The Paradox of Freedom

I’ve been personally wrestling with the proper conceptualization of freedom for some time now (don’t worry…I have friends and a job too), ever since becoming uncomfortably aware that I enjoy a much greater degree of freedom (freedom from, as I’ll explain) than many of my friends around the world. Three recent experiences have spurred this present public-journal entry: attending World Youth Day in Poland on pilgrimage, reading Pope John Paul II’s inspired book, Love and Responsibility, and spending these last two weekends listening-in on meaningful conversations about “Markets & Morality” and “Economics & the Pursuit of Happiness” at respective conferences. May you enjoy the haphazard thoughts to follow 🙂


There is a short tale that I was once told, regarding a certain historic encounter:

Years ago, when Pope John Paul II landed in the United States for his visit, President Reagan greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome to the land of the free!” The Pope then smiled and spoke with his usual wise and glimmering eyes, “Free, yes. But free for what?”

For what? Herein lies the paradox of this self-evident right which we rightly hold so dear, precious almost as life itself. Here, I think, is why we from the land of the free are surprised when we meet those who do not have as much explicit freedom in their lives and yet mysteriously still radiate dignity, strength, and even happiness. Here is why, although we currently enjoy greater freedom than ever before in the history of humanity, we still suffer at the hands of things like the paradox of choice.

Our understanding of freedom–as a broader nation but primarily in our intimate lives–is not whole.

The protection of freedom that we are blessed by cannot be the telos, end in and of itself, since it only can protect our pursuit of happiness, not guarantee it. This is necessary on a state level, but I think that we forgot the other half of the equation. We commit to protect one anothers’ freedom through our governments, so that we can then come home and freely choose to sacrifice that very freedom in our work, school, and play. In other words, I don’t think we experience the fullness of freedom until we use our freedom from unjust restriction as freedom for an end that is true, good, and beautiful. Paradoxically, echoing the secret of Mother Teresa, I’ve found the greatest happiness and freedom in giving it up to fulfill my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, and friend. Given our abundance of choices, we must be even more careful that our daily movements are taking us closer to the person we want to become and not further.

We must remember that freedom from is always completed by freedom for.

Freedom From

In the framework of the state, we encounter freedom as freedom from. From the outset, I want to be clear that I am in no way disparaging the freedom that we enjoy in the United States. In fact, I want to echo the words in an excellent article by our very own Nebraskan Senator Sasse, as he clearly articulates what freedom looks like in the political and economic lens:

The American Founders saw that denying people their freedom is fundamentally wrong because it doesn’t comport with the dignity of people who are created in the image of God. People have been endowed with certain inalienable rights. God gives us those rights; government does not.

Government is merely a tool. It provides a framework for ordered liberty so that free people can live fully flowering lives.

Freedom For

In the sacred space of the home and heart, freedom is perfected as the freedom for. What makes freedom so immensely precious is our power to relinquish our personal freedom in the service of a greater good. We sense this instinctively, for example, when we are moved to deep admiration for those who give up their comfortable lives to fight for our country, or even as we see married couples sacrifice their individual independence for the good of their family. I have found, that through a passage in Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul the Great clarifies this mysterious and paradoxical relationship:

Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not used, is not

taken advantage of by love, it becomes a negative thing and

gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment.

Love commits freedom and imbues it with that to which

the will is naturally attracted — goodness. (p. 135)

Which is Greater?

Who’s to say? I certainly have not seen enough depth and breadth of life to even pretend a wise response, but I can relay the wisdom of a man who was challenged to live out his philosophy, rather than comfortably preach it in a lecture hall his entire life. That man is Viktor Frankl, and the repository of his insight is found in his book  Man’s Search for Meaning. Through his experience in the concentration camps, Frankl made the courageous challenge to his fellow prisoners and now to his future generations of readers (a challenge which he lived up to):

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Though our freedom from may be taken away by others, our freedom for can never be completely extinguished. Freedom for, since it is not only the crown of freedom from but in fact can exist independently, is the greater, the fuller, the more perfecting. And to bring it full circle, lest we forgot it all too quickly (I know I do), the wisdom of St. John Paul II the Great:

 Man longs for love more than for freedom — freedom is the

means and love the end. (p. 136)

Love is the end? Just think about this one. In both our frivolous and fundamental pursuits of happiness, when are you the truly happiest? When you focus on doing what you want every day, or when you focus on loving others and letting them love you?* For me, the answer is self-evident.

 

*Even apart from religious understanding– everything that the social sciences can measure points to this fact as well. I’d highly suggest a follow-up video about the longest study on human happiness.

Advertisements

Adam Smith on Loveliness

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is well-known and well-loved for founding the study of political economy with of his famous work, The Wealth of Nations. However, he had in fact authored another book before it that is foundational to that foundation. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I would argue that it’s currently a more important read– especially as the culture of developed countries slumps towards moral relativism. Blatant evidence of the divorce of economics from its moral moorings is found in “the Adam Smith problem,” which encapsulates how economists (and experts alike) find it hard to understand that the same individual who wrote about becoming a good person and the origins of morality in a community was also fervently curious about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. For a man of his time, and a moral philosopher at that, the real question is how did he get so many things right about economics? The key is that he approached human behavior with an integral view of the human person. He understood the totality of visible and invisible incentives for our actions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes in the second chapter:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.

This is the crux of the intersection of economics and morality. Applied economics is a tool by which we achieve ends, and it is true that we do not necessarily need to judge those ends as worthy or unworthy of achievement when the models are used to determine whether they are achievable. From this it has been said that economics is an amoral science. Questions can clearly be formatted: Should Whole Foods make 300 more salads or 100 more cupcakes to increase profit? Should our family invest in real estate or bonds to save for our child’s college education? Should the federal government cut the income tax rate to raise revenue and increase growth?

But the interesting thing is that tool shapes not only outcomes but the craftsman himself.

With each fresh economic decision, we are also changed (the littlest bit) into someone either more lovely or more dreadful. The outcomes and outside standards of our life will determine whether we are praised, loved, and admired by our fellow man or not– but it is the inner, deep life and moment-to-moment orientation of our being that determines whether we are lovely to the core.

Thus, I would argue that economics is not merely amoral because the invisible moral reality underpinning our visible economic reality cannot be divorced from one another. The man who gives money at church is the same man who decides to pay private school tuition, is the same man who pays taxes and votes for officials. Later while describing vanity, Smith touches upon the problem that arises when they are. In contrast to doing things because they are inherently praiseworthy, oftentimes we act only for the praise and esteem of our fellow humans. The reality of “good choice” vs. “bad choice” are replaced with “makes-me-look-good choice” vs. “makes-me-look-bad choice.” Smith writes:

They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them.

In the United States, this extensive phenomenon has been labeled with the highly technical term “keeping up with the Joneses” and can be observed in every neighborhood, office building, and church. If you ask around (college kids do that kind of thing) that kind of life seems to be unfulfilling and just plain boring after awhile.

The good news is that many people, from professors to Popes, are writing about this essential relationship between morality and economics again. In “Rethinking Morality,” Professor McRorie discusses a few key texts to highlight the strengthening link between morality and behavioral economics. EconTalk and Intelligence Squared (podcasts I just gleefully stumbled upon) wrestles with these topics in refreshingly open discourse. And of course, there seems to be no subject on which the light of St. Pope John Paul II the Great has not shone:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus).

Back to Adam Smith– a real trap of free market cultures seems to be the ability to look praiseworthy without becoming praiseworthy. And here’s the real rub: there will be choices that will not gain us love, praise, and admiration by our fellow human beings. In fact, truly praiseworthy choices may even earn us hatred, blame, and suffering.

We must choose them anyway.

Cyprian Norwid on Beauty

Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up    –Cyprian Norwid (Polish poet)

A girl–even a girl who cares very much about economics and school choice–can only read and summarize working papers for so long until she has to take a break for something beautiful.  Something less useful. I came across this quote in a letter from Pope John Paul II, discovered through my brother’s recent blog post, and it struck a chord. Perhaps because he goes on to discuss a remarkable Greek word, kalokagathía which signifies the incarnation of goodness in the form of beauty, or because my cottage endured a glorious bout of spring cleaning this morning, I am quite sure that beauty is the one thing that we all desperately need more of. Especially in ourselves.

But what does it mean that beauty excites us for work? Beautiful things tend to resonate with us, and when we allow ourselves to be allured, they can draw us from where we are to where we ought to be. The power of beauty is that it resonates, but just not enough. We have to change if we want to feel at peace in the presence of a beautiful artwork, musical composition, or personality.  I felt this just a moment ago during my pre-class morning procession to the coffeeshop, over the well-worn cobblestones, past spring’s sweet-smelling trees, and under the light blue and light coral sky.

Beauty will humble us, then work exalts us. I am drawing completely from my personal experience here– the best feeling that I know arrives when I rest my head on my pillow after a full day of fruitful work. Whether it’s a long, refreshing run, a completed paper, or painted canvas for a birthday gift, we humans love looking over our shoulder and seeing progress. Work was made for us. Sure, it’s terribly frustrating, and the space between where I am and where I want to be seems insurmountable at least once a day (especially during those hours right before lunch), but beauty comes in and reminds us of the reward.

“You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

Beauty, truth, and goodness return us back to our right selves. They grant not only practical clarity, but pure excitement as well. It is precisely this reason why we should all care very much about surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and beautiful people, in our home, at work, and at play. It turns out that bare, useful things aren’t quite useful enough to complete the work we seek to complete.

And still the real crux of the matter has yet to be mentioned. At the end of the day, Peter Kreeft had it right in his lecture on the Sea when he spoke that we don’t want to possess beauty, but instead what we find we really want is to be entirely possessed by it. Just as the sea engulfs us as we rush into the waves, so we want to be engulfed by Beauty.


For further reading:

Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”

Pope JPII on Economics

It is not wrong to to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life that is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than toward ‘being’, and which wants to have more not in order to be more, but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments. —Centesimus Annus