1. ECONOMICS: No cost.
The economic meaning of “free” is a misnomer. Nothing is free in the sense of having no cost. Education cannot be free. Health care cannot be free. Food, shelter, and clothing cannot be free. That is what Professor Milton Friedman meant when he repeated the adage, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Everything has a cost. And someone pays—with cash, goods or services that are traded, time, attention, work, personal affection, or something else that someone else values.
At a minimum, everything incurs opportunity cost. Choosing to obtain or experience or do one thing means not obtaining or experiencing or doing other things, which is a cost.
“Free” in the common economic sense of the word should henceforth be replaced with “subsidized.” It is more accurate. When people describe something as “free,” typically that means it is subsidized by someone else.
2. METAPHYSICS: No cause.
Anything that is the effect of one or more causes is unfree. An effect, by definition, is determined by cause(s).
A being is free only if it has no cause. As all physical matter is subject to the laws of physical cause and effect—the laws of physics—no material being, therefore, can be free.
Only a metaphysical being can be free.
What sort of being is non-material, non-physical or metaphysical, and free? The ancient term for such a being was “soul.” More modern thinkers have labelled it “mind” or “will,” as in “free will” or “self-conscious willfulness.”
Whether one calls it soul, mind, or will, however, it is clear that this being is free because this being and only this being makes choices. Choosing is the act of a free being. Only a free being has the capacity to make choices, which is why “choosing” is synonymous with “metaphysical freedom.” And only a being with a soul, a mind, or a conscious will is a free being.
Whether it be mortal or immortal, human or divine—or something else!—each and every being that has a soul, a mind, or a conscious will is free to choose. Which means all soulful, mindful, or willful beings are free. Which means they are equal in a decisive moral and political respect: they are equally free beings.
3. POLITICS: No constraint.
To be politically free is be free from constraints, especially constraints backed by legal force in the form of cops, courts, jails, lawmakers, regulators, armies and navies.
The opposite of political freedom is legalized slavery, in which the government monopoly on legalized force is used to constrain and control human beings.
But where human beings choose what to do with their property, which includes their own person and body and mind and opinions, as well as any goods they have produced or acquired rightfully through mutually voluntary trade, they are politically free.
Some Americans will worry that this political definition of “free” is dangerous, that it smacks of anarchical libertinism, that human beings who know no moral, legal, or regulatory constraints will easily succumb to temptations to harm others.
To them I respond: Yes, anarchical libertinism is dangerous. But the United States today is so far removed from anarchical libertinism that we need not worry about it right now.
We are the most heavily regulated and frequently shamed people in modern and arguably all of history.
One cannot roast a marshmallow over a camp fire in a forest without government bureaucrats commanding where and when and how it is allowed and disallowed.
One uses one’s own property and runs one’s own business only with permission from regulators—which means they’re not really one’s own.
One might be ostracized for teaching one’s own children in a classical manner rather than whatever fads are fleeting past departments of education at the moment.
One is socially excommunicated if one dares to speak about which kinds of cultures and personal character are compatible with morally decent civilization and which are not. It’s almost as socially shamefully as questioning whether government bureaucrats can engineer the environment, or toward what goal if they can.
We are not in the valley of the shadow of impending anarchy and libertinism. Let us not walk in fear. If anarchical libertinism is one end of a spectrum, the United States certainly is moving away from and not toward it. It is the opposite of anarchy and libertinism that should most concern us now.
Should Americans start electing politicians who start repealing laws and dismantling unconstitutional government regulatory agencies, then perhaps we should re-visit whether “free” means “no constraint.” But for now, given where we are and where we’re trending, reminding ourselves of what it means to live freely without constraints is a good and useful exercise.