Freedom To – And Freedom *From*

The concept of freedom is crucial to human flourishing, and is integral to the success of modern capitalist democracies.

Statue of liberty

People often discuss freedom strictly in terms of what they are free “to” do. Free to ride a bike without a helmet. Free to criticize the government without fear of retribution. Free to love whomever you want. Free to shoot a gun. These are all important freedoms, but they are not the only type of freedom—or even always the most important type of freedoms.

Freedom “from” is arguably just as integral to human flourishing as freedom “to.” Freedom from hunger and disease means you have the physical capacity to live as you wish. Freedom from poverty means you have the means to live with dignity. Freedom from ignorance means you are able to fully contribute to, and partake in, our society. Freedom from government or corporate coercion means you can live autonomously. Freedom from being ripped off in a transaction means you can trust who you’re dealing with, and that you will have recourse if not. Freedom from codified bigotry means you can rise to your highest level of capacity without state-sanctioned laws that deliberately and arbitrarily inhibit you based purely on factors for which you bear no responsibility.

It is only once society has secured freedoms “from” for all of its citizens that most of the freedoms “to” have relevance to us. The freedom to donate to a political party doesn’t mean much to someone who is unable to consistently put food on the table for their family. The freedom to go to an elite private college is irrelevant if your K-12 schooling doesn’t even explain how that could be an option for you.

Run down house, poverty

The freedom “to” do something is great if you already have a high baseline level of autonomy and freedom. But for the many members of society who do not enjoy a high degree of basic dignity or autonomy, such freedoms are often academic, if they don’t actively impede their freedoms.

For example, by reducing environmental regulations to allow businesses to pollute more easily (giving greater freedom to business owners), we reduce the freedom of citizens in an area to create tourism businesses, breathe clean air, or swim and fish in a river or lake (reducing the freedoms of all other affected stakeholders).

By reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy members of society, we reduce the ability of smart, hard-working poor and middle class kids to get the kind of education and healthcare that would enable them to fully develop their talents and become successful leaders of society. (That’s not to mention the costs we’re transferring to them in the form of higher interest rates on national debt repayment.)

Think about the massive opportunity cost of all the human capital we’re just leaving on the shelf that could otherwise start the next Google, or invent the next Internet, or create the next life-saving drug, that makes all of society richer, healthier, and happier. It highlights the difference between a cost (tax cuts) and an investment (in human capital) that creates ongoing returns.

So freedom is crucial to a flourishing society, but it is important to always ask: whose freedom are we addressing—the many, or the few?

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