Freedom is NOT Free!

We have heard these sobering words of warning countless times. Usually in conjunction with memories of battles that were fought to preserve our freedoms and our democracy from enemies and tyrants far beyond our borders. Usually intended to remind us of how individual soldiers and patriots have fought and died to make our lives of liberty possible. Often intended as an expression of gratitude to those who have put themselves in harm’s way in service to our democracy.

Make no mistake – these words are a cautionary exhortation that we should always remember and that we must persistently teach to our children. We must never take for granted that countless men and women have laid down their lives as the price of the liberty that we cherish and enjoy today.

But, there is a tragic insincerity, arrogance, and hypocrisy that often lurks just below the surface of these words when spoken by many of our leaders. For while many leaders will publicly praise and even weep over the sacrifices made by others to defend and protect “democracy” and “freedom”, those same leaders are often unwilling to make the sacrifices of their own that are also required to preserve our freedoms and our democracy. These sacrifices are not the “ultimate” sacrifice of giving up one’s life. But they are sacrifices just as critical if democracy and freedom are to be preserved.

To explore this hypocrisy and to understand the sacrifices that must be made, we must embrace an uncomfortable oxymoron — “Democracy” and “Freedom” are often at odds with each other!

• The basic definition of “democracy” is the “rule of the majority”. But, the basic definition of true “freedom” is the ability to be a “minority of one” – to express oneself and to choose for oneself pathways that run contrary to the majority and to the accepted norm.
• Democracy without vigorous protection of the minority viewpoint, the minority population, or the minority interests is nothing more than “Tyranny of the Many”.
• Freedom and independence without respect for the wishes of the majority, for the rule of law, and for the needs of the public is nothing more than “Anarchy of the Whole”.

If we embrace one without the other – either demanding that whomever is in the majority should have absolute control or insisting that individuals can ignore and defy public will — we risk losing both our freedoms and our democratic way of life.

Unfortunately, both our Democracy and our Freedoms are at risk today because our leaders have embraced these extremes rather than struggled to maintain a delicate balance between both ideals.

So, how do we restore balance? How do we guarantee a Democracy that functions effectively and meets the public need? How do we guarantee that Freedoms are not trampled and lost in the process? What should we look for when we vote and what should we expect of our leaders?

The answer is relatively simple although making it happen requires both leaders and followers (voters) to make sacrifices. Not necessarily to lay down our lives, but to lay down our self-interests. To value our Democracy more than self. To value the Freedom of others as much as their own. After all, if Freedom is not Free and if Democracy is Fragile, then we must ask more than just our soldiers to suffer the pain necessary to preserve both.

Which raises the obvious question…what do these sacrifices look like? How do we choose to place Democracy and Freedom for all above our own self interests? Below are five sacrifices that we should be willing to make. Five sacrifices we should expect of our leaders. Five sacrifices that will protect Democracy from becoming tyranny and that will ensure Freedom does not sink into anarchy…

1) Sacrifice Policy to Process – Our political process has become a shouting match of opposing policies. The voting booth has become a place to get what you want or to thwart the desires of the opposition. If I want to pay less tax, I vote for the leader who promises to deliver. If I want more environmental regulations, I vote for the leader who demands the same. If I am burdened with debt, I vote for the leader who has a plan to forgive those debts. If I am happy with my healthcare, I vote for the leader who promises to protect the status quo. This approach to electing leaders is nothing more than a tug-of-war for control. “If my candidate wins, we can impose my interests on the public!” As a result, our Democracy no longer functions to unify the public, but rather has become a tool of war between differing points of view.

We must sacrifice this desire to impose our will on others by valuing the “Process of Democracy” more than the outcome. Rather than shopping for leaders who simply agree with our preferences, we should vote for leaders who protect our democratic institutions, who respect the rule of law, who value minority opinions, who promote due process, who welcome checks and balances on their own decision making, and more.

In short, we must favor those leaders who will protect our democratic interests (Process) more than our own self-interests (Policy).

2) Sacrifice to Victory to Voters – A significant amount of political effort – organizing, funding, advertising, and more – is made in today’s political process to manipulate who votes and who does not. Political parties, candidates, and donors try to fan the flames of discontent in order to get their people to the polls. Those same political interests try to intimidate, block, or dissuade voters with a different point of view from doing the same. Much of the election process is not trying to persuade people HOW to vote, but trying to manipulate WHO votes.

But, voting is the foundation stone of both Freedom and Democracy, and any effort that undermines the ability of the public to vote, undermines both. A democratic government cannot represent the differing interests of the public if large segments are silent in the election process – either because they cannot, will not, or do not vote. And, voting is the ultimate act of freedom – the ability of the governed to change those who rule. If people do not vote, then both Democracy and Freedom are weakened.

We must sacrifice our desire to win at all costs by valuing voter participation more than the results of the election itself. Rather than supporting the norm, we should have the courage to vote for candidates who make it easier to vote, who resist intimidating the opposition from going to the polls, who favor laws that might require voting or require workplaces to allow their workers to vote, and who favor non-partisan approaches to establishing legislative districts and polling places. And, on election night, we should be more willing to celebrate a robust and fair election more than whether our candidates have won or lost in the process.

As a footnote, this effort does require a massive amount of courage because it is somewhat natural to fear those who think differently than do we. And, we must fight the fear of losing an election. But, in the long term voter participation IS Democracy and voting IS Freedom.

3) Sacrifice Favoritism to Fairness – It is natural in life, in business, and in politics to favor our friends. To work with people we trust and know. To support the viewpoints and fight for the interests of those closest to us. To favor family and allies over strangers. In life, this leads to a narrower network of friends and community than is possible. In business, this often results in talent drain and promoting people above their capabilities (The Peter Principle). In politics this leads to nepotism and corruption. Sadly, we have seen an increase in favoritism spread across the country, both at the national and local level. It seems that when we elect a President, a Senator, or a Governor, we are also electing a posse of their friends and family to work in government. All too often, we are also giving the friends and supporters of the elected leader a better chance at getting contracts, winning special favors, and having their viewpoints championed.

Let’s assume for a moment that these political favorites are NOT corrupt and ONLY have the best interests of the public at heart. Favoritism and focusing on a narrow network of supporters and loyalists will still lead to a suboptimal outcome. Better, more talented people are overlooked for critical jobs. A diversity of viewpoints and ideas are ignored when making decisions.

We must sacrifice the comfort of working within our own personal networks in favor of open processes that solicit the best ideas and the best talent from across society. We should favor leaders who select staff based on qualifications (what they know), rather than connections (who they know). Political labels – democrat, republican, independent – should be irrelevant when a leader appoints people to positions of influence.

In fact, we should favor candidates who over-correct this problem – perhaps prohibiting favorites from being appointed to positions of power and/or make extra efforts to work with individuals who share a difference in opinions and viewpoints.

4) Sacrifice Opacity to Openness – It has been said that darkness hates the light. This is perhaps most true in politics and government. Our darkest actions – barely legal initiatives, highly unpopular policies, unfair actions, and more – are often hidden in government behind the closed doors of decision making. The public is often excluded from the decision-making process and is often in the dark when it comes to how decisions are made and who might be making them.

Except in cases of extreme national security – fighting terrorism, etc. – this opacity can never be justified in terms of Democracy and Freedom. In government secrecy is used either to hide something of which we are ashamed or for which we will be criticized. To hide how we have made a decision in the first place – which runs contrary to Democracy. Or to hide an unpopular or unfair decision that might frustrate a vocal segment of the population – which runs contrary to Freedom.

We must sacrifice our desire for expediency and we must demand that our leaders sacrifice their pride and image in favor of openness and honesty. We should elect leaders who value truth over their own embarrassments, who willingly share more information than that which is required, who conduct their business in the open, who shun secrecy and control of information.

Make no mistake – total honesty and openness in government can be painful. We may not like what we come to know. But, only in the daylight can democracy fully work and freedom be truly protected. It is often said that “information is power” and if that be true, then power (information) must be given to the people, not reserved for leaders and government alone.

5) Sacrifice Hubris to Humility – Hubris is over confidence in one’s own capabilities and opinions. Humility is the recognition of one’s own limitations and shortcomings. Politics today is all about the former – candidates and leaders beating their chests and proclaiming with almost messianic conviction that their way is not only right, but the only way forward. In fact, this hubris has become so embedded in our political process that we are unwilling to change direction, to modify our policies, to compromise with our opponents, to listen to differing points of view, or to backtrack when we make mistakes. Like train wrecks in motion, or speeding cars racing towards one another in a game of “chicken”, our political process has become an “all or nothing” display of hubristic conviction and inflexibility. This leads to poor decisions. It leads to dangerous reactions to the problems we encounter. It leads to a paralysis in in the halls of government. This makes our Democracy dysfunctional because Democracy requires the synthesis and merging of differing opinions.

We must sacrifice this hubris in favor of action and compromise. We should look for leaders who will change their minds and their positions when they are given new perspectives and new information. We should look for those who pride themselves in compromise not intransigence. We should vote for leaders who listen before they talk and who give initial preference to an opposing view. We should select leaders who give credit to others rather than seizing it themselves.

In short, Democracy and Freedom truly are not free! It takes sacrifice in order to protect these fragile and precious values. We must be willing to…

• Sacrifice what we want today (policies) in favor of democratic processes and institutions that will guarantee that people in both the majority and the minority are heard, respected, and protected.
• Sacrifice an occasional victory at the ballot box in favor of guaranteeing widespread voter participation, involvement, and influence that will strengthen, enfranchise, and legitimize the electoral process.
• Sacrifice any hint of favoritism and special interests in favor of systems that fair, accessible, and easy to use in order to encourage widespread contributions and involvement in government.
• Sacrifice secrecy (opaqueness) in order to guarantee an open and transparent governing process that is unable to trample freedoms, undermine democracy, or empower subversive action, and
• Most importantly, sacrifice our hubris, arrogance, and pride in order to humbly accept criticisms, be open to new ideas, and compromise with others to fuel progress for the long term.

It will take voters making decisions in the future that are somewhat counterintuitive and that are certainly not always about self-interest. It will take leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and who have the courage to step aside (or be forced aside) in favor of other leaders. But, if we are unwilling as a public and as leaders to make these sacrifices of ego and control – unwilling to place democracy and freedom above self – then we must ask whether soldiers and patriots – who HAVE made the ultimate sacrifice to protect democracy and freedom – have fought and died in vain.