard, pictured above. They took thinking about freedom to a whole new level. The Buddha (and his contemporary, Patanjali) showed us that oppression comes from our own mind–its fears, craving, anger, and desire in general–so that freedom is about making the mind still. It is internal to every individual.
Kierkegaard and the Existentialists who followed him would agree with that but draw a different conclusion. Because we are free, we are free to screw everything up and we know it. This makes us anxious. So freedom leads to Angst (whereas the Buddha’s freedom comes after Angst has finally become quiet).
The problem of choice
Then there is the entirely new and modern problem of too much choice. Thanks to Richard, I found a TED video by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, in which he dispels the myth that more choice equals, or leads to, freedom. Instead, it increasingly paralyzes and enslaves us.
When you are stumped
- in your supermarket aisle by the 175 salad dressings before you;
- in your electronics store by the 6.5 million permutations of stereo systems on offer;
- or with your 401(k) paperwork by the 2,000 mutual funds available,
then you are not really free. You just give up. You will regret whatever you do choose, because the other options might have been better. And you will blame yourself because now it’s your fault that life is not perfect. I think of this as Kierkegaard 2.o.