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Does Freedom Mean Getting What I Want?
July 22, 2003
by Jennifer Roback Morse

Dear Concerned Citizen,

Some Americans are promoting an incoherent and unsustainable notion of Freedom. This new freedom formula goes like this: convince ordinary Americans that they are entitled to an outcome, however difficult to achieve. Create the idea that their freedom depends upon attaining this near impossible goal. Then, these same ordinary citizens of America, ordinarily suspicious of expansive government, will demand an endless stream of government interventions to bring about this near impossible outcome that they are now convinced is their due.

Americans don't usually expect the government to provide them with "all good things"; or with "whatever I happen to want."; But Americans are very particular about the government protecting their freedom. So, if we believe both that we are entitled to something, and that our freedom somehow depends on this entitlement, well, that kind of talk gets every red-blooded American patriot up in arms.

So this new definition of freedom means getting what you want when you want it. Ironically it has become a lever for increasing the scope of governmental power over our lives. For example, Gloria Fledt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America cited this freedom shortly after the U.S. led coalition liberated Iraq.

"If we are fighting for freedom in Iraq, then most surely that freedom should extend to women globally and in the United States. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom of reproductive self-determination."

"Reproductive freedom"; is the most fundamental freedom? This will surely surprise those Iraqis recently freed from Saddam's prisons.

No government can guarantee "reproductive self-determination."; This would have to include a right to "pregnancy on demand"; that would correspond to "abortion on demand."; Even with the most sophisticated reproductive technology, no one can be assured of a pregnancy precisely on their own terms.

Americans don't usually think of freedom this way. We don't think freedom of movement means the right to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and not die. Freedom of assembly isn't an entitlement for an entire fraternity to actually fit inside a telephone booth. Freedom of speech can't mean the right to say anything we want, and still have friends. No court of law could grant such rights. But this new definition of freedom demands the "right" to have only the consequences of sex that we choose.

Here's another way to look at it. One can argue that eating is a good and necessary thing, and that everyone is entitled to eat. It does not follow that each and every person is entitled to eat anything they want and never get fat. No one has a constitutional right to eat just as they please, without ever getting heart disease, high blood pressure or other natural consequences of overeating. Nevertheless some are asserting that they should be able to eat fast food but that the restaurant is at fault if they over indulge in foods that contribute to their own obesity. You cannot coherently claim that every person has a constitutional right to eat without getting fat, and call it "gastronomical freedom."

Note that my argument here does not depend on any particular view of the proper role of the state, or the proper scope of its guarantees. Advocates of the welfare state might well argue that everyone has a right to food, at state expense if necessary. It does not logically follow from this that everyone has a right to eat nothing but butter and never get heart disease. Advocates of more minimal government might argue that people have every right to such food as they can obtain through fair market exchanges and gifts. But no libertarian would claim that people have a right to eat without consequences. No legislator in his right mind would attempt to pass a law guaranteeing such a thing.

Nor do Americans usually think of freedom as an entitlement to be successful at our chosen pursuits. Economic freedom doesn't mean the right to succeed in business, only the right to try. Political freedom isn't an entitlement to have our preferred candidates always win elections, only that they have a right to compete. Reproductive freedom doesn't mean we are entitled to get the outcomes we want.

Are we in danger of accepting the illogical beliefs of a handful of political extremists and malcontents? Currently few Americans would accept that freedom means getting what you want when you want it, if stated as a general proposition. Most Americans believe that freedom means something much more modest: the opportunity to make choices and accept the consequences of those choices. Let's hope it stays that way.

Jennifer Roback Morse joined the Hoover Institution as a research fellow in 1997. She authored Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence Press, 2001). She spent five years on the faculty at Yale University.

This article originally appeared July 16, 2003 on ToTheSource

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