[NOTE: This article was originally published circa 2004. It discusses freedom in the context of government, which is not really possible, but it does describe the true nature of freedom.]
I have for a long time been convinced, though most people claim to embrace and desire freedom, they do not really know what freedom is, and mean something different by it than I mean, or America's founding father's, meant by it.
Freedom means exactly the same thing as liberty. Liberty pertains to the relationship between a government and it's citizens. Though it has never been fully established anywhere, even at the beginning of the United States, the once most free nation on earth, liberty means free to live one's life as one chooses without any restriction or interference by the government, or any other agency. The only legitimate purpose of government, it is supposed, is to protect individual liberty.
This understanding of liberty, or freedom, does not allow for such ideas as "degrees of liberty" or "limited freedom" which are contradictions. All limits on, or intrusions into, the lives of individuals by government are oppression, not freedom—liberty excludes all restrictions or requirements placed on individuals by governments.
An Illustration of True Freedom
The only possible restrictions to human freedom are the actions of other human beings, or human agencies—the most common one being a government. If you were the only resident of an island, or other totally isolated area, you would have complete freedom. You could live your life however you chose. You could not, however, do just anything you liked. There would be things you could not do and others you would have to do if you wished to survive. Those things you must or must not do, are not restrictions on your freedom—they are facts of reality and human nature. Far from being restrictions, they determine the principles by which one can and must live as a human being if he is to live successfully. Almost all human misery is the result of ignorance or evasion of those principles.
The principles, in essence, are very simple. To live, you must produce, and to produce you must understand as much as possible about the nature of the world you live in, which includes your own nature. If you do not wish to starve, you will have to find food, or grow it, or hunt it, as well as learning how to prepare it. About yourself, you'll have to know what constitutes food, and what constitutes poison. Being free does not mean doing whatever you like, it means being free to do whatever you have discovered is right for you to successfully live your life in this world.
A truly isolated human being would either learn what the requirements of life are and live in conformance with those requirements, or die. He would be totally free to do whatever he chose to do, and could have and enjoy anything he could acquire and produce by his own productive effort, but no more.
The Advantages, and Disadvantages, of Society
The isolated individual would be completely free, but his potential would be severely limited. There are advantages to living in association with other human beings.
"The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade. Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifetime; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others. The second great benefit is the division of labor: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.
"But these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: Only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society." [Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Objectivist Ethics."]
No society today is comprised primarily of rational, productive, independent men, and there are fewer of such men every day. Almost all government policies and programs favor those who are irrational, unproductive, and dependent, and penalize the productive and independent. No one deserves or desires the advantages of society more than the independent individualist, but no advantage of society is worth the price of oppresion, and no society that limits individual freedom is an advantage.
The Test of Freedom
At what point does one decide the advantages a society provides are no longer worth the loss of freedom imposed by that society? In other words, how oppressive must a society and it's government become before one can no longer tolerate being part of that society or living under the rule of that government?
I've made a list of things to consider in answering that question. These may be thought of as minimal.
You are free only if you are free to:
—Keep what you have produced?
—Say, write, or record anything you choose?
—Defend yourself, and make provision for that defence by any means you choose?
—Go wherever you choose?
—Produce and sell any product you choose?
—Perform and sell any service you choose?
—Purchase and use any product or service you choose?
—Associate or not with any other individual or individuals you choose and carry on any kind of mutually agreed joint action with them you mutually choose?
—Never compelled to do anything you do not choose to do?
What Freedom Means
In practical real-life terms, what do these minimum requirements of freedom mean?
First, please notice, freedom is only freedom to do, never freedom to have. With regard to what one has produced, one may keep only what he has produced; there is nothing to keep when nothing is produced.
What you have produced is called property and includes whatever you have acquired by trading what you have produced. It is as much an extension of your life as your skin, nails and hair. These are produced by the biological aspects of your nature; your property is produced by your mental and physical effort, the product of your human rational/volitional/physical nature. It does not matter how much property you produce, your claim on it is based on the fact you produced it. There is no other moral claim by any individual or agency on what you have produced. Because it is your property, you are free to dispose of it in any way you choose—to consume it, invest it, destroy it, or even give it away.
To say, write, or record anything you choose, does not mean that anyone is required to listen to what you say, read what you write, or to agree with either. It also does not mean that anyone is obliged to provide you a platform (or radio or television station) for your speech or to publish what you write. It does mean, no matter how offensive it is, or how much it is disliked, you are free to say or write it. All oppression begins with oppression of freedom of speech, speech that someone does not like or deems offensive. The test of one's devotion to liberty is the degree of consitency in allowing what one personally detests.
But it might be true, as L. Neil Smith contends, that the best test of freedom is guns. The oppression that begins with restricting freedom of speech ultimately leads to the elimination of one's freedom to defend one's self, and that always begins with restrictions on gun ownership, and ultimately the total prohibition of guns. The US is the last major Western country where gun prohibition does not exist—so far it is only restrictions.
Freedom of movement is terribly misunderstood, and everything possible is being done by all world governments to control it. This does not mean that people will be prevented from traveling and moving, but that no one will be allowed to go anywhere without government permission and its knowing where you are at all times. That is not freedom of movement. Terrorism and, "immigration problems," are the hobgoblins governments are using to foist travel restriction on their citizens, but there are no immigration problems. The problems are welfare statism and multiculturalism, both government problems, not problems of individuals being free to go wherever they choose.
There is no freedom if you are not free to produce what you are able to produce, perform services you are able to perform, and to sell and purchase any product or service without requiring government permission or approval or having to meet some government restrictions to do them. Whatever the excuse, from preventing depressions to protecting consumers, all government meddling in the free market only causes harm, and the worst harm of all is to the rational, productive, individuals.
Most people assume that freedom of association is one freedom that is hardly oppressed at all, but in fact is one of the most oppressed. Freedom of association means all forms of association, from social to business. It means one is free to associate or not to associate with anyone they choose, and for any reason; it means you may hire or fire anyone you choose, do business or not do business with anyone you choose. It means you do not have to belong to any kind of organization or association to do anything you choose, but that you can belong to any kind of organization you like, so long as that organization (as determined by the individuals that comprise it) choose to have you as a member.
Perhaps one illustration will make this clear. One of the most oppressive and harmful of government's interferences in the lives of its citizens is government education. There is everything wrong with it, and one thing wrong with it is the fact it forces parents and children to associate with people they would never choose to associate with if they were free to choose.
Government education is also an example of that whole class of laws that are always oppressive. Though the independent individualist finds the implication of such laws as those prohibiting murder and theft mildly insulting, as though they needed a government to tell them what is right and wrong, such laws are not oppressive, since they only prohibit what the independent individualist would never choose to do anyway. Except as a means of providing a number of non-productive individuals with lucrative occupations, [all those involved in the enforcement and prosecution of laws] all such prohibitionary laws are pointless; a law against stealing means nothing to those who have no desire or intention of stealing, but do nothing to prevent those who choose to steal from doing it, else there would be no one in jail for stealing.
Some laws, therefore, that prohibit some kinds of choices are not necessarily oppressive, but all laws that require individuals to do something are always oppressive. Every law that requires reporting anything to the government (like one's income), every law that requires the obtaining of government paper (like a social security card or drivers license), every law that requires one's time or effort (like jury duty or conscription), every law that requires one to submit their property to government inspection, or one's children to government appointed agents (teachers), or that make any other demands on one's person, time, or property is oppressive.
It seems incredible that all of these were taken for granted at the beginning of this country and that most citizens living today cannot even imagine such freedom. Is it possible to have such freedom in this world today? It is, but only if one understands what the price of freedom is and is willing to pay it, and only if they know what freedom for them personally must be.
[Note 1: People who have no idea what individualism is or what I am about, which is most people, ask me why I seldom mention that freedom excludes the initiation of force against others or their property? My answer is because I am not writing to them, I'm writing to and for independent individualists.
Individualists not only have no interest in initiating force against anyone, they have no interest at all in the affairs of others or how they live their lives, so long as they do not interfere in the individualists' lives. Individualists are no threat to anyone except those who make the mistake of threatening them. I do not need to remind them of a principle which is already fundamental to the kind of people they are.]
[Note 2: Another question people ask me is, since most people in society are not independent individualists, what do I have to say to them and how should they live? Quite frankly, I do not know. I do not know how to tell people who are not independent individualists the best way for them to live their lives. As far as I'm concerned, there is no good way, although some ways are probably less bad. It is a bit like asking me how to live successfully as a gangster or a bum. If you think it is possible to live successfully as anything other than an independent individualist, perhaps you should write a book: How To Succeed As An Irrational, Hedonist, Non-productive, Collectivist, Parasite in Modern Society. I have no advice for such people, I only write to and for individualists.]