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.


  • Alecto

    “…many of us are cynical about freedom when so many of our political leaders are corrupt and burdened by cronyism.” Cronyism is the reining economic and political principle governing the United States. Americans who love and appreciate their liberties aren’t cynical about corrupt politicians as they are about corrupt religious leaders. When a religious leader betrays the gospel foundations of our Declaration of Independence in exchange for a handout, it shakes one’s belief in God. When a political leader betrays his beliefs, it’s expected since those who enter politics tend to have weak character and a narcissistic streak. Character is a product of values inculcation, and those flow from faith. American values are a direct product of Christian faith. When those charged with instilling faith abandon it, who steps in to the void?

    Declaring independence from a tyrant is a long way from establishing a society built on individual liberty. The miracle of the United States was the process that took us from colony to federal republic. The ratification of the Constitution was the final step in establishing “freedom”. Yet, September 17th, Constitution Day, is not a recognized federal holiday? We celebrate “Labor Day”, a socialist holiday!

    I do not mean to diminish either the suffering or the courage of Marina Nemat or Meriam Ibrahim, but I detest using foreigners to highlight what are uniquely American values. The American concept of individual liberty and rights is not a fungible commodity one can plug into other countries’ citizens. Americans are unique, and native born Americans do not share certain beliefs or qualities with the foreign-born, or with foreigners. Foreigners no longer assimilate into American culture nor are they required to “become” American. Perhaps your theme that “Americans” do not appreciate their “freedom” is a reflection of that phenomenon? I assure you those of us born and bred to be American suffer no delusions about the fundamental transformation occurring now and the consequences of such a transformation.

  • Roger McKinney

    Lately I have been re-reading “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress” edited by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington. Published in 2000 it foreshadowed McCloskey’s series on bourgeois values and confirms Schoeck’s “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.”

    Putting all three together, what has happened is that the decline in traditional Christianity has caused a decline in all of the bourgeois values that promote freedom. Only traditional Christianity causes people to value freedom. Freedom is not part of human nature. It’s an outgrowth of Christianity.

    Envy, which leads to fear, distrust of others, and insecurity is the essence of unredeemed human nature.

  • Paul Frantizek

    Our current conception of ‘freedom’ which combines extreme moral relativism and license with federally mandated guarantees of universal inclusion is in fact a flawed concept.

    We sorely need to return to a conception based on traditional natural law which reaffirms the right to free association and principle of subsidiarity (in the form of states’ rights).