It's often easy to defend freedom in the abstract. You'd have considerable difficulty finding someone in this country who would argue against the idea that "freedom is a good thing." The problem with this fact is that people do not live in the abstract. Everything which people experience is concrete and specific. We do not feel "love" in the abstract or consume a concept called "food." Emotions are felt at this particular time in regard to that specific person or thing. We eat this hamburger, not hamburgers in general. In a similar vein, you are not free if you do not experience that freedom in the actions of your ordinary life.
This severing of the linkages between the general and the specific is a stock tool of politicians. Only by rarely (if ever) specifying what they mean by freedom are our elected officials able to champion the cause of liberty as an ideal principle in one area of life while simultaneously calling for more controls in another.
An example from my home state of Iowa came from Sen. Tom Harkin. He criticized those who oppose freedom of choice in abortion. He said conservatives are inconsistent when they call for less governmental intrusion but then demand control of what is one of the most private areas of a person's life. Yet this is the same man who was hailed for producing one of the most intrusive laws in recent years, a bill dictating how even private business people must deal with their handicapped customers.
Conservative examples of such unintentional hypocrisy also abound. Still, this political realm remains a step removed from our day-to-day lives. Politicians are easy targets to criticize. It's unlikely that many of us will ever meet -- let alone directly interact with -- our elected representatives, especially ones on the national level.
The true tests of our understanding of the principles of freedom and -- just as importantly -- their applications to daily life come in our dealings with our friends, relatives, and colleagues. You can readily proclaim your commitment to personal freedom and responsibility when the opponent is a two-dimensional image on television. It may be much harder to speak up with someone who can directly affect the conditions of your personal life or the job at which you work.
It's this brand of concrete, nitty-gritty courage when confronted with immediate opposition that reveals the true defenders and heroes of the principles upon which the United States was founded. Such people rarely make the newspapers, let alone the headlines. Yet without the foundation for liberty constructed by such brave individuals throughout our history, our nation would long ago have collapsed.
Unfortunately, their fight can be a lonely one. In recent decades, those who would stifle our liberties have resorted more and more frequently to what Ayn Rand once called "arguments from intimidation": "If you believe X, you are an immoral (or otherwise bad) person." While this form of attack bears a resemblance to an ad hominem attack, an argument from intimidation is perhaps even more insidious and destructive.
An ad hominem approach tries first to discredit a person: "John is _____." Fill in your own epithet. While some people excel at such name-calling, it is equally true that no matter what you call someone or how evil he really is, that has no bearing on the truth or falseness of his position.
This tactic has been used repeatedly against David Duke of Louisiana: "David Duke was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, therefore his opposition to affirmative action must be wrong." At this juncture, defenders of affirmative action might then add an argument from intimidation: "Duke is evil, therefore his positions are wrong. [ad hominem] If you believe any of those positions, you are also evil. [argument from intimidation]" Since most people want to be thought of as moral -- especially by those close to them -- they may well retreat from their position rather than risk being thought of as immoral or being associated with someone who is or might be.
The purpose of such an argument from intimidation is not to discover truth. Its goal is to silence opposition or, at a minimum, to throw it on the defensive and direct the focus of the discussion onto irrelevant issues. Anyone who implicitly accepts the charge of immorality for what he believes or does has essentially conceded the argument.
I have witnessed many such moral assaults. For instance, I used to work part-time in a hospital. There, a doctor told me that "no one should be driving an old, fuel inefficient car in this day and age. That's as bad as using Styrofoam." The clear implication, of course, was that if you did drive an older car (as I did) or did use Styrofoam cups, there was something wrong with you. This doctor was unwilling to discuss whether people who cannot afford a new car should simply do without; whether there is, in fact, a gasoline shortage; or whether Styrofoam cups are truly less environmentally sound than paper cups.
He was a perfect example of an old comedy line: "Don't confuse me with the facts." It's an attitude rampant in our society:
"You use disposable diapers! What is wrong with you?"
"You oppose welfare (or affirmative action or national health care)? You're a heartless, uncaring person."
"You don't support publicly financed education (or increased governmental spending)? Then you want Iowa to be a second-rate state." (A charge leveled in an editorial by a local television station.
"You believe in capitalism (or reason or an objective morality)? You are so naive."
The opponents of freedom have always sought to seize the moral high ground, to cloak their beliefs and behaviors in the mantle of "goodness." Perhaps they implicitly sense that their philosophies and programs do not and cannot work, so they create a false dichotomy between the practical and the moral. Socialists around the world have had decades to see the devastating consequences of their actions. Yet still the advocates of governmental control shout that theirs is the position of morality and compassion and should be adopted even if it doesn't always "work" very well.
The defenders of liberty must go beyond a strictly utilitarian defense. The principles of freedom must be supported by facts, yes, but those facts must include the facts of morality, as well.
To have the courage of your convictions means to express them even when others you know well on a day-to-day basis may disagree and disapprove. An audience of the converted is no challenge. In order to retain the freedoms we have and to regain the ones we've lost, we must not apologize for speaking the truth or for doing what is right. We each owe ourselves no less than that.