What Does “Freedom” Actually Mean Today

Freedom, a key concept in our society, has a multiplicity of meanings.  We are, to begin with, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  I was brought up on the basic distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.”  I learned Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.”  My fourth grade teacher instilled the idea that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand – and that was just the beginning.  Like most people, I’ve been puzzling out its various meanings all my life.

For a psychologist, it has multiple meanings as well.  Freedom of choice is important if we are to know what people really want.  Freedom from coercion or manipulation helps us know what people truly think.  Psychological health requires that people feel free.  And we debate perpetually the question of free will.  But can we measure those things, or tell when we have gone too far or not far enough?

Recently, though, something strange has happened to the idea – or the word.  People seem to feel increasingly free to think what they want, regardless of the evidence, or free to express themselves without concern for the consequences.  Our increasingly polarized political world encourages freedom from restraint.  The internet elicits free opinions, free judgments, free comments, while supplying free news, free music, and free porn.

Over the past 20 years, as the energies of free market forces have been deregulated, investors were increasingly free to profit from risky instruments.  The unrestrained credit bubble produced our Great Recession.  Today, the tea party movement clamors for greater freedom from government.

The courts, too, have been active in this crusade.  The Supreme Court’s abolition of restrictions on corporate contributions to election campaigns promises to unleash a flood of money.  Corporations now have free speech too. Though it is unclear what that means apart from spending money.  And those who run the internet are free to restrict access.  No longer can the FCC impose “network neutrality” by requiring that Internet access providers treat all content equally.  (See, “An Internet for Everybody.”)

So what does “freedom” mean today?  It is as if the concept itself has been deregulated.  As a legal concept, an ideological rallying cry, a moral value, a psychological truth – anything goes.

Does our mental health require that we retire the word from active use?  Or will we continue to be badgered, anxious, and confused by a key concept we no longer understand?