What does it mean to be free ?


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I recently wrote about the difference of meaning of the word 'freedom' in French and English cultures.

Basically, the English (and Americans) feel free once they own their house. The English idea of freedom is closely linked to property and the right to do whatever you want when you are on your land and do what pleases with what you own. At home, the individual feels freed from social obligations, from the pressure of society, from rules and authority.

This concept originated in the medieval right of lords on their land. Lords could do justice, execute, or dispose in any way they pleased of their subjects (who didn't own any property). Actually, the United Kingdom still has a remnant of this medieval concept in that the King or Queen of England legally owns all the land in the country, and people only lease the land for 1000 years, they do not "buy" it. Otherwise the Queen would lose her right as sovereign of the country.

When Americans declared their independence, they severed the ties with their British monarch, and took possessions of the land they occupied. Prior to that, the King of England granted concessions (such as Virginia or Carolina) to colonists. All the land colonised by British subjects automatically became part of the Royal domain, not the property of the colons. This legal system is one of the main reasons that prompted British colons to declare their independence and found the United States of America.

American people have inherited the idea that freedom lies in owning property. They also added a series of freedom granted by the Constitution, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of even the right to bear arms.

During that time, things evolved a bit differently in France. Traditionally, the French meaning of freedom was not to seclude yourself out of society in your property, but on the contrary to have the leisure to enjoy the pleasures of society without constraint.

Until the French Revolution, being free usually meant being an aristocrat, as noblemen did not need to work, and indeed could lose their nobility if they engaged in commercial activities. The French concept of liberty was to have all the free time you wished to enjoy life in any way you wanted. Being noble often meant being above the law, even above religious taboos. Liberty in its extreme form would become libertinage - leading a life of carnal pleasures without having to worried about popular or religious morals. This was what it meant to be free. We immediately sense that it is a totally different concept from the Anglo-American one.

The French Revolution saw the advent of the Universal Human Rights, which guaranteed such things as freedom of thoughts, beliefs, opinion, press and speech, in addition to the natural rights to property, to liberty, to life, to safety, and to resistance to oppression. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was similar, but more extensive than the American Declaration of Independence and United States Bill of Rights.

Are Americans the freest nation on Earth ?

Americans often boast about how free their country is. Listening to many of them, you'd think that the USA is so much freer than the rest of the world, even Europe. Some Americans even think that they introduced democracy and human rights in Europe after WWII (!) - blissfully unaware of the French Revolution and later developments.

What strikes me about the USA is what little freedom people enjoy compared to Europe. Every US states have laws severely limiting the freedom of its citizens. In over 10 states it is still illegal to have oral sex, and in many it is also unlawful to have sex in any other position than the missionary ! Some states ban interracial marriages, others tattooing, singing in public, breastfeeding in public, and so on. Just have a look at this sample of stupid American laws. In what way is that a free country ?

If there is one thing for which Americans have more freedom than anybody else it is the freedom of not having to respect any social rules. Whatever your style and conduct, you will always find a place where you fit in the US. Diversity is usually a good thing, but in America more than anywhere else it is easy to fall in excesses of freakishness and anti-social behaviour unseen in other societies, developed or not. Just read one of Bill Bryson's books to see what I mean (I recommend, The Lost Continent) The USA has so many weird and rude people lacking any sense of shame that I wonder if unchecked freedom isn't ultimately the best way to returning to a wild, uncivilised state.

I sometimes feel that for the average American lower or middle class person the idea of freedom is the same as what a child could imagine : not having to work or get up in the morning if you don't want to, being free to eat whatever you want whenever you want without worrying about whether it is good for your health or not, being free to shoot people who trespass on your property... This is not freedom, it is a rejection of common sense and responsibilities. That's very different. Unfortunately many Americans do not understand that difference. Why should there be so many obese people in the States ? Why is the crime rate so much higher than in other developed countries ? Freedom without a proper upbringing can easily lead to anarchy or a freak society. Just like democracy without education can lead to fascism (it came close to it with George W. Bush).

Keeping all this in mind, the next time an American person will tell me proudly that America is the freest country in the world, I might reply with a sigh (or at least think) "if only you knew what you were talking about". If absolute, unrestricted freedom was a virtue, we wouldn't bother having laws. What good does it make to have the right to own guns without a licence if you can't drink a sip of alcohol legally before turning 21, and you can't kiss your spouse on Sunday without getting arrested in Hartford, Connecticut, or end up in jail in Alabama because you carelessly admit not believing in god ?

I have read a lot about the US legal system and law enforcement, and I have to say that there a few places in the world where I am more afraid of going than the USA (the others being Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a few African countries). I am not afraid of going to California or New York or New England, but these places are as much part of the States as Japan and Singapore are part of Asia. They are side exceptions. When it comes to development, the gap between Mississippi and New York is like the one between Kosovo and England. You won't see me anywhere between West Virginia and Arkansas any time soon.

At least when you go to China you know what to expect and behave accordingly. You know that openly criticising the government is asking for trouble. They don't have a constitution granting freedom of religion, then send the cops to arrest you because you don't believe in god. In that regard the Deep South can be more dangerous than Africa. Hardcore Christian hillbillies and rednecks will kill you for what you think ! What good is there in having freedom of speech and religion if it cannot be enforced in a quarter of the country ?
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Here is my take.
Total personal freedom would be a state of anarchy or anti-statisem. I guess it never existed or been tried because it’s a complete utopia, and didn’t evolve into existence with time, because it is unnatural to human nature. On the other hand capitalism and democracy is natural to our nature, both exist with good results.
The nation of most free people would be a nation without any social structure (political, economical, judicial, educational, etc), as structure implies order and set of rules for citizens. Any social structure takes away freedom. If it happened it would be a very short lived nation, vanishing from earth quickly.
So the question is how much personal freedom is allowed, and still country is orderly, prosperous and strong?
Too much freedom is as bad as not enough freedom. Both extremes can ruin a country, that’s why we see constant see-saw effect, freedom against the laws and regulations, in all democracies.

Now answering the question “What does it mean to be free?”
I don’t know what it means in other countries except Canada, versus communist Poland. Needless to say that in Poland, with communist party regime, I was starving for freedoms in almost every aspect of life. In Canada I’m happy with my freedoms, though the country is not totally free, still a British colony, hehe.
We must have two or more possibilities 'genuinely open' to us when we face a choice; and our choice must not be 'forced'.

in his book,"Liberty and Freedom" David Hackett Fischer basically describes the same thing as Maciamo.

He talks of how 2 different ancient western European concepts of freedom became entwined to produce the early idea of freedom in America and that we know today/

It shows how in ancient Rome, Liberty meant literally "free from restraint" and was more based on rights or privileges granted by the state.

Then he talks of how, with the tribes of NW Europe, freedom had more to do with individual freedom and natural-born rights or automatically given rights . (pre-Feudalism)
And also how in NW European tribal culture, a king ,chief or leader was only the chief for as long as his people wanted him to be leader or chose to follow him.

I imagine the French concept of Liberty was a little more based on the Roman concept.
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I personally consider freedom not being in debt amongst all other self sufficient notions. Being able to do what I like and earning money with it and not having to answer someone's call at 10 PM because I "am responsible for something" means being more free. Having a lifestyle enabling me to have balance and not struggle to pay for what I already have etc. ...

I can live in a small studio apt with an old car paid for living way below my means and feel free.
I can have a big place and count on the next paychecks to make sure i can keep my standard of living or else and feel like a slave.
I think it has to do with priorities we set for ourselves and whether or not those are internal or taught priorities. Because I have always been ok with little as long as no one has the right to get in my way. But it seems society teaches us to dress for success and become completely dependent on the system so to speak. And when you are completely dependent and in risk of losing what you have, you are definitely not free.
Live Free or Die, and remember that Your Freedom Ends Where Mine Begins.
Being Free is to have unalienable Rights to: ... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ...

Helps a lot if you are resident of New Hampshire. :)

We should have at least two prospects 'truly open' to us when we face a decision; and our decision should not be 'constrained'.
This article will bring you many cool things to make the most

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