How Do We Define Freedom?

The Daily Reformer

OPINION | This article contains commentary which reflects the author’s opinion.

For more material from Christoper Michaels, visit his website.

Freedom can be measured in specific ways. We have laws and rights that define clear boundaries the government is expected to honor. In this way, we can identify if freedom is being infringed. At the same time, freedom also exists in a variety of loosely measured ways.

The flexibility of freedom’s definition comes from each American expressing a slightly different perspective. Any measurement of a shared meaning requires consensus. While everyone brings non-negotiable elements to the table in developing consensus, the edges of freedom seem to shift. There is a set of national conditions that are included in reasonable definitions. There is also a set of regional or local conditions that describes the practice of liberty for a particular time and place. I want to explore these differences to understand the extent of the shifting landscape.

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Before I continue, I want to be transparent about a personal belief. I respect and honor each American’s right to their own definition of freedom. You and I don’t have to agree. I defend your God-given right to disagree. I also recognize our differences in experiences should inform our differences in opinion.

If you will indulge me, I knew I had a long drive from Denver to Wichita ahead of me. I knew the 500-mile trip would give me time to observe freedom ‘descriptors’ in action. I had a handful of distinct indicators in mind that would help me determine the ‘health’ of freedom on my trip. For the record, I consider myself a ‘Kanoradan.’ I was born and raised in Kansas. I’ve lived in Colorado for over a decade. I’ve made the trip between these two cities dozens of times. Specifically, I wanted to determine where people on Interstate-70 were traveling from, how busy the gas stations were, and how many people were wearing masks.

Obviously, these are not scientific indicators of freedom. Still, they offer a barometer of how freedom feels in middle-America. During my trip, I counted license plates from thirty-five different states. That is on-par with what I expected. Below thirty would tell me the economy is slumping; above forty would say it’s booming. Again, this is not scientific. Years of observational data provide me with reasonable expectations for each trip.

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When I stopped in Colby for gas, I had to wait about fifteen minutes to get to a gas pump at the largest station in town. Mind you; this is small-town Americana on a major Interstate highway. The business generates a large number of customers and is rarely empty. Today, it was as busy as I’ve ever seen it.

The final litmus test I was looking for was the number of people wearing masks. It struck me that maybe 20 – 25 percent of the people I encountered had no mask on at all. Another 20 – 25 percent had a mask attached to their body but only put it over their nose out of social obligation. As you might expect, the rest of the crowd wore their mask as if Dr. Fauci were watching the proceedings himself.

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Freedom, as it was being practiced across the expanse of Kansas on this day, rang loudly. People were out enjoying the warming weather. Money was spent at local businesses. A growing number of people had utter disregard for mask mandates with nary a complaint from a passerby. Perhaps, the recent arrival of stimulus checks spurred everyone into action this particular weekend, thereby skewing my informal results. Maybe, the season of Spring Break escalated traffic patterns in a way I can’t account for. Perhaps, Kansans are living as they always have—by their own set of rules.

You see, my home state occupies an interesting east-meets-west and north-meets-south mashup of American culture. Despite its homogenous population, Kansas sees more than its share of travelers because it is a place you must get through on the way to your destination. As a result, we are not ignorant of the outside world. At the same time, you all left us to our own devices decades ago. The population of Kansas is now double what it was in 1900. It took us 120 years to double our population. The population of the United States in 1900 was 76 million citizens. The country has more than quadrupled in population over the same span that it took Kansas to double its own. It’s a sign that people don’t particularly like living in a place like Kansas. It’s also a sign that we Kansans are left to fend for ourselves.

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All of this provides the backdrop for how freedom is practiced in a place many people pass through, but not many people live. The practice of freedom becomes its working definition. The state I am from, Kansas, has a different set of local conditions defining freedom than the state I live in, Colorado. The starkest difference I witnessed today was in how people policed themselves. There weren’t frenzied soccer moms running around telling everyone to put a mask on. If someone chose to ignore that county statute, others left it alone. When we went to dinner tonight, some people walked in and out of the restaurant without a mask. Nobody glared at their fellow patrons who chose to forego wearing a mask. Everyone was free to suffer the consequences of their choices without interference from overly-concerned citizens shouting them down.

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For the record, I am not telling you to wear a mask or not. You are presumably capable of making that decision for yourself. If you’re not, ask a trusted adult. Setting that aside, I want to direct your attention back to my first statement above.

We can choose to be adversarial, ambivalent, or amicable. How we choose is a forerunner of how we view freedom.

Living in the Denver metro area, I encounter some people who approach other residents adversarially. It may be related to not wearing a mask, not walking your dog in the prescribed form, or wearing a Trump t-shirt (I own one. It’s excellent!) The interactions quickly go from bad to worse because the instigator simply cannot let someone else alone—they have to get involved for everyone else’s supposed sake.

Another subset of people I come across is wholly ambivalent towards their fellow man. This group doesn’t care if you and I exist or not. We are currently in their way, and the world would be a better place if we weren’t in their way.

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The final group—which is growing smaller in Denver—is genuinely amicable and will strike up a conversation among strangers. They don’t appear to judge me or others they interact with based on a set of approved features or attire. As you might expect, my trip back home provided the antithesis of what I encounter each day where I live. As my college roommate puts it, welcome to Kansas—enjoy your freedoms.

As I said in my introduction, I respect and honor each definition of freedom a current or aspiring American espouses. I certainly can’t entirely agree with everyone else. I try to maintain amicable interactions—unless they are KU fans (I kid, sort of).

Your experiences and local culture inform your definition of freedom. Perhaps, you have a definition that resembles mine. Maybe, you think I’m crazy for taking some measure of enjoyment in watching my countrymen disregard laws and protocols they find irrelevant. The beauty of our shared freedom is you can think of me whatever you will. As long as you don’t treat me like an adversary, I will treat you with amity.

As always, this has been the World, According to Chris.

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