Freedom and Responsibility

Before I dive into Freedom and how it relates to responsibility, I have to confess that George Michel’s Freedom! song runs through my head as I type. In it he sings “you got to give for what you take.” and while much of the song might only poorly relate to what I am about to play with, this line certainly does.

I typed into twitter yesterday, “Thinking about the connection of freedom and responsibility. To thrive are they correlated?”

A little background. For a long time, I have been irritated and judgmental (feelings I try to avoid). I have been irritated and judgmental about Ayn Rand and her whole Objectivist thing. A few weeks ago, I was reading about Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand. Yes yes, exactly, I was thinking. We love it when we find things that validate or resonate with what we already believe. However, I can also see that between the right and left – the libertarians and the liberals – are two seemingly polemic forces – one side all bloated with self-interest, cries “Freedom above all else!” and everyone who follows that belief can join that side… And the other side righteously declares, “Equality for all!” and everyone who believes in that gathers around. Both sides hold their chests high and have some sort of moral indignation with the other.

First, let’s acknowledge that Ayn Rand attracted a following because there is a tension between the collective and the individual. And there is something deeply satisfying about believing in individual agency. And America (and Australia too) has a love affair with the cowboy – the lone agent, the entrepreneur, the solitary genius, and the self-made man. And sure, if the collective just looks like someone else’s self-interest being served and not honoring the whole or even the other parts, then sure, pursuing your self-interest instead of theirs makes a good deal of sense.

However, it is also the case that except for the wild ones that have left society completely and live alone on the land (and these unusual creatures do exist even if only for short periods of time)… except for the wild ones, we are all intricately linked. So while Rand might have been right to disavow communism, the Objectivists are wrong to neglect our responsibility to the networks we depend on. Freedom and responsibility are intricately linked.

If I have little or no freedom – you have imprisoned me, let’s say; then we can’t really hold me responsible for much (except my thoughts and perhaps my words). However, if I am unshackled and given freedom, I can’t hope to maintain that freedom without supporting the conditions that allow for it. For me to be free, I have to care for the context I am in and the people I engage with. I am never purely autonomous – especially after globalization entered the picture. And for the agents of equality, let me add – if we encourage equality, it may be in our own self-interest – or our belief therein. It is that sense of “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” As well as the same kind of thinking that prevents lower to middle class people from voting to tax the rich, “that could be me, and I don’t want to be taxed when I get there.” And, when my freedom interferes with other people being free, I am responsible for navigating that tension (as are they and those around us). We call this process “Court” and the decisions are “justice” not just for us but for all in like positions. I am hoping there is a court jester in there to keep things lively and light-hearted.

Okay, okay, I get the overwhelm that ensues when we try to be responsible for our actions. Taken to the extreme this can mean accounting for where everything I use and enjoy has come from, who was impacted by the making of these things, what the making did to the environment, and what impact any of all of this can have on me and my descendants or legacy in the future. Just how responsible am I? And how can I feel free when these responsibilities begin to inhibit my actions?
Well, that is the dance we do. Don’t mistake feeling free for being free. We take responsibility where we can today and hope our choices, made to the best of our knowledge, will enable us to be free in the future. We ask not, “what all am I responsible for?” but instead, “where else can I take more responsibility today than I took yesterday?” And asking that, we take a step and action toward increasing our ability to be free tomorrow. Freedom after all is not just the ability to do whatever we want and damn the consequences, it is the ability to make a choice given the consequences we can perceive.

Freedom and Equality are not opposite ends of some spectrum but qualities acting in dynamic tension together.

Responses to my query on twitter:

greghartle Greg Hartle: @NurtureGirl In my opinion, with any freedom comes great responsibility.
ahesse Arno Hesse: Freedom implies living up to your responsibility. RT @NurtureGirl: Thinking about the connection of freedom and responsibility
elizlk Elizabeth Krueger: @NurtureGirl connected by moral sense so that freedom for me isn’t hurting someone else; w/o morals freedom isn’t shared
What do you think?