It’s a truism that’s become so trite it hardly rises to the level of a bumper sticker: Freedom isn’t free. You see it slapped across the back of SUVs, taped to the windows in Circle-K’s. Some days, it seems everyone can mouth the words but nobody understands them. Freedom isn’t free. It has always carried a cost, demanded a sacrifice. In any society that claims to be free, that liberty must be purchased.
Here I am not talking about, say, taxes. Taxes are not the price of liberty. I am not an anti-tax nut. I recognize, as Justice Holmes did, that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”. Taxes pay for the police and the courts, the schools and the hospitals, for sanitation and water and roads. But that’s true for any civilization. Taxes make the modern American civilization possible. They do not make it free. One of the staggering lessons of history, quite unwelcome at the moment of triumph of global capitalism, is that the price of freedom is not set in dollars, or in yuan, or in barrels of petroleum, or in bullion.
The price of freedom is blood.
The price of empire is also blood. But they differ in character. An empire is measured by the blood it is willing to shed of others. A free society is compassed by the blood its citizens are willing to shed of themselves. Freedom must be a good so highly valued, so thoroughly prized, that one would give up everything else — even life itself — rather than see liberty denied. If you’re not willing to die for your freedom, then you haven’t got it anyway: Any scoundrel can enslave you merely by willing to risk a little bit more.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be watered periodically with the blood of tyrants and patriots alike.” Note that “and”. It is not enough that we shed the blood of tyrants. The vast scape of human history is littered with the tales of oppressed peoples who suffered indignity and chains until it could be endured no more, who then rose up and smashed the yoke of their oppressors… and then give in to their baser instinct and became oppressors themselves. The fall of tyrants is a necessary precursor to the flowering of liberty — but it is not liberty. Freedom cannot be secured until the common citizen is willing to risk death to see it secured.
And you can’t hire a substitute.
You can’t pick a small subset of the citizenry, hand them weapons and money, and say, “Be free for me.” You can’t pluck them from an economy designed to fail them, offer them training and a job and a career, then ship them off to foreign sands and say, “Keep me free.” The men and women of the American armed forces are perhaps the most professional fighting force ever assembled, wielding a military might unprecedented in human history and unthinkable even a century ago. For the most part they are upstanding and impeccable. They can safeguard the physical property of the United States and they can protect the lives of its citizens. They cannot make us free.
You can’t hire a substitute.
If you wish to be free, you must run the risk, you must pony up the ante, you must be willing to pay the price. Does that mean that everyone should enlist in the Army or the National Guard? Does it mean our only hope of freedom lies, perversely, in universal militarization? Of course not. It means that to protect the freedoms on which this country is built, you must accept risk. An open society welcomes everyone — including, potentially, its attackers. A free press must function without governmental restraint — even if that risks undermining sensitive operations. Free citizens must be willing to debate, to question, to probe, and to ponder — they must be encouraged to doubt the party line, to look under, through, and beyond the official story. In a free society, an open debate must be held sacrosanct without reckless resort to smears such as “traitor” and “sinner”.
Josh: What do you say about a government that goes out of its way to protect even citizens that try to destroy it?
Toby:God bless America.
The West Wing, “The Midterms” (Season Two, Episode 3)
In recent years, we have seen the rise of a number of programs that, in more normal times, would have appeared quite odious, even sinister: “extraordinary rendition” to lands of torture; indefinite extranational detainment without hearing or trial; extra-statutory data mining; warrantless domestic spying. In each instance, there has been a chorus of cacklers decrying — not the outrageous acts done in our name by a government recognizing no limits — but instead the free press that has, through tireless research, uncovered these programs. There have been calls for subpoenas, espionage trials, even execution for treason; a discordant cacophony whose clear purpose is to cow and intimidate the journalists of this nation while, at the same time, convincing ordinary citizens that a free press is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the twenty-first century. And the thin thread running through all of these attacks, the weak reed that is offered up, the whine and wheadle is, These articles make us less safe. Now we are more at risk. To which I say:
The price of freedom is blood.
It is riskier to live in a free, open society than a closed, regimented one. In the short term, you probably do face a greater likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack. If that’s the price of a free press, we should pay it — and gladly. If that’s the cost of being free, we should ante up and accept it. Because without the freedom, without the liberty, the whole exercise is pointless. What good is it to save the physical America, if the price is the destruction of the higher America? This is the price demanded by freedom of every citizen. This is the cost of being “the land of the free” — we must also be “the home of the brave”. To be free, you must face death.
Happy Birthday, America. As you turn 230, keep in mind this exchange at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention: A woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “What form of government have you given us?” To which the old wit replied, “A Republic, Madam — if you can keep it.”
(Incidentally, it seems to me that these elevated risks are in fact only short-term; that in the long run, victory over terrorism can only be won by a free and open society. But that’s a topic for a different day.)