The problem with freedom is that other people may do things that trouble, annoy, or even anger you. In a free society, you have no authority to stop them.
Strictly speaking, that’s not a problem. It’s a solution. Throughout most of human history, much suffering has derived from a lack of freedom. One faction obtained government power, wielded it to impose its moral, social, or political values on others, and then either successfully or unsuccessfully made its imposition stick with violence or intimidation. Another faction, aggrieved, eventually obtained power of its own and then retaliated.
Abuses of power begat more abuses. Winner-take-all thinking produced many losers in a ceaseless circle of strife.
Freedom is a solution in a world of conflicting values – which is, in fact, the only world we’ve got. If you are free to worship Baal and I am free to worship God, one of us is likely to be in dire moral peril. But at least I am not also fearful of being tyrannized or killed for acting on my beliefs, and you can say the same.
Moreover, in a free society I have more than just the right to worship as I please. I also have the right to attempt to evangelize you, just as you have the right to try to sell me the full Baal-Believers benefits package, complete with free ginsu knives for ritual sacrifice (did you know they can cut through these tin cans as easily as through a ripe tomato?)
Of course, in a free society, there’s nothing that says one has to listen. Therein lies the problem. In my experience, liberty lovers fail to appreciate how difficult it is for most human beings to handle not being listened to, and to be confronted with the fact that others are doing something self-destructive or wrong but can’t be enjoined from continuing. Such psychic pain is also an inalienable facet of human nature. It can be excruciating.
Yielding to the temptation to use government coercion to make this pain go away is wrong – no less than yielding to other kinds of injurious temptations – but surely one can understand why it happens.
It has become fashionable in today’s society to attribute this behavior primarily to religious conservatives, who are typically portrayed as puritanical busybodies or hypocrites. But I find at least as much willingness among groups on the political left to use governmental coercion to impose their beliefs at the point of a gun.
They try to police speech and engage in viewpoint discrimination on public-university campuses. They seek restrictions on advertising, either because they don’t like the products being sold or because they don’t think consumers are smart enough to understand the claims being made. They claim the right to impose restrictions on wages, prices, working hours, and other conditions of employment regardless of what the parties to an employment contract may seek or think is fair. And they claim the right to force devoutly Christian bakers and florists to help them celebrate weddings or communicate messages that violate the Christians’ deepest religious convictions.
Freedom isn’t easy. It requires us to be grown-ups, to settle for living in a society in which some people, no matter how hard we try, just aren’t going to do what we say or believe what we believe. It requires hippies to respect the rights of Southern Baptists, and those with less to respect the rights of those with more, and gays to respect the rights of straights, and pacifists to respect the rights of hunters. Yes, it also means the reverse in each case. It works both ways.
Yielding to the temptation to coerce inevitably creates a more serious problem than the problem of learning to live with daily annoyances and outrages – just as yielding to a strong temptation to drink or overeat can make one feel good in the short run but cause severe harm in the long run. Guess it’s time for a new 12-step program.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.