“Freedom is not free:” We hear this a lot. In the DC area, we hear it also in in the form of thousands of motorcycles that arrive ever Memorial Day, under the guise of “supporting” veterans and prisoners of war. 1
Freedom is free, though. If people are born with free will, if free will is a gift of God, then freedom is free, absolutely. You could argue, I suppose, that freedom has consequences–Adam and Eve exercised free will when they ate the apple, and their exercise of freedom had harsh consequences. But they did not have to pay for the right to choose–they were endowed with it at creation. It’s a central premise of Judeo-Christian thought and American political theory that freedom is free. To argue that “freedom is not free” is to misunderstand the foundation of our notion of freedom itself.
The Declaration of independence also says freedom is free–we are endowed by our creator, it says, with certain inalienable rights. They are an endowment, a gift, and they cannot be taken away as long as you live. I cannot not have opinions: to be human is to have opinions, part of our natural endowment. A tyrant can silence me, at gunpoint, but the silencing does not stop the opinions. That’s why it’s tyranny–because it runs counter to human nature, which is to have free opinions.
If people are born with opinions, with free thought, with choice making as part of their fundamental nature, then freedom is free. In this sense–the sense in which the US was founded–the military does not give you your freedom–God or nature gives it to you, and it IS free. If the military gave us freedom, the military could take it way, at its pleasure. And that’s not an idea the US was founded on.
But obviously, the exercise of freedom, the enjoyment of freedom, is precarious and vulnerable, easily suppressed. Someone is always trying to prevent it, or make us pay some sort of price for the exercise of freedom.
Which makes it all the more imperative to honor the voluntary service of Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, who defend the exercise of freedom, willingly surrendering their liberty and risking their lives to do so. They protect the exercise of freedom.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s not. It’s crucial to understanding what the United States is actually about, which is the argument that people are free by their nature, fundamentally born free, and that all people are the same in this, universally born free. “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” Our political theory grows out of the premise that freedom is free, a birthright.
If you accept this premise, it makes it all the more imperative to thank those who serve their country in its defense, in defense of freedom. Freedom isn’t a gift or a favor the Army grants. Rather the Soldiers and Sailors and Marines sacrifice some of their natural freedom, their birthright, to protect our ability to exercise the freedom we were born with. Understanding freedom as a birthright, rather than as something the Army gives us, makes the service of the military all the more precious.
UPDATE: to make this more clear, think about other ways the Declaration of Independence might have been phrased. “We hold these truths to be self evident:”
- that freedom is expensive, and everyone must pay for it.
- that all men are born in slavery, and only military force can free them.
- that freedom is provided by the government and its army.
It seems pretty clear this would be a very different country if phrases like that had been adopted in 1776. Instead, the Declaration imagines freedom as something we are all born with, something we get for free, simply by being born.
- I’ve never been sure how driving a loud motorcyle around “supports” veterans, but it’s a harmless thing and obviously a lot of fun for participants. ↩