Acton Institute Powerblog

American Freedom: Is It Overrated?

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We Americans will celebrate 238 years of freedom this Friday. In 1776, the 13 colonies unanimously declared:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Freedom was declared; the men and women of the colonies no longer wished to live under a monarchy, but rather sought a free republic, where they could decide their own fates.

Today, it seems as if many Americans respond to this ideal with, “Meh….”

At The Federalist, senior editor David Harsanyi examines a Gallup poll that says about 25 percent of Americans “would feel comfortable telling a complete stranger that our own ‘freedom,’ in the broadest sense, is an overrated concept.” Harsanyi argues that the recent economic downturn and misuse of the word “freedom” is partly to blame for our lackadaisical attitude:

Gallup claims that decline in freedom-loving could probably be attributed to the weak U.S. economy. It is plausible that this is part of the reason. The political class has used populist progressive myths about freedom’s role in inequity, unfairness, racism, and poverty so regularly and effectively that there is little doubt many people, especially young people, have started believing them.

Of course, many of us are cynical about freedom when so many of our political leaders are corrupt and burdened by cronyism. We want to believe our political leaders are charged with expanding our liberty and freedom, and yet we see just the opposite.

Harsanyi argues that another reason we feel ambiguous about freedom stems from the fresh memories of September 11. We love our freedom, but we value safety. We are willing to get frisked at the airport every time we travel. We grumble only slightly when our luggage gets searched or we need to show our ID numerous times when traveling. It’s okay, we tell ourselves, to give up a bit of freedom here and there.

Whenever threatened, whether it by some existential danger or a domestic economic jolt, we almost never choose what we’re told is more chaotic and precarious. We almost always choose what seems safest—and most times it’s not liberty. While George W. Bush’s central purpose was ostensibly tied to an effort that spread and defended freedom—and I stress ostensibly—the huge crowds that gathered and cheered for Obama made no pretense about their cause. They overtly reveled in the idea that we were about to erect a state-sponsored babysitting service. It’s also worth remembering that part of the dissatisfaction Americans have with the president’s job performance these days has to do with his inability to fulfill the promise of transforming government’s role in American life.

238 years ago this Friday, brave men and women chose the precarious notion of freedom and liberty. It cost many of them dearly. We need only read a current news report or two to see that freedom is not to be taken for granted, as people like Meriam Ibrahim and Marina Nemat will tell attest. It is sad that so many Americans give freedom a shrug of the shoulders, when we enjoy its fruits almost imperceptibly and constantly. Let us hope that this 4th of July might spark not simply a shower of fireworks, but a new respect for the concept of freedom and the very real freedom Americans daily enjoy.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.