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March 10, 2014

Freedom: What in the (modern) world does it mean?

Years ago I pointed out in my first column for this paper that the word “freedom” and its relatives “free” and “liberty” are forever being bandied about by politicians (in particular) without anyone’s attempting to define them — i.e., to “find the referent,” a term Stuart Chase uses in his classic book “The Tyranny of Words.”

This term means discovering what in the “real” world a word actually means — and it’s critical to do this if we want language to mean anything. For example, it is easy to find a referent for the word “hammer,” less easy for the word “water,” even harder for more abstract words like (say) “beauty,” and, as I see it, nearly impossible for very abstract words like “freedom.” But if we just say, “Oh, of course, freedom,” and let it go without thinking seriously about it, we will be at the mercy of (and manipulated by) the blowhards and the demagogues. What does it mean to you?

For many years New Hampshire residents have been driving around with license plates that proclaim “Live Free or Die.” (Note: You can alter the motto on your plate if it conflicts with your beliefs, says the N.H. Supreme Court.) But few people seem to have asked what that injunction actually means for each individual. “Live Free or Die” may stir the soul, but what is its practical day-to-day impact? As I asked then, “Who decides how free you are, and if you’re not free enough, do you have to die, and if so, how?” If apparently absurd questions like these aren’t answered, the motto, while perhaps inspiring, is essentially meaningless.

Therefore, I have for some time felt I should try harder to define “free and freedom.” (I am putting “liberty” to one side, since it tends to be defined by, and is used to define, “freedom.”) The gives the following broad definition of freedom:

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