As U.S. Army pundits and first person shooters remind us, freedom isn’t free. But the cost of that freedom doesn’t always come down to a war, but more often some of your own freedom. That is a scary idea, and one that we are still most comfortable entertaining (and exaggerating) in the imaginary worlds of video games and Kevin Spacey monologues.
Balancing principles with progress can be hard, especially in democracies. Government by its very nature restricts freedom by asking individuals to pool their resources and adhere to common rules of civic life. At the same time, government in a sense is the only thing that can protect human freedoms from the violent and prejudicial intentions of other humans. In the same way that you have to spend money to make money, you have to give up some freedoms in order to get other freedoms. As comedian Louis CK once said “We really need the law against murder, because the law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder.”
The Tyranny of the Majority
In other words, people sacrifice their freedom to murder people because they don’t want someone to murder them. This same principle applies for every law. You sacrifice your freedom to use other people’s things at your leisure because you want to possess items that solely belong to you — private property. You don’t have a right to free speech without protecting the right of others to free speech. It goes on and on. Even though these examples are fairly basic and for the most part agreeable, things get much harder as the issues grow more complex. Questions like, if scaling back privacy laws and spying on citizens really can make people safer from terrorism, how much freedom to have a private life are we willing to give up? Conversely, if tapped phone calls and data mining don’t protect citizens, or is even harmful to them, how much are we willing to enforce the protection of privacy if it is threatened? Everyone says they support education, but how much money is each citizen really willing to pay to support it? The questions go on and on. Each time, it comes down to the question: What freedoms are people willing to give up in order to make other freedoms more possible? The issue is, we inevitably impose constraints upon ourselves in order to protect certain freedoms.
Nowadays we face global issues that are often disproportionately decided by wealthy elites uninterested in changing a status quo that benefits them, as well as apathetic voting populations who have come to believe that their own civic participation does not matter. They have been bombarded with media messages of scandal, corruption, institutional failure, and in many cases very warranted distrust of everything from their governments to their favorite sports teams. There is a huge danger in this. The politicians we elect receive ever-smaller mandates, and ever more criticism as they face ever more powerful corporate interests most concerned with disfiguring public policy into something that favors a handful of people. When this happens, our governments, the very institutions that protect our freedoms, are less effective at serving us. This in turn disappoints us further, and makes us even more apathetic.
The Tyranny of Progress
That apathy is killing progress just as much as any form of corruption is. Amid decades of investigative reporting, Internet espionage, economic crisis, and vamped up commercial targeting strategies, study after study has reported that people in the west are getting less optimistic due to being shocked over and over by human shortcomings in all big institutions, but particularly government. How can we fix this? The answer might just be to reevaluate which freedoms matter to us the most. Keep in mind, I don’t mean that we need a tyrant to get us back on track in some sort of dictatorial manner. I also don’t mean that we impose strict, tyrannical laws. What I am suggesting, however, is that we restore our own personal willingness to give up some freedoms to protect other freedoms. Successful world leaders who had big civic successes only did so because civilians were willing to trust them, and sacrifice some freedoms for them. Lincoln temporarily suspended Habeus Corpus. FDR had three terms. Lyndon Johnson had to use federal power to override state laws as a means of enforcing integration. These were good things, but there was risk involved in making them a reality. When we trust individuals with more power than others have, that’s fundamentally enabling a degree of tyrannical behavior, and in some places, working against a democratic mandate. Unfortunately, that is a risk leaders and citizens must sometimes accept if we want to get anything done.
Leaders who dramatically changed their countries, both for better and for worse, did so in the wake of horrific instability, war, poverty, and social unrest. These events are what pushed people to put their trust in those leaders and do what they asked of their populations. It was how Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War. It was how FDR used WWII and the great depression to expand social programs that employed and educated millions. It was how Johnson integrated schools in the American South. Outside the United States, it was how Russia mobilized their entire country in a very short time and stopped the eastward march of the Nazis during WWII. Granted, it was also how the Nazis came to power in the first place.
Disillusionment in our society, as well as western expectation that democracy is ideally some sort of squeaky clean perfect system, have given us a severe amount of disappointment with reality’s many corruptible imperfections. It feeds the notion that no one is to be trusted, and that everyone is trying to take away our freedom. How else, can we explain tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Pinochet, and countless other dictators? Democracy exists to limit the ability of evildoers to acquire too much power, right?
The Hidden Tyrant
This is half true. The other half, which is far less examined, is that whether we want to trust our leaders or not, they’re still, from an administrative perspective, our best shot at collectively improving the societies we live in. The people who cry Hitler never seem to acknowledge the 20th century examples of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Chang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and to an extent even Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, countries where leaders with tyrannical amounts of power (albeit no fascist mindset) aligned their populations with common goals which, instead of stamping out democratic freedoms, actually successfully enabled them.
When we do not participate in the civic world, either as critics, educators, voters, social advocates, or public servants, we make that civic world weaker. It also makes leaders weaker and less able to acquire mandates for real change, something that is as desperately needed in our time as it was at other unstable times in history. Our fear of losing our own freedoms has ironically capped our own concept of what it means to maintain a free society. While we continue to fear the tyrant in government or in business, we fail to recognize the tyrant in our own minds. Like a real tyrant, it uses feelings of fear and discouragement to prevent us from taking risks, and trying alternatives to the status quo. If we really want to improve the problems that we see in the world, we are going to need to have the willingness to take some risks. That first risk might be giving up some personal freedom in service of some bigger ideas. It also means investing more trust in leaders than we want to. Is that risky? Kind of. But maybe it’s also necessary.