What Does “Freedom” Mean?

America is having a heated debate about the meaning of the word socialism. We’d be better served if, instead, we were debating the meaning of freedom.


by Thom Hartmann Independent Media Institute edited by O Society March 21, 2019

The Oregonian reported fully 156,000 families are on the edge of homelessness in our small-population state. Every one of these households now pays more than 50 percent of its monthly income on rent, and none has any savings; one medical bill, major car repair, or job loss and they’re on the streets.

While socialism may or may not solve their problem, the more pressing issue we have is an entire political party and a huge sector of the billionaire class who see homelessness not as a problem, but as a symptom of a “free” society.

As in, “You are free to be homeless if’n you want to be. We aren’t going to tell you that you have to have a home. You wouldn’t tell a turtle he has to carry a shell, would you?”


The words freedom and liberty are iconic in American culture – probably more so than in any other nation – because they’re so intrinsic to the literature, declarations, and slogans of our nation’s founding.

The irony of a nation founded on the world’s greatest known genocide (meaning the systematic state sanctioned and ordered murder of tens of millions of Native Americans), over three centuries of legalized slavery, and a century and a half of oppression and exploitation of the descendants of these slaves is extraordinary.

It presses us all to bring true freedom and liberty to all Americans.

But what do these words mean?

If you ask the Koch brothers and their buddies —who slap these words on everything they do the way price tags used to be slapped on everything at the supermarket— you get a definition which advocates a state of being “free” from taxation and regulation.

And – tell the truth, now – if you’re morbidly rich, this makes a certain amount of sense, particularly if your main goal is to get richer and richer, regardless of your behavior’s impact on working-class people, the environment, or the ability of a government to function. See?

On the other hand, the definitions of freedom and liberty embraced by so-called “social democratic” countries — meaning Canada, almost all of Europe, Japan, and Australia — are closer to that articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he proposed, in January 1944, a “second Bill of Rights” be added to our Constitution.


FDR’s proposed amendments included the right to a job, and the right to be paid enough to live comfortably; the right to “adequate food and clothing and recreation”; the right to start a business and run it without worrying about “unfair competition and domination by monopolies”; the right “of every family to a decent home”; the right to “adequate medical care… to achieve and enjoy good health”; the right to government-based “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”; and the right “to a good education.”

Roosevelt pointed out, “All of these rights spell security.”

He added, “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights are carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

The other nations mentioned earlier took President Roosevelt’s advice to heart. Progressive “social democracy” kept Europe, Canada, and the developed nations of the East and South Pacific free of war for almost a century, a mind-boggling feat when considered in the context of the history of the developed world since 1500.

Just prior to FDR win of the White House in the election of 1932, our nation was treated to 12 years of bizarre Republican administration, which ironically is the model used by today’s GOP.


In 1920, Warren Harding won the presidency on a campaign of “more industry in government, less government in industry” — woo hoo! privatize and deregulate — and a promise to drop the top tax rate of 91 percent down to 25 percent.

He kept both promises, putting the nation into a sugar-high spin called the Roaring ’20s, when the rich got fabulously rich while working-class people were beaten and murdered by industrialists whenever they tried to unionize. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (the three Republican presidents from 1920 to 1932) all cheered on the assaults, using phrases like “the right to work” to describe a union-free nation.

In the end, the result of the “horses and sparrows” economics advocated by Harding (“feed more oats to the horses and there’ll be more oats in the horse poop to fatten the sparrows” is this generation’s version of trickle-down voodoo economics) was the Republican Great Depression (and yes, they called it that until after World War II).

Even though Roosevelt was fabulously popular—the only president to be elected to four terms — the right-wing of his day were loud and outspoken in their protests of what they called “socialist” programs, such as Social Security, the right to unionize, and government-guaranteed job programs, including the WPA, REA, CCC, and others.

The Klan and American Nazis assembled by the hundreds of thousands nationwide —nearly 30,000 in Madison Square Garden alone — encouraged by wealthy and powerful “economic royalists” preaching “freedom” and “liberty.” Like the Kochs’ Freedomworks, that generation’s huge and well-funded (principally by the DuPonts’ chemical fortune) organization was the Liberty League.

Roosevelt’s generation witnessed the results of this kind of hard-right “freedom” rhetoric in Italy, Spain, Japan, and Germany, the very nations with which we were then at war.

Speaking of “the grave dangers of ‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation,” Roosevelt told America: “If history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s — then it is certain even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

Although the right-wing is still hard at work disassembling FDR’s New Deal — the GOP budget for 2019 contains massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — we got halfway toward his notion of freedom and liberty here in the United States:

  • You’re not free if you’re old and deep in poverty, so we have Social Security (although the GOP wants to gut it).
  • You’re not free if you’re hungry, so we have food stamps/SNAP (although the GOP wants to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you’re homeless, so we have housing assistance and homeless shelters (although the GOP fights every effort to help homeless people).
  • You’re not free if you’re sick and can’t get medical care, so we have Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare (although the GOP wants to gut them all).
  • You’re not free if you’re working more than 40 hours a week and still can’t meet basic expenses, so we have minimum wage laws and the right to unionize (although the GOP wants to gut both).
  • You’re not free if you can’t read, so we have free public schools (although the GOP is actively working to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you can’t vote, so we’ve passed numerous laws to guarantee the right to vote (although the GOP is doing everything it can to keep tens of millions of Americans from voting).

The billionaire class and the politicians they own keep telling us “freedom” means the government doesn’t provide any of the things listed above.

Instead, they tell us (as Ron Paul famously did in a GOP primary debate years ago) if we’re broke and sick, we’re “free” to die like a feral dog in the gutter.

The “freedom” these billionaires have in mind is homelessness.

These plutocrats tell us poverty, a lack of education, no access to health care, poor-paying jobs, and barriers to voting are all proof of a free society, which is why America’s lowest life expectancy, highest maternal and childhood death rates, lowest levels of education, and lowest pay are in GOP-controlled states.

So while America is presently engaged in a debate about the meaning of the word socialism, it would be a mighty big help to all of us if we, instead, have a debate about the meaning of the words freedom and liberty. An honest one, this time…


6 thoughts on “What Does “Freedom” Mean?

    1. Yes. It is helpful. Thank you.

      We often here this framed in terms of +/- rights. The American libertarian think tank PhDs distorted the terms to fit their agenda.

      So we need to revisit this, just as you have done, to get back to the root and see through the propaganda, which has the goal of subverting the meaning of words so we can’t think straight any longer when we use them.


      1. I do highly recommend the work by David Hackett Fisher. Colin Woodard is good as well. They both shaped my thinking about American society.

        BTW I use ‘American’ in the broadest sense. Northern Mexican culture (El Norte) also was influential; e.g., the origin of the cowboy mythos. The Spanish Empire had a different attitude about such things and it played a role in their differing racial order. Rather than inclusion/exclusion dynamic seen in the culture of freedom (all in or all out), the liberty-oriented racial hierarchy was a gradient (and still is in its former territories).


        If you want some further context, I discuss freedom and liberty in another post. In the comments section, I do a breakdown of how these words are used (including how often used) in the three founding documents of the US: Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution.


        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. I understand. Generalizations and stereotypes are problematic. The problem of induction Hume pointed out.

        That said, there is some truth to the idea “all swans are white.” It just so happens there are exceptions to this rule of thumb.

        Some swans are black. So this principle is not an absolute axiom, but rather a generalization that is not idiot proof.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I didn’t really have any particular meaning or intention for sharing what I did. It simply is various things that have caught my curiosity over the years.

        Liberty is a legalistic worldview, which doesn’t limited to slaveholding societies. Post-Enlightenment liberalism is built upon and dependent on civil liberties as passed down from the Roman Empire (the Normans in the case of the British), those rights given and protected by the state, not merely the community. These words, freedom and liberty, have morphed over time and sometimes become conflated, even as they maintain more than a hint of their original meaning that can be sensed especially in how right-wingers continue to use liberty to defend oppressive social hierarchies. Now that slavery has been banished in the Western world, liberty was forced to be re-envisioned. Capitalism inherited much of this liberty tradition, which explains why capitalism tends toward such a hierarchical and legalistic social order. Under capitalism, those further up the food chain are given greater rights and this has gone hand in hand with corporatism that has its roots in the Catholic Church. The difference in the past was rights were balanced with responsibilities, what once was called noblesse oblige — extremely important to those of inherited wealth in the past, from George Washington to the two Roosevelt presidents.

        It all fascinates me. The reason I brought up the Florida example is because it shows another side to liberty. In the Latin American social order descended from the Spanish Empire (like the French Normans who conquered England, they were also shaped by the Roman Empire), there was definitely an oppressive and rigid order. But in another way, it had a certain kind of flexibility or fluidity. There was no permanent or absolute caste system, as the populations had become so mixed over time. The gradient system was the solution where everyone could easily be defined by not only skin color but skin tone with no absolutely clear lines of demarcation, with divisions literally shading into each other (light-skinned blacks in Latin America often don’t identify as ‘black’). I’ve wondered if that isn’t the future of the United States. Latinxs are an increasing proportion of the population and probably will become the single largest demographic, assuming they don’t simply become absorbed into a newly redefined ‘whiteness’. Either way, they will shift the culture, in the way the masses of German immigrants once did. I don’t know if that will be good or bad. But it likely will mean a movement toward a more ‘liberty’ style racial order, even if one entirely different from that of the neo-feudal Deep South.

        About freedom culture, those German-Americans definitely helped to establish it in early America. During the colonial era, those of German ancestry were the majority of the population. And in the following centuries, they became the dominant ethnic group in the entire country, including German-language newspapers, churches, and public schools where they held the majority in cities. They brought with them a attitude of freedom ideology that was quite idealistic and seen in their strong abolitionism (e.g., colonial era onward), sometimes defense of native rights (e.g., Texas hill country), and sewer socialism (e.g., Milwaukee). German culture came to define not only America in general. It specifically defined the North and even more specifically the Midwest, the region where they were the majority, the region by the way that itself was the largest concentration of population in the US. But the world war era brought on anti-German xenophobia and bigotry that nearly wiped out all traces of German culture, as if it had never existed. That maybe sadly undermined the culture of freedom as well, especially later on when the Southern Strategy took hold. Think of Southerners like the presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both having promised a neocon vision of law and order, safety and security — all values that fall under the sway of liberty-mindedness. This should be unsurprising as the Democrats originally were the Southern party.

        I thought of an example of a freedom culture that comes from an entirely different society, unrelated to northern Europe, but demonstrates the same ideological worldview. I often return to the account of the Piraha as told by Daniel Everett. They are one of the clearest expressions of a community of free people. They lack any overt hierarchy with no formal social positions, status, or titles. They don’t have tribal leaders, war chiefs, councils of the wise, shamans, etc. If they need leadership in a particular activity, one person who has the needed skills will temporarily be given the position until the activity is over, a purely practical affair. But otherwise, everyone is equal, besides basic gender differences. Even children aren’t treated all that differently. The child is part of the mother’s world until toddlerhood and then instantly the child is part of the adult world with zero transition in between. What social order they have is purely cultural with no laws or corporal punishment. One is either a Piraha or not, and it is clear what Piraha do and don’t do. One thing that Piraha don’t do is kill others, not even those of other tribes, other than I suppose during times of war, but apparently they haven’t been in war for a very long time. One time, a young man in the tribe killed someone in another tribe and he was instantly banished. Piraha don’t kill and that is that. So, he was no longer Piraha and no longer welcome. It is all in or all out. To be free means to belong absolutely, to be a member of a free people, which simultaneously means to conform. Yet Piraha never think about it as conformity, as they can’t imagine being anything other than Piraha. And banishments are extremely rare. The Piraha, as long as one remains a member in good standing, have immense freedom. What the Piraha don’t have is a legalistc civil society with civil liberties. There is no liberal proceduralism that guarantees that the accused gets representation in court. Instead, the judgment comes from the community and, in the rare cases it is applied, it is absolute and that is the end of it. There is no higher court to turn to, no official creed or laws to invoke.

        This overlaps with the culture of trust. In Iceland, the prime minister stepped down after the Panama Papers leak revealed he had a secret bank account. No one had to bring a legal case against him nor the equivalent of an impeachment. He was dishonored and publicly shamed, and his continuing in office was simply an impossibility. Or consider another culture of trust, as it further shows the related culture of honor. In Japan, when a CEO does something wrong or fails his duties, he very well might commit suicide. Now that is being all in or all out. Few American politicians would respond that way. A culture of freedom requires a culture of trust and that is enforced through honor and shame. But in cultures of trust, shame isn’t always a permanent condition. Through contrition and compensation, social inclusion can sometimes be regained and the former shame can be forgotten (the difference between Catholic shame culture and Protestant guilt culture, as sins are much more easily forgiven in Catholicism through confession and good works). There is a pathway for regaining status as a member in good standing, except in extreme betrayals of social norms. In ancient Athens, banishment wasn’t always permanent and many were able to return after a period of time. Socrates was banished but chose death because, in his mind, banishment was worse than death. It’s interesting that no one forced death on Socrates for he chose it freely and willingly. That is the power of social belonging in a culture of trust. To lose that sense of belonging can mean to lose all sense of identity, which is social death.


      4. By the way, the Piraha young man died shortly after being banished. He was forced into living isolated in the jungle. It would have been lonely and scary, to suddenly no longer belong. He likely died from the stress of it, as I recall he died of sickness. The experience of social death could be horrifying for someone who had always known a close-knit community. That is what Socrates feared.

        To be a member of a free society would be an amazing experience. And to lose that would be one of the worst things in the world. But for us Americans we’ve never known that kind of closeness and trust, and so we don’t realize what we’re missing, although the overwhelming anxiety and stress of our society might indicate that this lack is far from normal and healthy. I’m reminded of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe.


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