The United States was founded on the premise that freedom is a universal value. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, was unequivocal: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, is freedom indeed universally valued by all peoples, everywhere, at all times?
Historically, it cannot be argued that freedom is a universal value. Professor Jesse Rufus Fears, lecturing on the History of Liberty, points out that the great Egyptian civilization that built the pyramids did not even have a word for freedom in their vocabulary; China and Mesopotamia never developed a clear idea of freedom; and in China, the teachings of Confucius were about order and not about freedom.
Under conditions of stress, many peoples have been willing to give up political and individual freedoms in order to protect their nation from foreign attacks. The USA Patriot Act, which reduced individual freedoms by expanding the powers of law enforcement agencies, was enacted by Congress following the September 11 attacks. The Patriot Act is a contemporary example of a national decision to diminish freedom.
And yet, practically all American Presidents have articulated U.S. foreign policy on the premise that freedom is a universally desired value, and we have fought several wars to defend the principle of universal freedom. But what happens when individuals in other nations do not value freedom as we do? Should they be forced to be free?
Freedom is most easily defined as having the ability to act without constraint. Freedom is related to, but not identical to the concept of liberty. To be free is to be self-determining; to have liberty is to be liberated from something. Liberty is associated with institutions; freedom is personal. To keep this discussion away from esoteric philosophical debates on freedom, I am thinking here of freedom in the sociopolitical context.
And to better frame the question of whether freedom is a universal value, let’s borrow Professor Fears’ breakdown of freedom into three components of national, political and individual freedom. National freedom is the freedom of a nation to be independent from foreign domination or control. Political freedom is the freedom to choose our own governing officials, the right to say what we want in political discourse, and to give ourselves the laws under which we will be governed. Individual freedom is the freedom to live as we choose as long as we do not harm anyone else.
These freedoms are not necessarily found together. For example, North Korea or Cuba can be said to have national freedom but no political or individual freedom. The Roman Empire took great pride on its individual freedoms, but lacked national or political freedom as all its component nations were ruled by Rome.
In the United States, we have achieved a remarkable and balanced integration of national, political, and individual freedom. But, it does not follow that every nation wants our kind of freedom. We have found our freedom agreement enormously useful and beneficial, and I believe it is best societal arrangement yet devised. But other societies may need to find ways of organizing their nations in ways that better reflect their own traditions and culture. Notwithstanding our own well-meaning intentions, if freedom is not a universal value, we must reluctantly accept the freedom of other peoples to define their own identity.
Freedom may not be a universal value, but it is an enduring one. In the spring of 2019, I visited Riga, Latvia where in 1818 the main boulevard was named Alexander Street in honor of Czar Alexander. When Latvia first gained its independence in 1923, the boulevard was renamed Freedom Street. That provocative name did not suit the Nazi occupiers during World War II who renamed it Adolf Hitler Street. Later, when the Soviets occupied Latvia they renamed it Lenin Street. But when Latvia regained its independence in 1990