So What If Freedom Isn’t Free?


“Freedom isn’t free.”

We’ve all heard this glib line. It usually is uttered as an admonition to those who criticize some government imposition that is defended in the name of national security. The last time I heard it I had just condemned military conscription — the draft — as slavery. It’s also brought out to rebut those who refuse to support any given war, the globe-girdling military American establishment, or the pervasive and distorting military-industrial complex.

What are we to make of it? Let’s start by pointing out that freedom, in the sense of the inborn capacity to act as persons rather than as robots, is free. It is part of our nature as rational beings. We act purposively — which is to say we select ends, creatively and entrepreneurially, and then we search for appropriate means to achieve those ends. That’s a matter of freedom. We aren’t programmed by nature or our environment to do what we do. We have free will. Undoubtedly, at this point someone will invoke neurobiology or quantum physics in an attempt to debunk this sort of freedom, but as Gilbert Ryle wrote in his brief against the Cartesian “ghost in the machine,” “Physicists may one day have found the answers to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions.”

At any rate, free will, conceived as the basic “equipment” of personhood, is free. It may not be the freedom that “freedom isn’t free” refers to, but it surely is the basis for it. If no one is free in the first sense, how can anyone be free in the second? (Any violations of “freedom” would necessarily be nonvolitional; any responses would be too. Plans to deter or punish violations of “freedom” would be illusory.)

Free in the social, or political, sense is what you are when others abstain from interfering with your activities. This is what is meant by “negative” freedom or rights. Our obligations are negative rather than positive with respect to this freedom. As George H. Smith discusses in his new book, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, the difference between negative and positive freedom is a big part of the divide between the “old liberals,” such as Herbert Spencer, and the “new liberals,” such as T.H. Green. Green’s notion of freedom would require people to do more than simply not initiate force against others because he thought no one could be free who lacked certain material things. So, in order that all can be free, everyone would be required to submit to the state’s demands in the form of taxation and regulation of consensual transactions. Libertarians (old liberals) have spent a good deal of time showing that new liberalism is founded on a contradiction, namely, that the freedom of one requires aggressive force against others.

Protecting one’s (negative) social freedom may require the use of scarce resources, and in that sense freedom indeed is not free. If I’m concerned my house may be broken into, and I buy a security system, then I have paid to protect my life and property, which are obviously relevant to my freedom of action. That protection is not free. Same if I buy a firearm for self-defense. Hence, freedom is not free.

But I submit that this is not what those who invoke “freedom isn’t free” have in mind. According to Wikipedia,

“Freedom Is Not Free” was first coined by retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, Walter Hitchcock, of New Mexico Military Institute. The idiom expresses gratitude for the service of members of the military, implicitly stating that the freedoms enjoyed by many citizens in many democracies are only possible through the voluntary risks taken and sacrifices made by those in military. The saying is often used to convey respect specifically to those who gave their lives in defense of freedom.

Regardless of what Col. Hitchcock had in mind, I find that the phrase is more commonly used as a demand that we unquestioningly accept any state-imposed burdens placed under the national-security rubric. It’s an emotional appeal intended to take the place of cool consideration. It’s a blank check for the state.

Freedom may not be free, but lots of things aren’t free. Food isn’t free, but farmers aren’t drafted. They farm voluntarily. It is true that we are taxed to support certain (but not all) farmers, but not because we wouldn’t have food if farmers weren’t subsidized — even if the farm lobby and its congressional agents have convinced most people that is the case. The fact is, we could have ample supplies of food — not free but at low cost — in a completely voluntary marketplace. That goes for clothing and much more. If providing such essentials requires no compulsion, despite their cost, why does freedom?

In practice, invoking “freedom isn’t free” is merely a way to avoid having to discuss how the government uses the military and commandeers resources for foreign adventures. We’re supposed to believe that any commitment of troops to a battlefield constitutes protection of freedom and that’s all there is to it. It’s considered ungrateful, if not disloyal, to even wonder if a particular war really had anything to do with protecting freedom. At least since 9/11 it has been fashionable for television and radio hosts — no matter their political orientation — to thank active military personnel and veterans — no matter what war they may have fought in — for their “service to our country.” Even a known critic of the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam, will preface any question to John McCain or other Vietnam vets with a “thank you.” Thank you for what? The North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong had not threatened the freedom of any American in America. The only Americans they harmed or killed were ones who intervened in their civil war or bombed their country. (When McCain was flying missions over Hanoi, before he was shot down and taken into captivity, he wasn’t delivering pizzas. He was bombing civilian infrastructure.)

Similarly, opponents of the Iraq war feel obliged to thank vets of that war for their “service to our country.” How can fighting in an aggressive war constitute such service?

No war fought by the U.S. government was about protecting the lives and freedom of Americans, though protection was always a rationalization. The biggest threat to Americans has always been “their” own government. Countries don’t call men and women to war. Hack politicians with agendas do.

The next time someone says, “Freedom isn’t free,” you might simply respond, “What’s your point?”

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

Sheldon Richman keeps the blog “Free Association” and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

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