honor system

“Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power”
  – James Madison, The Federalist

My exploration of the nature of freedom has thus far concluded that freedom is a richer concept than simply doing whatever one wishes in the absence of external constraints. Rather, freedom has more to do with living in accordance with one’s purpose and being empowered to excel at doing good in the world, without having to be made or forced to do so.

Another distinction I wish to add to this exploration, borrowed again from Os Guinness (A Free People’s Suicide, 2013), is between external and internal freedom. While one may exist without the other, both are needed to be fully free.

Internal freedom is a spiritual condition. Rather than being controlled by one’s thoughts, emotions, desires, beliefs, etc., a free person is able to regulate these internal states in service to a chosen or given end. Once achieved, internal freedom can be maintained even in the face of external forces that seek to control a person by shaping their internal state, e.g. a corporation manipulating people’s desires through marketing in order to influence their spending decisions.

The movie To End All Wars portrays life in a Japanese POW camp in Burma during WWII. The conditions were abominable, as Allied prisoners were stalked by disease, deprivation, and even death. Some of the prisoners, though, formed a school, and gathered to study great literature of Western civilization, including Shakespeare and the Bible. They even formed an orchestra and performed for their captors. Through their learning and sense of community, they protect their sense of dignity and individual worth, making them freer in one sense than their captors, whose worth depended completely on their place in the hierarchy. In a state of external bondage, they paradoxically attained a state of internal freedom.

External freedom is a political condition. This is what the Founding Fathers aimed for: freedom from oppressive restraints imposed by a monarchical government. Specific external freedoms are enumerated in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, press, and free assembly, and freedom from unjust government interference such as unreasonable searches and seizures. The POWs were obviously denied this kind of freedom, and did not attain it until Allied forces liberated them from their captors.

While it is possible to have internal freedom without external freedom, the converse may not be true: external freedom requires internal freedom, and will inevitably be lost if citizens are not internally free.

This principle is supported by the natural consequences in society when people cannot be trusted to control their desires for the sake of acting honorably or with dignity. A few years ago, at the high school where I teach, teachers were allowed to get their own sweet tea or lemonade from containers located behind the serving counters. There was a can to drop money for the drinks (50 cents) on the “honor system.” I enjoyed the privilege of being able to make a drink the way I wanted, mixing tea and lemonade in pleasing proportions, and to use my own cup. I would save up spare change and looked forward to accumulating the required 50 cents every few days.

One day I discovered the drink table missing. Asking around as to its whereabouts, I learned from a cafeteria worker that it was taken away because too many teachers were getting drinks without paying and the cafeteria was losing money. Now, I had to ask for a drink; I could not use my own cup or prepare it the way I liked. This simple pleasure became something that had to be regulated and managed by external agents, all because enough teachers lacked the honor to pay for their drinks. Acting honorably requires internal freedom: the freedom to override one’s base desires to enjoy things at others expense. When people instead are ruled by such desires, distrust and disorder ensues, and consequently external freedom is diminished.

Such is the trajectory of America, with growing regulations and the death of common sense. Governor Mike Huckabee observed that “every shelf in a law library represents the failure of the people to govern themselves by moral principles.” Internal freedom is the freedom to direct one’s thoughts, emotions, etc., toward doing and being good. When such self-directness is missing, external freedom becomes impossible to maintain.

I think I have adequately, for now, explored the nature of freedom and thus laid the groundwork for evaluating the success of our current public school system in educating students to live as free people. From my experience, the public system is largely failing in its task to sustain freedom by inculcating the beliefs, values, and character that are essential to it. Rather, I fear that the opposite is happening. I will turn to this direction in my future posts.