To begin my exploration of freedom last June, I attended a seminar in Boston hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) on the topic of Freedom, Tolerance, and Civil Society. Being a sucker for symmetry, I decided to end my year of travel by attending another IHS seminar, this time in Washington D.C. on the topic of Liberty and Current Issues. The IHS seminars are intense exercises in academic stamina. Discussions of liberty as it pertained to issues ranging from school choice to healthcare to foreign policy occurred for a week for more than 12 hours a day. I felt a little out of place at this seminar, as it was geared to students with public policy interest and background, and while I have an interest, I felt woefully uninformed about so many important issues. I did learn a lot about the different arguments surrounding various views on public policy issues. The IHS is a decidedly libertarian organization, so I took all the information in through the lens that this was just one interpretation of what changes should be made to public policy. However, you can’t beat a seminar where the housing, food, books, lectures, and stimulating conversations are all for free. For more information on what the IHS is and how to apply for seminars, scholarships, fellowships, and internships, go to www.theihs.org.
There is too much that occurred at my week in D.C. to go into great detail all the information given through lectures and various conversations, but there is one quote from a speaker during the week that really stuck with me and which I found pertinent to my interest in exploring freedom at home and abroad. The speaker was Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University whose research is primarily on the economics of culture. Dr. Cowen was brave enough to sign up for an open Q&A session where the audience was allowed to ask him questions on any topics without his prior knowledge of the questions. I don’t remember exactly what question he was asked, but his response to one of the questions was that “The greatest threat to liberty today is public opinion.” He left it at that without expanding upon what he meant, but I think that it’s a quote that’s worth exploring and thinking about as well, as its implications for our society. For me, this is another warning against the idea of the “tyranny of the majority,” which basically means that a society needs to have checks and balances in it to protect minority opinions. It also means that we need to take the time to think through our own beliefs and figure out our own opinions, instead of going along with “public opinion.” For example, with public opinion polls, say that in a poll most Americans are content with some aspect of society, yet you don’t know much about the issue at hand or possibly have different beliefs. I think too many people are content with thinking everything is okay if public opinion is in favor of something. If everyone adopts this view, though, then we lose dissenting opinions and the knowledge of an issue that they bring with them. Our society is at risk if people stop thinking for themselves. When this happens, it is easier for one side of issues to gain power, and often the side in power is not interested in maximizing our liberties. Another speaker during the week, a constitutional lawyer, told us that one change he would like to see guaranteed in the constitution is the presupposition of liberty in cases in which the constitution or law is unclear. The rulings should be made in such a way that the liberty of the individual is held supreme (unless it interferes with the liberty of another, which is always the sticky part of this interpretation, where do we draw the line?).
My week of thinking about liberty and current issues had me thinking about everything I learned during my time abroad, although I still haven’t hammered down exactly what freedom means to me because freedom to me does not mean one thing: it means everything. I am still grappling with the ideas of equality, moral obligations, democracy, and many more factors. I’m a huge believer in individual freedoms and liberties, but my time abroad made me think that we have moral obligations as members of a global community to help those at home and abroad who were dealt a worse hand than us in the game of life. How far should the ideas of equality go? If all men (and women) were created equal, why are some starving while most of us are wasting? Is democracy the best form of government? Would it not be better to have any government? I tend to believe in many libertarian ideals, but I can’t help but thinking that the free-market cannot solve all of our problems. We have a better chance in the western world for those ideas to work, but what about the rest of the world? What about the one billion people in the world who are in extreme poverty? What are we doing for them? What should we do for them? Is it the obligations of governments or private individuals or some combination of the two to fix these problems?
I don’t have the answers for any of these questions, and it wasn’t the intention of my time abroad to come up with an answer for what freedom means. If anything, exploring what freedom means only made me think of more questions. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from reading about, talking about, and exploring these ideas of freedom is that I know very little about what there is to know about everything really. For me, learning is a bit like drinking out of the ocean…it only makes you thirsty for more. I hope that my blog has educated you about current issues around the idea of freedom and made you think about what freedom means to you and possibly has inspired you to learn more about the world around you. Just because I’m back on US soil doesn’t mean that I am going to stop thinking about and learning about freedom and the various aspects of freedom there are. If anything, I’m more inspired and am already starting to plan the next great adventure.