Why Freedom Isn’t Free

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Back when I was starting my first business, I changed the desktop background on my laptop to a photo of the D-Day landing on Omaha beach. Over the photo was in big block letters “Harden the Fuck Up.”

The goal with the image was to provide a constant reminder in my times of struggle that my big problems weren’t really big problems, that as little as two generations ago, men my age were stepping off a boat to immediately watch all of the men around them die in a hailstorm of bullets.

D-day. Harden the fuck up.

But there was also a deeper, more metaphorical meaning behind the picture for me. And that was the idea that freedom goes hand-in-hand with sacrifice. Yeah, it was a bit melodramatic, but to my 24-year-old mind at the time, I was struggling through 16-hour days, sleeping on couches for the promise of a greater future financial freedom.

There’s a common saying in the US: “Freedom is not free.” The saying is usually used in reference to the military and wars fought and won (or lost) for values of the country. It’s a way of reminding people that, hey, this didn’t just magically happen, thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip overpriced mocha frappuccinos and say whatever the fuck we want.

The idea is that the basic human rights we enjoy — free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — were earned through the sacrifice against some external force, some evil threat.

But people seem to conveniently forget that freedom is earned through internal sacrifices as well. Freedom can only exist when you are willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, when you’re willing to give up some things you might want to do for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when you’re willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things don’t go your way.

The last couple decades, people seem to have confused freedom with a lack of discomfort. And of all of the scary developments in the past generation, this one should scare us the most — the entitlement people feel to have their own views confirmed and upheld.

People want a freedom to express themselves but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want a freedom to enterprise but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes it possible. They want a freedom to elect representatives to government but they don’t want to compromise or make due when they’re on the losing side.

As one journalist tweeted recently, “It seems people don’t want a democracy, they want a dictator that agrees with them.”

Freedom itself demands discomfort. It demands dissatisfaction. They are one and the same. Because the more free a society becomes, the more you will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas outside of your own, and therefore, the more you will be challenged on a consistent basis to re-evaluate your own beliefs and biases.

The question is: how are we losing this? How are we losing our ability to manage our own freedom?

I think there’s a multitude of explanations going on, the biggest being some combination of an overflow of information that is constantly catered to each individual’s pre-conceptions. But also, in the attention economy, “gotcha” journalism has created an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia of the system.

In my book, I argued that happiness requires struggle and suffering. In a similar vein, freedom requires discomfort and disappointment.

But in an economy built around preventing as much discomfort as possible, these two forces are perhaps coming to a head.