Our Tragic Redefinition of Freedom

With the possible exceptions of baseball and apple pie, nothing is more American than freedom. Since the creation of the nation, Americans have prided themselves on the liberty afforded to them by God. The United States is the “land of the free” and her President is the “leader of the free world”, so surely our regime respects it, right? The reality, however, is that the relationship between liberty and the current regime is not as straightforward as it might first appear. America today is certainly dedicated to the preservation of liberty, but what they claim it constitutes is severely distorted.

Like most other important words, liberty is not easy to define. No one sentence summary or brief diagram can capture the full meaning of the word. However, a careful study of its meaning in the history of Western thought shows that liberty is usually defined in one of two ways – political or personal freedom. Often people tend to emphasize one form of liberty at the expense of the other. In truth, both are vital to living a fulfilled life.

Political Freedom Entrusts the Individual

Political freedom was best summarized by Lord Acton as the “assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities.”[i] Put simply, political freedom means that we may pursue what we believe is right without the undue interference of the State. This first part of freedom is vital. Political tyranny corrupts both the ruler[ii] and the ruled. It turns the citizen into a servant and makes the unfettered pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful impossible. This freedom can be fully achieved only in a government that is limited, one that places relatively few constraints on the individual, without disregarding proper order.[iii]

Personal Freedom Requires Constraint

While political freedom requires a lack of restraint, personal freedom mandates restraint. This sort of liberty requires dedication to virtue. This type of liberty is best described in the definition of freedom offered by Pope John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”[iv] To achieve personal freedom we each must conquer our own selfish and animalistic desires. By this conception, the alcoholic or glutton is no freer than a slave. Just as a political tyranny makes us servents of the state, the tyranny of sin makes us mere animals. Both must be conquered if we truly wish to exercise our free will.

In our modern age personal freedom is often set aside. If you told most people on the streets that learning to restrain their desires is as important as the government not telling them what to do, they would balk. The common view of freedom has become that we are entitled to do “whatever we like as long as it does not hurt anyone else.” Truly I say to you, that this purely political rendition of freedom cannot survive without its personal counterpart.[v] Freedom in its fullest sense, requires the ability to live a holy life – not a utilitarian seek of pleasure.

Our nation is already facing the effects of forgetting that freedom is not the same thing as doing whatever we like. Social degradation and the decline of the moral imagination have led to a brutally self-centered culture. In order to repair this, the State must restore institutions often thought of as tyrannical restraints by liberal theorists: reverence for tradition, tightly bound family existence, local community, and religion are fundamental to cultivating the virtue needed to be truly free.

Alexis De Tocqueville on journeying to America observed “that there is nothing as prolific in marvels as freedom, and yet nothing so hard to learn.” Like virtue, beauty, and truth, one can dedicate their entire life to the study of liberty and still find new facets of it expressed in the human experience. However, we in America have forgotten what it truly means to be free from the flesh. If we wish to save our nation, we must recover an appreciation of this transcendent blessing.


[i] Lord Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity”. 1877.

[ii] Think of Lord Acton’s more famous line: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

[iii] Though it is important to note that limited government merely means a government that has limits to its power, not a government that is without the authority to rule at all. This is the nuance typically lost on libertarians.

[iv] John Paul II, Homily of His Holiness Delivered On an Apostolic Journey to the United States of America, October 8 1995

[v] To be fair to political freedom this is not even that version of freedom at its very best, but rather a version with all values gutted from it entirely.