Freedom IS Free

“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. 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.]

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:”

  1. that freedom is expensive, and everyone must pay for it.
  2. that all men are born in slavery, and only military force can free them.
  3. 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.


  • Mark Bower wrote:

    The article on freedom, combined with the reference to Rolling Thunder makes me think of the “problem of the free rider.”

  • LOL!

    Whenever those guys go by I think “freedom isn’t free, it costs whatever a really big Harley costs”

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    I think it is a kind of pilgrimage, but a bit different from something the Hajj (the white robes vs. black leather being an obvious difference). There are likely as many motives for doing it as there are riders. Some sacred, some less so. Probably some survivor guilt at work at least at the very start of it. Many, many worse ways to work that out.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    And now I’ve got the Edgar Winter Group going round in my head.

    But seriously, you raise a really important issue. Phrases like “freedom isn’t free” tug at the heart strings, and when someone lays them on us, we allow ourselves to be led to conclusions without thinking through the argument.

    The issue is that kind of “free” in “freedom,” isn’t the kind of “free” in “isn’t free.” What people mainly mean when they say “freedom isn’t free” is that the common defense (which is in the Constitution) isn’t free.

    I wonder how it would change things if people engaged in politics were more precise in their use of terms like “free?”

  • It’s a common observation that once slavery went away, freedom became a much more vague and hard to define thing.

    What I dislike most about “freedom isn’t free” is the way it monetizes it. As you say, equating “free” as in “not a slave” with “free” as in “free toaster when you open a new account.” And the way it calls for constant militarization–because freedom is NEVER free, according to that statement, there must always be an army. always be grieving widows and parents.

    That’s REALLY different from what “the founders” thought. They couldn’t disband the army fast enough, because freedom was man’s natural state and the army was a threat to freedom, not its guarantor. Which is why they loved the impractical idea of a citizen milita.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    But isn’t efficient always better?

  • Probably–the question would be “efficient at what?” Efficient at small insurgencies would be different from efficient at defense or efficient at large pre-emptive strikes. If we had a citizen militia we would not be efficient at carrying out, say, the Vietnam war.

  • The Japanese writer Masahiro Yasuoka distinguished two kinds of freedom—political and personal—and claimed that the West was focused on political freedom and the East was focused on personal freedom.

    His point is a bit clearer if we throw in a third kind of freedom, freedom of the will. We are all born with freedom of the will, and nothing one can do will make have any more freedom of will, and the only way to have less freedom of will is throw serious brain injury.

    The personal freedom of the Asian tradition was different from this in that it was prone to cultivation. We are born the slaves of our karma, but through hard work we can attain liberation from this and become truly free. Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have different routes to attaining this kind of personal freedom, but they are all aimed at cultivating the self.

    In that sense, freedom is a “natural” condition of human kind but not an innate one, just as fruit is natural for an apple tree, but still requires years of growth and a bit of good luck.

    Political freedom is social. Rousseau famously claimed that we are born free but everywhere in chains. The idea is that we are born unconstrained by others, but others immediately rush in to constrain us. Only by allowing us to stand alone as individuals will we ever be free. I do not accept Rousseau’s theory, however. No one is born an individual. We are born to mothers. We are nursed for many years before we can survive on our own. “Freedom” for the infant is death by exposure. Likewise, political freedom does not come from isolation of individual from individual, but from the creation of a social structure in which personal freedom is able to come into fruition.

  • Mike,

    Have you found the origins of the phrase, or earliest uses? I did a quick newspaper database search and it seems to emerge at the end of WWII, and then is invoked a lot in the rhetorical fight against Communism and against peace protests of the Viet Nam War. If I find anything else, I’ll let you know. I’m curious if it appears at all during the Civil War…

  • Sheila, that’s a brilliant idea–I would bet it’s a cold war thing–that makes sense. I think in the Civil War political l virtues hadn’t been monetized” yet. And also considering Meredith Lair’s book, I suspect it was a reaction to the way the Army entered so enthusiastically into retail

  • It does make sense, and also provides some justification to wars hard to justify, later, even though we see it appear after WWII.

    Interestingly, the first ref I’ve found is for Memorial Day in 1945, remembering those who died at Normandy: By DREW MIDDLETON By Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. “NORMANDY GRAVES SPELL V-E’S PRICE :U.S. Cemetery on a Hill Above Deadly Beach Is Reminder Freedom Is Not Free German Pillboxes Restored Their Lives Bought Freedom.” New York Times (1923-Current file), May 30, 1945, (accessed May 29, 2012).

    And we’ve got to get a copy of this guy’s “primer on patriotism”
    WELLINGTON J GRIFFITH Jr. “WORDS TO LIVE BY :Freedom Is Not Free! If we want to keep it–“We have to love it, live it, work for it, even fight for it”.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), September 1, 1957, (accessed May 29, 2012).

  • Mike, I disagree with the premise of your post and here’s why. You attempt to use The Declaration of Independence to support your argument. Take the 3 pt. Update at the bottom of your post:

    (From the article) 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:”
    1. that free­dom is expen­sive, and every­one must pay for it.
    2. that all men are born in slav­ery, and only mil­i­tary force can free them.
    3. 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.(end of Update)

    In fact, The Declaration doesn’t specifically mention freedom in the beginning, it says, {“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — THAT TO SECURE THESE RIGHTS, GOVERNMENTS are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the GOVERNED, — That whenever any Form of GOVERNMENT becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new GOVERNMENT, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”}

    Our Founders believed in a gov’t of the people, by the people and for the people. Whether that gov’t still exists is another debate. But the Founders make clear that the gov’t SECURES these unalienable rights. How do they do that? At times through military might and justice…

    Further, the last paragraph of The Declaration of Independence addresses FREEDOM specifically, {“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.}

    Our Founders counted THE COST of declaring, fighting for, obtaining and protecting freedom and liberty for themselves and their succeeding generations…and they specifically pledged their Lives, Fortunes, and sacred Honor in doing so. Do a self-study on what happened to the men who affixed their signatures to this document. Although history has embellished their stories some, for most it didn’t end well for them personally. But in the end they won our freedom as a nation…through their sacrifice.

    Finally, in Pres. Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby he clearly acknowledges the cost she has paid.

    {Executive Mansion, Washington, November 21, 1864.
    Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts:
    DEAR MADAM: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
    Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln. }

    The reason you hear “Freedom Isn’t Free” professed and acknowledged in our society is because the list of those who have given the highest measure of devotion is long and distinguished.

  • I don’t think we disagree at all. I think you are missing my point, which is that the declaration envisages our rights as innate and acquired at birth. Natural rights are always free. Nobody gives them to you, except perhaps god. Your right to an opinion comes from the fact that by nature people are opinion-bearing beings. You might as well speak of people having a right to two legs. That’s how they imagined rights, even as they knew that establishing an independent nation would be extremely costly. The nation’s independence was costly, but the rights were imagined by most of them as free

  • freedom is free

  • Barbara wrote:

    The fact is freedom does require responsibility by all that are free to insure the freedom of others. That makes the cost of freedom self denial at times to ensure that anothers freedom is not denied. Look around and see the truth in how some have used their freedom as a license to exalt their own opinons to a point that denies anothers freedom.

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