The Burden of Liberty
Tibor R. Machan
It was a contribution that the French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre made to 20th century thinking, within his Existentialist outlook, to point out that although human beings are, unlike other stuff in the world, free to choose, this freedom is a big burden to them. For Sartre the burden came from the absence of God and any of helpful moral standards, a kind of absurd freedom that human beings must suffer instead of enjoy. Yet even if you acknowledge that there are standards for people to follow in their lives, standards by which to tell right from wrong, it is still not so very easy to make the choice the proper way.
So while for centuries most people lived in servitude and wanted out from under, once some did manage to free themselves–or were helped to freedom–it wasn’t always something they welcomed with open arms. The reason isn’t so difficult to see.
Freedom means not only choice but also responsibility. Free men and women have to face up to the fact that it is up to them to do the right thing, to find out what that is and to make the effort to do it. The zillions of small and large decisions made by them all require some attention, although because people can cultivate habits–like the habit of driving carefully, of working out, or of being polite to neighbors and such–it isn’t always terribly burdensome to have to choose. They can, with admitted initial difficulty, commit themselves to a wise and prudent course and then stick to it and that way not need to handle every choice anew.
Still, the very prospect of being able to go wrong with how one acts can be frightening, so many folks escape into mindless routines or accept other people’s rule over them. Just think of this health care mess–isn’t it possible that millions simply don’t want to have to cope with having to prepare for the prospect of ill health, of having to think ahead and save up and choose a good insurance system early enough in their lives with which to anticipate getting older and more frail? Instead of taking up the challenge oneself, it seems it’s simpler and easier to get a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats to handle it all. Never mind that that assumes other people are responsible for one instead of oneself. Never mind that one is signing up for some kind of bondage and relinquishing one’s liberty. But it seems such a hassle to start having to think of what the future may bring and how one needs to forgo current benefits so as to make sure enough that the future will not be left unmanaged.
Trouble is that this temptation to escape freedom is readily accommodated by those who like it when they are made to be in charge of others. Nothing like getting control of portions of other people’s lives, to feel that macho and saintly feeling! Thus, in their eagerness to unburden themselves of responsibility, many folks find it ping to entrust the politicians and bureaucrats with jobs they don’t like to do themselves. And this will make it seem that some folks are heroes, great people, leaders of us all–like the late Senator Ted Kennedy who recently, posthumously, found himself virtually canonized just because he took it upon himself to take care of people (with other people’s resources, of course).
Sartre was on to something. Freedom isn’t so easy to handle. But I would like to amend his thinking by suggesting that when one does assume the responsibilities that come with freedom, one will have something to be proud of. One will have lived up to the task of a human being to shoulder one’s own problems–maybe with a little help from friends–and not dump dealing with them on other people who, after all, have problems of their own to deal with. And there is always getting together with others quite apart from the political. That, of course, also involved having to figure out which associations are the wisest, which are hazardous. But it will help one not only to act freely but to make as sure as one can that others are also free to choose for themselves.