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The Meaning of Freedom
Mike Treder   Sep 17, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Freedom stands for something greater than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To most reasonable people, freedom means more than just ‘free to do whatever I want’. Taken literally, that approach would produce anarchy—every man, woman, and child for himself or herself. Fortunately, none of us has to live that way (unless you’re reading this in Somalia or a similar disaster area).

Certainly freedom does mean the right to do as one pleases—to think, believe, speak, worship (or not worship), move about, gather, and generally act as you choose—but only until your choices start to infringe on another person’s freedom.

This still leaves a great deal of latitude. There is a long list of things that one can say, and say freely, for example, that excludes shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

One way to think of this is the difference between “freedom of” (or “freedom to”) and “freedom from”—a point eloquently made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address delivered on January 6, 1941:

We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

The Four Freedoms

Securing freedom from fear and freedom from want is very likely to entail some collective, organized action. That kind of activity is often carried out most effectively and efficiently (although, admittedly, not perfectly) by the government. If we want to live in a society where freedoms are protected and where the opportunity to exercise freedom is assured, we have to rely on some form of governance. So far, liberal representative democracy seems to do the best job of it.

Note also that Roosevelt spoke in “world terms.” He and his colleagues (including his wife, Eleanor, one of the greatest women of the 20th century) operated according to a vision in which the United States belonged to a family of nations. This family was interdependent, cooperative, and shared common values. The U.S., in their eyes, would act as a member of that family—a leading member, to be sure, but not a belligerent or domineering one.

In the same speech, Roosevelt said:

There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

  • Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
  • Jobs for those who can work.
  • Security for those who need it.
  • The ending of special privilege for the few.
  • The preservation of civil liberties for all.
  • The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

This message is now nearly six decades old, but still rings as true today as when first spoken. We can hardly improve on FDR’s description of the fundamental goals and objectives of technoprogressive policies.

Of course, in 2009 we must take into account new issues and possible new areas of freedom—and potential infringements on freedom—that could not be anticipated in 1941.

In the next 50 years, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and cognitive science will allow human beings to transcend the limitations of the human body. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will have greater control over our emotions and memory. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power. We will use these technologies to redesign ourselves and our children in ways that push the boundaries of “humanness.”

One central mission of the IEET is to protect what we call “morphological freedom”—the right for individuals to manage, maintain, augment, and upgrade their own bodies as they see fit—so long, of course, as their actions don’t negatively impact somebody else’s freedoms.

It is interesting that in his 1941 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt spoke of heath care issues that sound immediately familiar in light of the current debate on the U.S. over health insurance reform. He said:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

The argument about health care as a human right and access to basic medicine as an important part of freedom is not a new one. Nor is the effort by opponents of expanded coverage to cast the provision of benefits as a threat to freedom.

As Thomas Frank points out in this important op-ed from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Conservatives of the 1930s, led by an upper-crust outfit called the American Liberty League, certainly felt that way. “That Roosevelt was a dictator there was no doubt; but Liberty Leaguers were not quite sure what kind,” wrote the historian George Wolfskill in “The Revolt of the Conservatives,” a 1962 study of that organization. “Some thought he was a fascist, others believed him a socialist or Communist, while others, to be absolutely sure, said he was both.”

Frank’s piece is titled “The Left should reclaim ‘Freedom’—The Right was wrong about FDR too.” He says:

There are few things in politics more annoying than the right’s utter conviction that it owns the patent on the word “freedom”—that when its leaders stand up for the rights of banks to be unregulated or capital gains to be untaxed, that it is actually and obviously standing up for human liberty, the noblest cause of them all. . .

Any increase in the size or duties of government, the right tells us, necessarily subtracts from our freedom. Government is, by its very nature, a destroyer of liberties; the Obama administration, specifically, is promising to interfere with the economy and the health-care system so profoundly that Washington will soon have us all in chains.

“What we’re going to end up with is higher taxes, bigger government and less freedom for the American people,” House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Fox News in July. “We’re going to have a real fight for how much freedom we’re going to have left in America.”


Today, of course, we know that the right’s tyranny-fears [about FDR] were nonsense. Most of Roosevelt’s innovations have been the law of the land for 70 years now, and yet we are still a free society.

In closing, Frank makes this vital point:

The reality of misgovernment, meanwhile, is not something you can grasp simply by donning a tricorn hat and musing on the majesty of Lady Liberty. It requires, among other things, close attention to the following irony: That many of the most destructive and even corrupt policies of the past few decades were engineered by exactly the sort of people who claim to be motivated by freedom and liberty.

During the recent horrible administration of George W. Bush, I often pleaded with people not to view Bush, Cheney, et al., as conservatives. They were clearly and profoundly not interested in conserving the liberties or the general welfare of Americans, as was their Constitutional duty. Rather, they were intent on maximizing the security and strength of powerful corporations, on whose boards they and their cohorts have so comfortably sat.

Have you ever taken the World’s Smallest Political Quiz? While it is far from perfect, it does offer a useful alternative to the traditional left-right spectrum, opting instead for a diamond-shaped depiction of U.S. political positions.

The red dot shows where I score on the quiz. I would submit that supporters of Bush-style politics, including many of today’s alleged ‘conservatives’, are really much closer to Big Government Statists. Bush, after all, increased the size of the federal deficit far beyond what any of his predecessors had done, while at the same time overseeing the most heinous incursions into civil liberties of any President since, well, perhaps ever.

Although I’ve openly stated my displeasure with the extreme positions of certain declared libertarians, I am not at all opposed to many of the tenets of libertarian thinking. I’ve even at times declared myself to be a “libertarian socialist.” Social freedoms should, in my view, be free from government restraint in almost every case.

Being a technoprogressive means being in favor of freedom. What we have to make clear, though, is that freedom stands for much more than just the right to act however I choose—it also stands for securing to everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


Not really, Mike ... not with the first bit. There are very good reasons to limit everyone’s freedom in some minimal and defined ways so that we can all have and enjoy as much freedom as possible. But if my freedom impinges on someone else’s it doesn’t make ME less free. If anything, it makes THEM less free (in some sense). If I could get away with having a freedom that other people lack, and with lording it over them by superior power, I would be a bad person to have around, but not less FREE.

The point is that in the real and imperfect world we need to have some government-imposed mimimal restrictions on everyone’s freedom, or else we’ll have chaos and misery. E.g. we need laws against rape, murder, and the use of violence as a weapon in social competition. Otherwise, life for everybody will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes said.

As for the last bit ... well, again, that’s redefining freedom. If someone else is starving and I give her food, or money to buy it with, I am not thereby more FREE. She may be more free, in some sense, but I am not. I may, however, be happier for having relieved a fellow human being’s misery. Freedom is not the only value. The amelioration of suffering is an important value in its own right.

“The argument about health care as a human right and access to basic medicine as an important part of freedom is not a new one. Nor is the effort by opponents of expanded coverage to cast the provision of benefits as a threat to freedom. “

I believe it is seen, not as a threat to freedom per se, but as a threat to a) quality, and b) the economy—which, in turn, can be seen as a threat to freedom.

Well done, and surely this is the must be mission statement for all who believe in freedom and democracy. Shout it loud, and shout it clear, and shout it often, (especially at the UN!)

1. freedom of speech and expression
2. freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
3. freedom from want
4. freedom from fear

Excellent piece more like this please !!


Ever thought that perhaps Roosevelts second freedom is perhaps the major cause of the restrictions, both historic and present, of the other three?

Also your definition of anarchy is a little jejune - try this primer:

You might see you are more of an anarchist than you might think wink

The rest of the post is as interesting and thought provoking as all the rest - many thanks.

In my opinion freedom is a beautiful word that not 100% but 99% of the world want to have freedom in her or his life.

I my opinion, most of the world doesn’t know the definition of freedom, and those who live in freedom do not understand it. It is to my beleife that many “free” people in the world are unaware that there are people dying to have what they have, and even the person who has freedom, will persue even more freedom. But you know, this is just some rambling high schooler.

I am a Canadian whose greatest desires are to have freedom from fear and freedom from want.

Thank You!

Here the Ugandans are so sad becouse their rights and wish is being dirty in the dust by the Goverment.

But very soon Ugandans might stand up for their rights too.

very nice!

The freedom from want and fear are Utopian hogwash. Hollow promises which will never come to pass. The heart of man is wicked and will fail to attain freedom from God, his creator.

The spending of the presidents of the United States from George Washington to George Bush combined, are dwarfed by the spending of Barrack Obama in only two years in office. Raising the national debt limit ceiling will certainly foreshadow the raising of oppressive taxation, to destruction of the American economy. Hence, enslavement, by reducing the populace to the lowest common economic denominator, fairly of course.

” That many of the most destructive and even corrupt policies of the past few decades were engineered by exactly the sort of people who claim to be motivated by freedom and liberty.”

Ironic, indeed.

Liberal Treder could not be more wrong; and if he hasn’t seen the effects of Liberalism after 2+ years of Obama and liberal rule, then he is hopelessly lost.  Freedom from want and freedom from fear?  Clearly believers in that are exercising their freedom to be stupid. Want and fear are internal states.  One can’t be “protected” from internal states, one can choose to have them or not. Strip away these “freedoms” and one strips away the need for a government to collectively provide them by impinging on the true freedoms.  The real goal of liberalism is equality of status, which is not only unnatural but impossible. The harder we try to get there, the greater the loss of freedom. It is why modern liberalism, statism, socialism are anti-human and evil.

“You might see you are more of an anarchist than you might think”

But that isn’t necessarily a positive. If a government official looks deeply into himself he might see he is more interested in taking kickbacks than he thinks. If a businessman looks deeply into himself he might see he is more interested in embezzling than he thinks. If a healthy young man looks deeply into himself he might see he is more of a rapist than he might think. “Know Thyself” is not always the right strategy; depends on the person in question. Perhaps it would have been better if Stalin and Pol Pot had been less in touch with the ‘inner self’ smile

Will post this one last comment for today, if someone would be so kind as to answer why it is outmoded 20th century libertarianism can’t be dispensed with; why can’t 19th century anarchism and Marxism be let go of? plus all the rest of ideology. Is it because the old-fashioned among us are sentimental for ideology? is it because there is no way at this time for simpler/more old fashioned people to comprehend technoprogressivism and or extropianism, etc.? the public is not generally ready for 21st century politics and economics? is that it? or is there something else?

“Freedom from want”? Are you kidding me? How exactly do you stop people from wanting things? Answer- you can’t.
What is the origin of the debt that would have to be imposed on one citizen to pay for the perpetual “wants” of another citizen? General welfare? Wrong. General welfare is defined by the 18 enumerated powers of the constitution as discussed by James Madison in Federalist 45. If it didn’t, the federal govt would have unlimited powers to parse what general welfare means at anytime without further amendments to the constitution. This is exactly what Mr. Treder believes, at least until it meant restricting an individual right that he finds sacrosanct.
If you want to add an enumerated power, do it the correct way using the amendment process.

Federalist Papers and the Constitution are outdated 18th century instruments. Besides, most Americans haven’t even read them; most Americans believe what they hear on TV and Hate Radio—and what can you do with a public that needs to make technical decisions but doesn’t know how their TVs and radios operate?

If you don’t like big government, wrong era: in retrospect the era of small government ended on 9/11/‘01. Only thing you can do is call up your relatives who get funds and services from the state, and tell them how you feel; no one else is going to listen to you anymore, you are wasting your time with blarney concerning reduced government, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers.
Again, you don’t like your tax bill? tell your relations; no one is listening to exhausted Rightist propaganda anymore—it doesn’t sell.

post-post, “Big-government” doesn’t mean big government. It means a government that is bigger than it should be. It is _not_ outdated, and it is _not_ rightist propaganda, to believe that it is bigger than it should be, Probably much bigger.

It took decades to build the state to the size it is now; you can’t reduce it just like that.
IMO the era of small govt. ended 9/11/‘01.

Everyone thinks their people deserve what they get, but others do not.

” ‘Big-government’ doesn’t mean big government. It means a government that is bigger than it should be.”

Of course, “Big govt.” is shorthand.

OK, we agree on that. Do we agree on all that I wrote?

“History has shown “

Yes, history has shown, government fails to provide freedom from want or fear.

However, some people will never learn the lessons of history. Liberals in particular.

“OK, we agree on that. Do we agree on all that I wrote?”

I write too many comments, so for brevity’s sake, IMO govt. will never be streamlined; however it appears (without knowing you) that you are too easy on business, too hard on govt. My hunch is perhaps Asia can do better in the long run than the West. For instance, China is an autocracy yet the Chinese can work together with the state for more positive results than the old totalist states could. America is more akin to Russia: unruly to the point of refraction.
If America someday is dissolved it wouldn’t be surprising.


...If the private sector is more efficient than the state, that’s not saying a whole lot, Ronaldo. The way people think and act has to change. Not to write you are old fashioned, however many opposed to government think we merely reduce statism while not altering much else. All my friends here in the Midwest think that way; they “change things with their hands”, they ” ’ live modern’ “, as James Reston wrote, “yet they are very conservative”. My friends are well-off, have all the latest gadgets, but for quite pre-modern purposes. Nature—their homes in semi-rural areas—are the backdrop, though they live modern lives materially. Plus their personal lives are very old fashioned; faith, family, Holidays. Naturally, we know why: the zeitgeist is simpler even though they live hectic lives; that is to say their core beliefs are simple. I know a couple who are like caricatures of old fashioned modern-materialists, they hunt and fish, watch Clint Eastwood DVDs, and go to church. I asked them years after meeting them what their religious beliefs are, and the answer was predictable: “we believe everything the Bible says”. In other words they are fundamentalists.
How can we remain in the past yet adapt to the future? doesn’t such exacerbate the dislocatioin involved? can we retain the rustic backdrop and still adapt? it would appear to be a painful way to move into the future. The old-fashioned, who IMO dominate America, look back to 1776; it was America’s defining moment.
My growing impression is Americans want to look to the future while, Janus-like, simultaneously looking back to 1776. Can we live in the past while looking to the future? isn’t it having a cake and eating it, too?

Merely reducing the state worked somewhat in the ‘80s, but today it isn’t enough.

I said that the government is bigger than it needs to be, then I asked you if you agree, and you merely replied that you don’t think it will ever be streamlined.
Not exactly an answer to my question.
(And is the way you using the word ‘refraction’ found in any dictionary?)

“I said that the government is bigger than it needs to be, then I asked you if you agree.”

Don’t know if government is bigger than it needs to be, Ronaldo.
I surmise any funds saved by ‘reducing’ public spending would be transferred to the military; defense spending is much less than public spending so if it were possible to transfer far more to defense, then it would be done. However in that case the reduction in public spending would reduce the loyalty of the public.
Naturally, the above is merely one factor.
The real answer to`your question is: of course government is too large, but nothing can be done; in a cliquish world everyone thinks their people deserve what they get from the state but others do not.
I always though the Bush administration lacked vision, however they probably did the correct thing, considering. They bought the public’s loyalty to the war effort by agreeing to increase spending—the bonus for the administration was it also bought votes for the GOP. One paw washes the other.

Best would be to read this succinct excerpt from someone who knows the score and can more readily express it . If you want, a link to the piece can be posted:

“Because our discoveries and inventions change the human environment faster than that of any other animal, there is always a temptation—to which today’s techno-conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, often fall prey—to think that such changes may usher in an age of harmony and plenty that will solve the dilemmas of politics. Evolutionary biology shows that this is simply a pipe dream. Our nature assures that we will simultaneously be obsessed with our relative status in society and possess unequal abilities for acquiring higher status. Thus individuals will always seek to use the government as a means to rearrange their relative positions. No matter how much wealth free trade produces, no matter how much information the Internet transmits, the central problem of politics will remain: how to empower the government for safeguarding life and property, and yet simultaneously constrain it from eviscerating civil society and expropriating property.”

So one might say smaller government is desirable yet unobtainable. It does make some sort of sense ‘conservatives’, libertarians and minarchists would want government funds & services for their own people while wanting less for those outside their cliques; perhaps their people are stronger in some way and thus to be considered darwinistically superior. I don’t say Rightist positions are necessarily irrational, nevertheless the ethical content is often lost in the shuffle in the same way spiritual content is lost in religious shuffles.

Freedom is that state in which a man can be responsible for himself. No man has a right to force me to work for his benefit. “Freedom from Want” and other supposed freedoms of a similar nature necessarily mean that my labor can be drafted to serve the welfare of others without my permission. How is this different in its nature from slavery? If only 10% of my life is forcibly taken from me does that mean I am free? What about 20%? 30%? What is the principled upper limit? How would one go about ascertaining it?


Freedom, what is it?
Can there be any doubt as to what this most sought after quality of life could be ? What is freedom; freedom from what; freedom to do what?
As freedom is so valued some people seem to think it is a virtue ? Many regard it as an inalienable right to be pursued at all cost as something that is ours no matter what. Almost as if it is our right to occupy our side of the road,… but of course there are times when we have to share it in a responsible fashion with those who travel in the opposite direction… and that is often where our problem lies, with – “ those that travel in the opposite direction”- . We can insist on our rights if we chose to but that could mean we are dead right, we and our fellow travelers.
Freedom is a great concept, but invariably what means greater freedom for one person means greater restrictions for another.
The greatest area of abuse, I think, lies in the area of freedom of speech. We have all heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, something we still tell our children to build up their confidence. Some parents however teach the exact opposite, also in the hope it will protect their children, but potentially turns them into the bullies that the first group of parents sought protection from. Bullying is a serious offence and often has regrettable consequences, not only among school kids, but even among the bigger ones on Capital Hill. The notion that freedom of speech is a basic right is very naive as it invariably turns into a conceived right to intimidate and abuse.
We need to realize that with freedom comes the option to make wrong choices, genuine mistakes as well as deliberate violation of the freedom given to us. Freedom in my opinion is not a virtue and what’s more it is not for free, it is something we need to work at to enjoy it and share it with others. I would go as far as to say freedom can be a curse. When we talk about the word freedom it immediately conjures up another word and that is authority. When parents, teachers, police, individuals, governments etc. in whom authority is vested; fail to discipline; hold accountable; keep the peace; lock up criminals etc. we would certainly experience a kind of freedom, but not many of us with any common sense would want to live in a country where those conditions prevail.
Laws, rules and regulations are there not only to protect us from the criminals I mentioned, but from you and me as well. In other words…..we do not handle freedom very well, especially when we think we won’t be found out.
Yes at times we need the law to sort out our differences of opinion, but there is a better way. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” and should we need specific personal advice ask the Author of this statement, as in Mat. 7:7
What is freedom from another perspective. Many people have had a go at defining this and although their interpretations vary greatly, it seems to have a common thread and that is that we …LIKE IT !
Since we all differ and have different tastes it stands for reason that we differ greatly in this interpretation. Now surely there has to be a better way to define it, one that we can agree on, in principle at least?
When I have trouble defining anything I try to go to the very opposite meaning of the word, the antonym and work back from there. The word that comes up in my mind is “slavery” and that can have many connotations apart from the obvious. Slavery is considered to be that bad that most countries of the world have passed laws to ban this practice. Slavery that is inflicted on us by others is indeed bad, but have we thought of another type of slavery as in addiction? We can think of many such as drink, drugs, smoking and many others and their consequences mostly finish up in poor health and premature death. And there are endless other addictions and indulgences even if we don’t give it that ugly name, perhaps we prefer compulsion or habit, as in overeating and gambling etc., but these likewise can end in tragedy.
Coming back to my earlier statement about freedom that we… LIKE it…, we are now confronted by somewhat of a conundrum…..Do we like tragedy ?
It seems to me our trouble is not with the interpretation or meaning of the word, but with ourselves……We need to make up our mind as to what we want.
Ultimate slavery is not what mere fellow human beings inflict on us, it is what we give into or more specifically who we give into.
Ultimate freedom is much more than what this world has to offer to us.
THINK ABOUT IT and it might give you a totally different interpretation as to the real meaning of the word.

This illusive Freedom, sometimes we chase after it frantically trying to bottle it like a “Jeannie” and use it to our own selfish ends. Little do we realize * that freedom, like the most precious things in life, are a gift from God. Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, freedom, you name them….….they cannot be contained in anything but that which He created in his own likeness; yes, You and Me.  They are gifts essential for our growth;  propagation is by sharing it with fellow human beings. Freedom is then no longer a virtue to be chased after, but a consequence of living the life as we were intended to.
* On second thoughts I think we do possibly realize, but it gets lost in the hustle and bustle of life and we get side-tracked……and not steer clear of “Endora”.

Thank you so much for this. I’m Australian, so insight into what Americans do and don’t mean by freedom has been helpful. It does seem FDR’s definitions differ significantly from Americans now.

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