, Newburyport, MA

March 10, 2014

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

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — 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:

“Exemption from the constraint or restraint of physical or moral forces … independence.” “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” (Oxford Dictionaries). I can’t find a way to give any meaning to these broad terms except by coming down to specific instances of freedom and non-freedom as they affect us as individuals.

One can start with the question generated by New Hampshire’s motto. “What does “free” or “freedom” mean as applied to each of us every day?” My quest for the referent begins with a recognition of the innumerable “constraints or restraints” that actually affect one’s “power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”

Let us visualize freedom metaphorically as a large of piece of canvas, and then see what pieces of it have been cut out and what holes made by these various “constraints or restraints.” I was somewhat shocked to see that the canvas of “freedom” ended up pretty shredded by a vast variety of constraints, of some of which I had never thought.

Most obvious are the legal laws and rules. The state prohibits you from doing many antisocial things, and fines or punishes you if you hurt people or property. You are not free to do all sorts of anti-social things, such as shoot people, drive too fast, steal — and so on and on. We’re used to these, and trade our freedom to do them for the freedom from being shot, run over or robbed. They do, nevertheless, greatly curtail the total freedom Rousseau envisioned in his “state of Nature.“

These laws and regulations, strangely, may be less important than hundreds of other constraints in our lives — limits cultural (don’t malign your country’s values), societal (don’t spit on the floor, don’t be gay), familial (don’t contradict your father), economic (don’t get into debt), security (don’t walk late at night in a strange place), all enforced by the omnipresent fear of criticism, of being thought a fool or a boor, of being hurt, of being ostracized.

Religious prohibitions are widespread — they often prescribe what to eat (or not), to wear (or not), what not to read, what observances are required of the faithful. All are enforced by fear of punishment during life or after death.

Today (supposedly for your own good) you can’t buy a car without government-mandated equipment, marry without a permit (marry same-sex at all in some states) or build your house the way you want (restrictive building codes and costly permits). And sadly the fear of terrorism cuts yet more cloth from our ragged metaphorical bolt of canvas. And we don’t know yet what effect increasing government surveillance of our lives will have.

I think my quest for a concise referent for “freedom” has failed. See what you can do.


Jonathan Wells,, encourages himself and you constantly to “find (or at least search for) the referent” of all the words you hear and speak. He lives in Newbury.