Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Burden of Freedom (part 1)

Jewish law strictly forbid self-mutilation (Lev 19:28), but there was one exception. Exodus 21 outlines the steps to be taken if a Hebrew slave serves out his six year period of indenture but decides that he wants to stay with his master for good. The master must stand him by the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl, which marks him as a permanent slave of the household.

If this seems harsh, it's because it was. Since God wants all His people to be free, if any of them opted for voluntary slavery, they would be allowed to do it, but they would have to pay a price. The rabbis interpreted the piercing of the ear symbolically. God's people were supposed to have heard His call to be a free people directly at Sinai, and later through Torah, but if they chose slavery instead, then their ears were clearly closed and needed opening - or "piercing", to use the Biblical term.

Why would somebody choose slavery? Because being free is harder than it might seem. True freedom is not unfettered license to do whatever we like, but the freedom to take responsibility for our own lives in the context of a moral social order. It is sounds great in principle but proves difficult in practice. It involves sacrifice, and personal responsibility, and taking risks - risks that might pay off, or might not. Freedom comes with no guarantees. The free have the potential to advance their lives - but also to wreck them. Because of this, the safety of slavery is preferable for some, for it means that someone else takes responsibility for your welfare. All you have to do is please your master and you're taken care of.

I think it especially important to remember this in the wake of America's recent presidential election. With all the rhetorical buildup, from the incessant mantra of "change" to the hymns sung by the Obama Youth, the assumption was that Obama should "do something" about people's lives, particularly their economic situation. It doesn't matter that the largest cause of the current economic problems was people making unwise personal decisions. They borrowed more than they could reasonably pay back, or purchased more house than they could afford in hopes that it would appreciate rapidly and they could sell it for a profit. These are the kind of decisions free people have the liberty to make, but with them comes the possibility of failure. Embed this same folly into the business decisions of corporations large and small (did anyone expect people who were foolish about their personal finances to suddenly become wise when they went to work?), and you have a recipe for economic calamity.

What people want now is someone to stand between them and the consequences of their actions. Most people, and especially my generation, the Baby Boomers, have expectations about what life should be like, and it does not include a lower standard of living. Humans in general and my generation in particular wants to take risks, and should they succeed, we want the benefits, but if they fail, we don't want to take the consequences.

What we forget is that freedom and consequences are inextricably bound. You can't have one without the other. The minute you ask someone to stand between you and the consequences of your actions, you put yourself in the place of the slave who doesn't want to leave his master to live the life of freedom intended for him. It may not be direct and it may not be immediate, but the effect will happen.

This is one reason why I'm so concerned for my country, and the rhetoric flying around, and the expectations being laid on the president-elect, to the point of adulation (e.g. the Obama Youth). These are frighteningly close to the actions of a people who is wanting a saviour - essentially, a master - to shelter them. They want it so badly that they will sacrifice anything - even their freedom - to get it.

Am I being alarmist? I hope so. I hope I am dead wrong about this. I hope everyone is right when they say our system of government, our venerable institutions, and our checks and balances have seen presidents come and go, and endured worse circumstances than this, and still they stand. Yet at the same time I realize that our founding fathers such as John Adams recognized that throughout history, the next step from democracy was despotism - as happened in France from the Revolution to the time of Napoleon. The impetus was always the same: what the dictator offered was order and security in the face of impending or real social catastrophe, and the people jumped at it.

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