What is Freedom, Really?

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

“I am a grown woman, and am free to do as I please”, I tell my mother, sounding unconvincing even to myself.

Am I free to do as I please? Let’s see: freedom is a complicated word, meaning a lot of different things, in different contexts.

src: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Primarily, I use it to mean 1.a; the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.

I’d like to know: who are these people who don’t have constraints in choice or action? I’d like to be free to say a lot of honest things to my bosses, but my action is constrained here by my necessity to stay employed.

Let’s take a brief look at 1.c; the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous. “Freedom from care” is the example given.

As a human being, I believe that I’m in the business of caring. Caring is wonderful, fragile, and fulfilling.

I care for my family. I care for my country, and the world. I care for my fellow human beings.

If I didn’t care, who would I be? If a lack of care is freedom, then I’m not sure what I would do with such freedom. Let’s say I had no care for anyone or anything, what else should I do with myself?

Maybe freedom is the lack of care about what people think of me. This, I can get onboard with. America is a free country. People are free to dress however they like, and yet, when I look around Silicon Valley, everyone is dressed like a tech bro. Hoodie. Allbirds. So the free people don’t really seem to want to be free. Freedom without constraints is scary, and uncomfortable, and probably drives people to conform. Who wants to make choices when you could be absolutely anything, wear anything, eat anything?

Freedom has a perimeter.

Freedom isn’t really free or absolute.

Freedoms, as defined by the First Amendment, are more specific. The five freedoms protected by the First Amendment are: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government.

These freedoms too are limited in my opinion. What does ‘speech’ entail here? Who can petition? I am an immigrant living in the U.S. for the last 9 years on an H1B visa. Can I petition, or is this freedom just limited to American citizens? Turns out, some of these “freedoms” don’t apply to some people (including me), even by law.

So, these freedoms too aren’t totally free from constraints. Freedom of choice is a myth. My choices are shaped by my family, my upbringing, geography, and cultural influences. In the U.S., I keep hearing the proclamation: “this is a free country!” to justify everything from eating s’mores for breakfast, to buying guns like they are potato chips.

Is it really? If so, who does this freedom really benefit? Let’s go to part 1.b of the definition of freedom:

Freedom from slavery or restraint or from the power of another.

America is definitely not a free country then. The rich have absolute power over the non-rich. Hell, they can even determine if public transport lines can go through their neighborhoods or not. Slavery and restraint: oh boy. Do I really need to tell you the insidious ways in which slavery still exists in the U.S.? In my own world, moderately educated Indian immigrants who work for IT firms in the U.S. through consultancies are severely restrained by visas, and exploited by employers. Wage slavery is not nearly the same thing as actual slavery, I admit.

Nir Eyal says this about wage slavery:

For many wage slaves, leaving a job puts them one broken arm away from bankruptcy, so they stay put, whether they like it or not.

Well, I know a lot of people who live this way, don’t you? COVID, inflation, an uncertain job market, and rising health costs have exacerbated the problem of wage slavery.

What, pray tell, is freedom, and who really is free in the land of the free?



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Ashwini Sriram

Ashwini Sriram

I'm a product manager from Chennai living in San Francisco. I enjoy writing about product management, books, food, and people.