L. Neil Smith's
Number 227, June 8, 2003

Freedom: Is It Really Just Another Word?
David C. Kopp

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
—Kris Kristofferson, American Philosopher

Some recent discussions on some email lists I belong to have gotten me to thinking lately, and that old line from "Me and Bobby McGee" keeps running through my head. Is "Freedom" just another word these days? Have we strayed so far from the vision of the Founding Fathers that most modern Americans don't really understand the meaning of that word? These are important questions to folks like myself, but I'm beginning to wonder just how important they are to the "Average Joe".

An understanding of the concept of freedom in America is inseparably tied to a fundamental knowledge of our nation's history. This country was born in revolution, and the philosophical ideals that form the basis of our government were, and are, unique in the world. We are the only country in existence whose political foundations begin with the premise that all power is inherent in the people, and that the powers of government are only those that the people have delegated to it through the Constitution. True, there are other countries that make similar claims, but their basic political structure and their behavior towards their citizens makes those claims sound awfully hollow to me. If we are to understand the concept of freedom as the Founding Fathers envisioned it, we must first understand how it is that we got from there to here. So, we need to learn about our history. It sure sounds simple, and most folks would probably say, "I did learn about our history, when I went to school!" But did they really?

It's no big secret to many people that the public schools don't do much actual "educating" these days. Talk to any public school teacher, and you will quickly gather that they're not much more than expensive baby sitters. They may not actually say that to you outright, but if you have any talent for "reading between the lines", you'll figure it out for yourself. However, if you should confront them with that reality, and start asking them for the reasons why, in their opinion, things are the way they are, than you'd better step back and get ready for a long litany of excuses. I have yet to meet a public school teacher who doesn't blame the problem on the students themselves, or their parents, or the world around them, or the phases of the moon, or some one out of a million other possibilities. But, oddly enough, I have found that any mention of the public school system itself being at fault is strangely absent. Suggest to them that maybe, just maybe, the methods that they use to teach the students, not to mention the subject matter being taught, might be at fault, and they will inevitably look at you as if you'd suddenly grown an extra head.

Look at any public school curriculum these days, and tell me if you see any mention of "History" therein. Sure, you'll probably see "Social Studies" or some derivative thereof, but "History"? I don't think so. History is a dangerous thing to teach as far as the public schools are concerned, and an even more dangerous thing, in their opinion, for students to learn. Especially a history as radical, individualistic, and freedom oriented as American history tends to be. Teach the children that the country they live in was founded by a bunch of right wing, Christian, gun toting, white, male revolutionaries who lived by the strange ideal that men should control their government, instead of their government controlling them? Good heavens, can you imagine the outcome of such an education? Teach them that sort of thing, and the next thing you know they'll be questioning authority! Why, perhaps they'd even start speaking up and asking penetrating questions in the classroom. Reading books instead of watching TV. Studying instead of "hanging out" on the street corners. Having dinner with their families instead of playing video games with their friends. And ... brace yourself ... they might even go to church or something! No, no, NO, NO! Couldn't have that, now could we? I'm quite sure it'd be bad for discipline.

So, instead of history, we get social studies. We teach our children all about other countries. You know, those countries that most of our ancestors fled from years ago, many under cover of darkness, with the loaded gun of an oppressive government at their backs. Maybe we'll mention a few things about our own history. Of course, we'll do our best to leave out the really radical stuff. You know, things like that pesky Bill of Rights, or the Constitution it amended. Or things like the Federalist Papers, that described to all and sundry why the central government that the new Constitution was creating would never be as oppressive and tyrannical as the British government we had just successfully gotten rid of. No, what we do mention about our own history has to be carefully screened, lest the impressionable little minds that we're molding get some kind of idea that they're supposed to be individuals with inalienable rights.

We can, for example, tell them about how some of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Everyone knows that slavery is bad, so we can create the subliminal impression that the Founding Fathers were bad too. Just don't mention the fact that slavery was a very common practice all over the world in those days, or that some of the Founders, who valued principle above pragmatism, freed their slaves long before it became fashionable to do so. If we get them thinking, deep down inside, that the Founding Fathers were basically bad people, than all those radical ideas that they had will sound pretty bad too. Won't they?

We could probably mention something about the Civil War, because that had some connection to slavery too. Of course, that particular war came about more because of oppressive trade taxes that were imposed on the southern states by the industrialists and their pet legislators in the northern states. But we don't have to mention that. Just trot out the fact that Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator" who was President of the Union (i.e. northern) states, freed the slaves, and you can gloss over the rest. But be sure to forget the part about the Emancipation Proclamation only freeing the slaves in the southern states, or the part about the war being several years old before said proclamation was published. These things don't really send the message we want to send, now do they?

When we're done breezing through our own country's past, we can get into the really cool stuff that we want the kids to learn, like how wonderful the United Nations is, and how grand it's "Declaration of Human Rights" sounds. Of course, the subtle turns of phrasing in said Declaration that would give some folks that idea that all rights are granted, and are therefore revocable, by the United Nations itself can be glossed over as well. After all, most folks wouldn't even notice that sort of thing. They might have noticed it if they had ever learned some real American history, but we've already taken care of that part, haven't we?

We can glorify so-called "political and economic geniuses" like Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, and ignore actual political and economic geniuses like Thomas Paine and Friedrich Hayek. We can rave about "diversity" and "multi-culturalism", but denigrate "individualism" and "nationalism". We can mention our great "democracy", but forget to mention that it was supposed to be a "republic". We can discuss all the great "social programs" implemented by Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, and castigate those horrible Presidents like Ronald Reagan who tried their best to cut some of them down to size. Never forget that framing the debate in this fashion will completely obliterate the notion of "a government of limited powers, sharply defined". Start talking that way, and people might take a look at that Constitution we glossed over earlier. If they did that, and then started thinking about some of the philosophy associated with that document's creation, then they might realize that it was meant to define exactly what powers the central government had, and exclude any others not listed. Take it that far, and they might even figure out that if some power or other wasn't explicitly listed in that document, then the central government wasn't entitled to exercise it. Once they got that far, they might actually start to protest! Maybe even do something radical like "petition the government for a redress of grievances"! Or ... gasp ... they might even start expecting the government to operate within it's Constitutionally defined parameters!!! And then what would happen to all that education money we've been gorging on for years? There's no mention of that in the Constitution anywhere!

No, it's better if we just keep things as they are, and just keep churning out semi-educated "Average Joes" with no real inkling of our history or the philosophical basis of our form of government. After all, teaching people collectivism and group-think has worked so well for so long now, why change things? Start teaching people about concepts like "Freedom", and you'll be asking for trouble. No, it couldn't be the "educational system" that's at fault here. Must be something else.

It's my considered opinion that the importance of the lessons of history, and the knowledge said lessons impart, will have exactly the same level of significance in the average person's mind as it was given during that person's education. If you didn't learn much about our history, or if you didn't learn the proper significance of that history, just how important would it's lessons be to you? Odds are, it would rank right up there with who the janitor is at the local bowling alley. So, I'll ask you ... did you really learn about our history in public school? Are you sure?

Maybe it's true. Maybe "Freedom" is just another word these days, at least for most folks. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. How can I possibly expect the "Average Joe" to understand a concept that they haven't even been taught? After so many years of public schooling, I really shouldn't be surprised when discussing the concepts of "Freedom" and "Individual Rights" causes many of these folks to get that glazed look in their eyes. You just know that they're getting a headache from all of this "Freedom" stuff, and would feel much better if I'd just let them alone so they could get back to their favorite TV show. I guess the fact that the concept of "Freedom" is still important to me is an aberration, so I probably shouldn't get too upset when other people don't get as fired up about it as I do. But you know, these realizations don't really help me much, and they don't really make me feel any better. They do, however, cause another old line to keep running through my head ...

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
—George Santayana, American Philosopher

© Copyright David C. Kopp, 2002-2003. Permission is hereby granted to distribute freely provided the author is quoted in full, and full credit is given to both the author and The Libertarian Enterprise.


The State vs. The People
by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman

Is America becoming a police state? Friends of liberty need to know.

Some say the U.S. is already a police state. Others watch the news for signs that their country is about to cross an indefinable line. Since September 11, 2001, the question has become more urgent. When do roving wiretaps, random checkpoints, mysterious "detentions," and military tribunals cross over from being emergency measures to being the tools of a government permanently and irrevocably out of control?

The State vs. the People examines these crucial issues. But first, it answers this fundamental question: "What is a police state?"

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