Happy Fourth of July! Here are some thoughts about freedom.
My friend, Susan, attends a very liberal liberal-arts college. It offers no majors or class requirements. The intention is to remove all roadblocks from a student pursuing their interests. I thought it sounded great. In high school and college I hated having to take classes I didn’t want. Also, I thought about the whiz kids whose gifts were being held back by requirement detours and the other students I knew who wanted to be in shop class but were forced to read Dickens.
Susan contrasted her college experience to her older days at a parochial boarding high school. There she had curfew. But Susan is a bird of her own feather and would often stay up late studying. For this, she was punished.
I see the best in people when they are free to spread their wings, unfettered by policy holding them back for being “too young”, “too irresponsible”, or because “it’s too late to be up”. “Treat people like adults, and they’ll act like adults,” I liked to say. Broad-brushing policy groups people and removes a sense of identity and responsibility.
But there was a problem with my thinking. It wasn’t that I was wrong; I just always failed to see the other side.
Last summer, I took part in a nine-day stay at a tai chi school on a mountain in Hubei Province, China. There, myself and the ten or so other attendees awoke at 5:30 each morning and were on the road jogging by 6:00. We practiced together; we ate together. Days were structured, directing my time and actions, and the group provided support to strive higher and stay focused.
Restrictions and control may rub me the wrong way, yet my freedom at this school was restricted, indeed, and my life was enhanced from the experience. Counter-intuitively, the structure concentrated my activities, freeing up more time.
Sure, I could have done this activity on my own, relying on my own discipline to get up early and out the door. But I hadn’t. And following my training, I tried to keep the routine going. That first morning after, I rose out of bed and noticed immediately how much harder it was to do so when there wasn’t the expectation of a schedule given to you.
So my motto about always treating people like adults simply isn’t always true. (Or maybe it isn’t so juvenile to have rules.) Being over-concerned about the wrongs rules may lead to misses the boat for the majority, if not all adults who benefit, at least at times, from being given orders.
Susan spoke more about her liberal, liberal-arts college, saying that many seniors she knows have no idea what topic to write their graduate thesis on. This is unnerving as they’ve spent 4 or 5 years of their life, shelled out a ton of money ($43,000/yr tuition), and now can’t decide why they did so. (And this is after a competitive screening process accepts only those who would succeed in this kind of environment.)
I had to think that some of these students would have benefited from a few orders.
Cannot this same argument for directives and mandates be made in support of the Affordable Care Act?
Let’s continue the examination of freedom by realizing that it’s a malleable notion:
In China, I saw two teenage boys playing one of those claw crane games—you know, that fun arcade/vending machine that requires the user to direct a claw over their desired item, hit a button, and then hope that the claw grasps and retrieves it. Well, back in China, inside the machine weren’t cute fuzzy froggies and teddy bears.
Inside were packs of cigarettes.
In this strange example—and others—I saw that in the literal sense, China was freer than America in areas of smoking, drinking, seatbelt use, car seat use, and driving laws. Figuratively, China also offered a camaraderie of people out in the streets interacting and relaxing, kids walked home by themselves after school, and the police were more approachable. Things just felt more free. Meanwhile, though, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shapes their people’s lives by preventing many activities—speech, religion—that we in the West believe are fundamental human rights.
So while residing in more of a bubble, within the sphere people relied on personal choice. America, conversely, is more consistent from top to bottom and is more rigid when it comes to drinking laws, curfews, and no toys with McDonald’s Happy Meals.
Depending on who you ask and how you define freedom will determine which place is freer. And what we in America think is universal—what makes a country better—isn’t always so. The Chinese I got to know preferred their system, and from looking around while over there, I could see why. Looking across the Pacific, I could see why. Americans get on China’s case for not having democracy but freedom of choice for one’s leadership doesn’t look too promising when people repeatedly elect bad leaders.
Even within the U.S. different people prefer different versions. Some will forfeit pieces of economic freedom for the freedom felt from not having to worry about paying for education or healthcare. Others don’t mind forfeiting some personal freedoms for the freedom felt when their country is more secure. We all have to get along.
I’m one of 300,000,000. I share the country with a lot of people. If what I prefer isn’t what most others want, than I have to appreciate the weight that that gives to their preference. If most want the Affordable Care Act to pass, then there’s value to recognizing that this may mean this law is better for the country because so.
Also, one can’t know the repercussions of this ruling. So I try and ignore the cheerers and the moaners about the recent Supreme Court ruling. Anyone happy or upset probably isn’t so because they care about people getting healthcare; they’re overjoyed or angry because they’re either relieved or scared their ideology was supported or threatened. It’s either Heaven or Hell to them, and we all know we’re on Earth.
The truth is, there’s a lot to consider when reviewing this case. I saw the way orders benefitted me, but there’s also a difference between voluntarily committing oneself to a period of structure and having it forced upon you.
The strongest point I do believe in is what the law indicates.
Let’s say this law does benefit our country. What does that say about America that we have to force people into an activity they ought to make on their own anyway? This is nothing to cheer.
Also, I believe, in a death-by-papercuts kinds of way, that each freedom lost is another slit into our humanity—so small that you may not detect the cost. But paper cuts add up. More people get healthcare now—because it’s a law. Less people smoke now—because we tax the heck out it. More people wear seatbelts—because we fine them if they don’t. Get the picture?
By making an action a law, the state is replacing the right reason to do it. The law has the capability of shunting an activity of self-care into the realm of “because the state says so”.
And while I appreciate China’s own version of freedom—that it showed me how different can also be good—I also saw while living there a culture lacking the independence and initiative in technological and expressive endeavors that America has historically exhibited.
It’s this I’d hate to see papercut.