Competing Views of Freedom
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2017

Two competing views of freedom mark American politics.

One view considers freedom an absolute right belonging to an individual that can be expressed in any manner the individual chooses, so long — at least according to some views — it does not injure another individual or their property. Although labels can be imprecise, we can call this the individualistic or libertarian view of freedom.

The other view either considers freedom as a limited right, subject to what is good for the life and dignity of human persons and the communities in which they live, or sees freedom not as a right all, but a condition that allows people to choose rightly. We can call this the communal or traditional conservative view of freedom.

Adherents to either view can reach the same conclusion about some issues. For example, both would object socialist or collectivist programs.

Sometimes the two perspectives are incompatible. Legalization of drugs, assisted suicide, and minimum wage laws are a few examples.

Consistency eludes the Fallen, so politicians are not always consistent. Nevertheless, trends develop and they reveal themselves in the arena of public policy. The fight over the Sunday morning closing law in North Dakota is one example.

Proponents of repealing the law made several arguments, such as the many exceptions in the existing law and the fact that some people have to work other days of the week. However, at the heart of most of their arguments was the idea that government “had no business” telling businesses when to open and close. The sentiment expressed the individualistic or libertarian view of freedom. What mattered to these individuals was not whether the common good was served by the law but the fact that the law infringed on what they considered an absolute right of the individual.

Opponents also made several arguments. Some legislators felt that protecting time for the Sabbath was important. Others, including the North Dakota Catholic Conference, contended that communities and families prosper best when they have a common period of rest and recreation. At the heart of these arguments was the idea that government’s job is to provide the sum conditions necessary for the development of persons and communities, especially the family. Implicit in this view is the belief that some things are more important than business and property rights. This position reflected the communal or traditional review of freedom. It views freedom not as a right to be asserted without limit, but as a virtue that is only good when the exercise itself is good. It also recognizes that forces like the economy, social behaviors, culture, and structures of sin can remove the ability to choose correctly.

Corporate farming, gambling, firearms, minimum wage, zoning ordinances, restrictions on abortion, and limits on pornography are other examples of when these competing viewpoints reveal themselves in North Dakota politics.

This tension between competing views of freedom is not reflected the usual Left/Right political spectrum. The “left” often holds an individualistic view of freedom when it comes to matters of sex and gender. The “right” often holds an individualistic view of freedom when it comes to matters of property, business, and guns. There were Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Sunday closing issue.

The Catholic view rejects the individualistic view of freedom and teaches something more akin to the communal view.

The most important teacher on freedom in recent memory was Saint John Paul II. His experience in communist Poland and his exposure to individualistic errors in the West made him uniquely suited to reflect and teach about authentic freedom. His most famous quote on the subject is: “[F]reedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

He was not the first person to say it. Others before him, including Abraham Lincoln, had made similar statements. Indeed, the idea is not new. Some attribute the idea to St. Augustine. Whomever expressed it first, it is rooted in the Christian understanding of human life. It expresses, on one level, deep theological lessons about Christ’s crucification and resurrection; about what it means when we say that Christ set us free.

On another level it expresses truths about how we should structure society. St. John Paul II understood this connection between the salvific action of Christ and the church’s social teaching. He also understood how the erroneous view of freedom underlies problems ranging from abortion to excessive consumerism even as he understood the dangers of statism through communism.

Notably, his famous statement about freedom was not presented to audiences in the newly freed Poland or the struggling democracies of Africa or Asia. He said it on one of his visits to the vanguard of freedom, the United States. I don’t think he meant it as congratulatory. I’m sure he meant it as a warning.