Category Archives: Philosophy
“This is a free country,” was his terse response.
This all unfolded recently at my local public library, while I was quietly working on some writing projects. Around the corner of the room another patron started up a loud, profanity-laced phone call.
No longer able to concentrate and firm in my conviction that this was not the appropriate venue for such a call to be held, I calmly approached the man to inform him of my grievance and offer the radical suggestion that he should, in fact, take the call outside.
“Who are you to tell me what to do,” he bristled, “this is a free country.”
No, this is not a free country. This is a public library. You do not have the right to be an asshole to those around you. At least that’s what I had wanted to say to him, but lacking quick wit and impulsive retorts, I merely reminded him that he ought to be respectful to the other patrons. This diffused the situation, but I was left fuming over his cavalier attitude.
‘This is a free country:’ the battle cry of the libertarians. Who are you to tell me how to live. Leave me alone and let me do what I want.
It’s all evocative of talk we hear in America quite frequently. Ours is a nation that highly values its liberty. The very founding of our country, in fact, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, was built upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But of those unalienable rights, liberty has become the most proudly flaunted, not to mention the most fashionable. Think of all the t-shirts and Americana tchotchke you’ve seen emblazoned with eagles, red, white, and blue with the big word ‘FREEDOM’ written in bold capital letters. Liberty, understandably, is a quite attractive value.
Liberty indeed has been a vitally important core founding principle of America, and the resulting American psyche of being able to choose one’s own destiny factors greatly into our national pride and identity. However, there becomes a problem when liberty is touted above all other American values, such that even other rights enshrined in the constitution including justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare take a backseat to liberty. When this occurs, we lose sight of the reality of America as a nation. For, contrary to Americanized myth, we are not a country composed of rugged individuals best left to our own devices. We are instead a multitudinous society comprised of a diverse cross-section of humanity struggling to live out all the founding values of our nation. Though the founding fathers valued liberty, they themselves also came together to practice the compromise of their desires in order to form a more powerful nation capable of generating more of the common good for more of its citizens. We cannot operate for the greatest general welfare of all citizens of this country with an unabashed ‘leave me the fuck alone’ mentality. We need to transcend the simplistic thought of this being a free country—as in free of obligations to other people—and realize that it takes more than just liberty of conscious to promote other American values like fairness, equality, and protection of the minority. It takes a collective effort of knowing the limits to your freedoms and practicing the extent of your responsibilities.
The classic litmus test for the limits of liberty is that your rights end where my rights begin. Your rights to swing your fists freely end where my nose begins. Your right to speak freely ends where disorderly conduct begins. There are inherent limits to our liberty in this country, and that is designed for the better of society as a whole. But beyond basic limits to freedom, there is a certain respect and civility in public life that libertarian ideals don’t aspire to. The live-and-let-live philosophy makes little impetus to improve society for us all. The belief that everyone left to their own devices would make an ideal society ignores the systemic and structural inequality we have in America, let alone doesn’t compel us to become better citizens of our country.
The English philosopher Alain de Botton makes an observation that Western political theory prizes liberty as the ‘supreme political value,’ and that libertarian ideals have infiltrated all political parties, not just the namesake Libertarian Party. In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton explains how libertarian thought, in political life, seeks to cast no moral judgment on citizens and offers no vision as to how best to live together; in other words, that the greater welfare of the group is not a sufficient warrant to necessitate interference from the state upon the individual. The libertarian ideal, de Botton argues, is that moral behavior is a question for the conscious of the individual alone and should not be subject to judgment from a committee of governmental regulators. In America, any moralistic push of the state is viewed as paternalistic at best (nanny state), and suspect of a devious agenda at worst (fascism). But the downside of all this liberty is that we no longer know how to handle ourselves properly with all of our freedom. We often find ourselves in want of some moral guidance for how best to live our lives in relation to others. Here, de Botton argues, is where civil governments can take a cue from religions and not be afraid of being seen as paternalistic, but instead work to foster qualities, like harmony and forgiveness, which often run counter to our basic human nature. In a pluralistic society, it would take just a little nudging from the civil government to get us to behave on our best behavior.
Let’s think about how libertarian ideology can be harmful in this analogy:
A large group of individuals are traveling on a massive ship. They don’t all know each other, yet they share the same vessel. One day, the travelers begin to notice that the ship has started to list to one side, that is has started taking on water. They employ a sudden search to find the source of the leak in order to save the ship. Upon searching the lower decks, they find a stateroom that is the source of the water. They pry open the door to find a man standing over a hole in the boat. The man yells aggressively at the others who have found him: “I paid for this stateroom. I can do whatever I want to it!”
America, it could be said, is a giant ship, the home to a diverse multitude of people. As citizens of this country, we cannot do absolutely whatever we please and still expect to form a prosperous and civil society. There are limits to our freedom put in place to promote the common welfare, just as there are civic duties that it is our obligation to uphold for that same welfare. We are all in this together. The libertarian philosophy, unfortunately, often blinds itself to this interdependence to others in society.
Though we must value our liberty as Americans, we must also exercise that liberty with constraint. The freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre. The right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not imply that there should be no restrictions on civilian firearms. The norms for behaving properly in this country have been developed as practical limits on our freedom in order to promote a compatible society of diverse people. Once we can embrace the fact that indeed our liberty is not the sole virtue of our American society, we can move on to creating a better government. For, even in the text of The Declaration of Independence, with its intended purpose of severing ties with the English Crown, the abolishment of government altogether for the sake of increased liberty was not an end in itself. Rather, the alteration and re-institution of government mentioned was expressly intended to protect the rights and welfare of the people—not just for the sake of increasing personal liberty alone.
It was late on a Thursday evening, high up in Tuolumne Meadows in the Californian Sierras. I had just returned from an hours-long hike up to Mono Pass in Yosemite National Park. With the August daylight fading earlier each day, I rapidly got to my post-hike business of cooking a hot meal of gnocchi and red sauce over my camp stove. Already a couple of months into an extended road-trip in the great American West, I had gotten the dirtbag lifestyle of camping and living out of a vehicle down to a science.
Yosemite National Park, with its sweeping vistas and monumental scenery, attracts millions of visitors each year, with visitation peaking in the summer months. Up high in Tuolumne Meadows, though, it was quiet. I was the only person at the trailhead, and few cars even drove by on their way to the Tioga Pass. For nearly a week I had been hanging around the park, just biding my time for the coveted lottery permit to climb the iconic Half Dome to fall. In the meantime, I had spent my time exploring the far reaches of Yosemite. Just a day before, though, I had found out my lottery results came back positive: I had secured a permit to climb Half Dome on Friday. Tonight was the night before the big climb.
As Yosemite’s popularity makes it nearly impossible to find camping in the park in the summertime, I had settled for a camp spot in the Stanislaus National Forest land just outside the park. There, the camping was plentiful, but had the drawback of a long commute. From my perch up in Tuolumne Meadows, it would be a two-hour drive back, along the curving Tioga road, gradually descending 7,000 feet to the valleys below.
I appreciated driving at night in Yosemite, since the park was generally free of the heavy tourist traffic that plagues the daytime. I got in my sedan and pulled out of the trailhead lot onto the main road and began my drive. Even though the road was empty of traffic, a car immediately appeared out of nowhere and followed closely behind.
“Oh joy,” I mumbled audibly to myself.
I have always hated vehicles driving right behind me, especially at night. Their presence always meant another factor to consider in safe driving. Their headlights, too, continually glare from the rear-view mirror, providing a constant reminder that—as I always tend to believe—someone thinks you’re in their way. This car joined my tail right from the start, and since the road would approach no intersections for over an hour’s drive, there was little chance that they would be changing directions anytime soon. With it nearly impossible to find a safe turn-out in the dark to allow the other driver to pass, we were going to be together for a long while.
However, the car behind me patiently followed along. Though they made no indications of dissatisfaction with their slower counterpart, I couldn’t help but to project my own feelings of annoyance whenever I get stuck behind a leisurely driver. Most likely, I told myself, they wanted to pass me. They were probably very familiar with the road and just looking to get home as quickly as they could. I too had driven this road a few times already. Its curves had begun to feel familiar. The long, slow drive could easily become monotonous.
With a boosted confidence by my previous experience of the road, I increased my speed to 50 mph. Though the speed limit was 45 mph and a fairly generous speed for the road during the day, at night that rate of travel seemed, in my better judgment, just a bit too much. Nonetheless, I thought optimistically, that if I could just increase my speed a little, then my follower would slowly get left behind in my wake. No such luck. The car behind me matched my speed perfectly. I gained absolutely no distance.
Now convinced that the driver behind me must be annoyed at my slow speed, I began to feel the frustration that I imagined they must have. “If they can match my speed, then they must know the roads pretty well,” I conjectured. “Or, maybe they are in a hurry to be someone else?” My speculations ran rampant. Without much else besides driving to occupy my attention, my mind came up with all kinds of ideas of what this other person must be thinking about me. “What if they think I’m a lame driver?” “What if they think I’m not skilled at handling these mountain roads?”
My mind was pre-occupied with all these assumptions this other driver was making about my personal character.
And then it happened:
I lost control.
Traveling around a corner I had rounded multiple times before, I hit a rough patch of pavement. My car skidded and began to careen further down along the road at 50 mph. I corrected left and began to fish-tail out of control. My fate was no longer in my hands.
What transpired next seemed to take an eternity. The situation became unreal; my windshield turning into a virtual reality screen. I careened down the road for what seemed an impossibly long time, my car shuddering and bouncing up and down like a sickly realistic rollercoaster ride. Suddenly, a huge abrupt jerk and I was off the road. The windshield cinema played out a thicket of Manzanita shrubs flowing past. I was rolling right down a ravine.
And then it was over.
The Manzanita bushes in my windshield became still. My car had stopped moving. I sat soberly in the driver’s seat, unable to react. Just viscerally processing what had just transpired.
My sedan was still running. I turned the ignition off. At the steep angle my car was tilted, I couldn’t open the door to get out, so I rolled down the window to make my egress. I scrambled hands and knees up the embankment.
A man was running towards me, exclaiming “we thought you was dead!”
Dead I was not. Very much alert and alive, fortunately. My Good Samaritan rescuer, Mike, had been driving with his son in the oncoming lane when he saw from a distance my headlights swerve and disappear down into the ravine. Fearing the worst in the situation, Mike’s retired firefighter instincts kicked in as he rushed to assistance. As Mike’s son called for help, Mike assessed me for injuries. Physically, I emerged unscathed. Psychologically, though, it was a shock.
The aftermath ended up making a long night for all of us. Mike stayed with me until the much-delayed rangers came, then the rangers stayed with me until the tow-truck finally arrived. I was questioned in detail about what had caused the accident, and to my surprise, the rangers were very sympathetic to my situation. They knew exactly where the rough patch that caused the accident was. They even gave me a Gatorade to boost my stamina. The tow truck driver managed to pull my battered sedan out of the ravine back onto the road. Aside from one large dent to the passenger-side bumper, it was little worse for wear. To turn tragedy into jubilation even more, my car started easily and the tow truck driver had forgotten his payment binder and thus couldn’t charge me for the service.
Eventually all issues from the incident were resolved. The rangers, the tow truck driver, and I parted ways. I drove myself back to my campsite. It was a fitful night for me, trying to chase elusive rest as I dozed in the driver’s seat. My mind kept racing around all of the horrible things that could have happened, but didn’t. What good stroke of fortune did I hit in order to avoid tragedy?
The next morning, I traveled back to the very spot where my accident had occurred. It was true that I needed to retrieve some pieces of undercarriage flashing which had been torn out from my wheel-wells by the brush, but more importantly I needed to piece together in my mind what exactly had happened the night before. Looking back at the scene in daylight, I tried to recount where everything had transpired. The very exact spot where my car had left the road, there was a short shoulder made of soft red dirt. My feet sunk easily in when I stepped in it. This was not really a shoulder, per se. Could it have just been a patch of dirt left over from nearby road construction? Whatever reason for its existence, it must have slowed down my car significantly before I veered down the ravine. And of all the spots, that was the exact one where I had gone off the road. Just up the road in the westbound lane, there was a long roadcut of exposed Yosemite granite. I just as easily could have smashed into that. Along the eastbound lane, there was a sharp drop-off into the forest. I could have easily gone off into that direction as well. And then, there was the spot where my car landed as well. It was all Manzanita. The trees were around, for sure, but incredibly not where I had landed. There were several large trees straight ahead if my car had continued to travel forward, and one tree had been inches away from the passenger side. But miraculously I had avoided everything.
And then I thought back to the reason I had lost control in the first place. To think that I was driving too fast for the conditions just because I was so pre-occupied with what a complete stranger thought about my driving speed. Ridiculous! What could have easily turned into a lethal accident was based primarily on imagined conceptions!
My near-catastrophe was a product of me being overly concerned about what another person thought of me. Though this was an extreme example, there are so many ways our own decisions in life are made based on the judgments and expectations of others. We tend to go through our lives so disproportionately concerned about what others think of us, even people who are complete strangers. I, as you could probably surmise, am quite prone to doing this! What trivial things do we do just to keep up appearances for others! What interests do we either pursue or not pursue based on what other people would think appropriate for our personal archetypes? What do I say and how do I act, in order to fulfill some social role that I think others expect me to act? Oh how we let ourselves be so inhibited from true expression of our inmost being! What words do I say or not say? What books do I read or not read? What food choices do I make in the grocery store just based on what the check-out clerk might think of me? How can so many of our simple, everyday choices be so influenced not by ourselves, but by the perceptions of those around us?
The day after my accident, fatigued and emotionally drained from the night before, I made a successful summit of my prized Half Dome.
And what about the car that was following me the whole time down that mountain road?
They never even stopped.