Election Season Topics: Freedom

By Jeremy:

Of all the issues being discussed this election season, one of the most important has hardly received any attention: the issue of free will.

What does free will have to do with the election?
Isn’t the debate over our freedom ultimately a lot of intellectual navel-gazing?

Perhaps a political discussion of freedom is overdone, but nevertheless, free will has played a central part in this year’s election rhetoric. After all, what is at the core of the ‘you didn’t build that’ (Obama) vs. ‘we built it’ (Romney) debate, other than the issue of free will? We will leave the tomes on free will to professional philosophers, but I would like to show how the ideas of one philosopher in particular, Friedrich Nietzsche, is relevant to our current national debate.

We/you didn’t/did build that

Obama’s view stresses that the will of an individual alone is not always enough to create and sustain a family, a community, or a nation. The context of Obama’s “they didn’t build that” comment refers to public highways, bridges, and other facilities. It suggest a kind of free will that exists in degrees. It might reach limits, but it has room for flexibility. Although, a certain company or government agency may have, in fact, built something Obama argues that it wasn’t done without support from other citizens or public institutions.

Romney, on the other hand, often discussed an absolute freedom of the will. Each of us has in us the power to get whatever we want, so long as we are able to will ourselves to it. This view requires a kind of protective curtain wrapped around it, because if you were to look outside at the scaffolding that holds up this absolute free will, you will find many other, smaller, fragmentary wills that are sustaining the illusion. The inclusion of the term ‘we’ in the catchphrase ‘we built that,’ adds to the confusion of the point.

Who built it? You? Me? We? What about the Department of Transportation? Or the unions involved? Do these all count as ‘we?’

The fact is, we can’t all be as successful as Mitt Romney. There are always problems and differences, often hidden and unconscious, that hold certain people back from the types of freedom that others are able to achieve seemingly as a product of their own volition. Not only that, but a society that contains nothing by winners is impossible. You cannot make a nation of Bill Gates’ clones.

Nietzsche’s analysis of the freedom of our minds and our will undermines Romney’s notion that we can all ‘build that.’

“…the decisive value of an action lies precisely in what is unintentional in it, while everything about it that is intentional, everything about it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious,’ still belongs to its surface and skin – which, like every skin, betrays something but conceals even more.

I chose this quote because I believe that Romney’s ideology only runs skin deep, something that has been further demonstrated by his party’s guady convention, and his consistent tendency to renounce any former, moderate stances. He does not have a nuanced plan for an entire nation, but a firm plan for a select few.

Beauty is for the few?

Obama, on the other hand, has presented a nuanced view (although, personally, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama may have done it better at the Democratic convention). He sees a country full of capable people who can work together and fill in one another’s gaps, engendering a even pace in our country’s existence and persistence in the world.  He recognizes that there are many groups in our population – immigrants, people of color, students, the elderly, the mentally ill, to name a few – who are set back by a circumstance beyond their control, that they cannot simply ‘will’ their way out of.

“The ‘unfree will’ is mythology;” says Nietzsche, “in real life, it is only a matter of strong and weak wills.”

Now, be careful, Nietzsche’s quote above should not be construed to mean that the previously mentioned groups in our population are ‘weak willed’ – that judgment would only be possible if we still believed that we had the free capability to will. It simply means that their circumstances endow them with a weaker capacity to will. We are all born into different circumstances within which we are able to will various possible outcomes.

Gathering the masses

This might seem absurd, but how many people buy lottery tickets, knowing full well that only one person can win? Romney’s lottery is similarly appealing: he claims that everyone can win, so long as they have enough ‘free will,’ or, for the rest of us – luck. Even when you do win the lottery it likely won’t change who you are or the other circumstances surrounding your life.

What do you think? How have Obama and Romney discussed free will and it’s more commonly uttered twin ‘freedom?’ Are all of us capable of willing ourselves towards success? What does success mean to you and our country? Are you convinced by the idea that you can build your way to success or do you believe it requires more?

More on the discussion of freedom after we here comments at the debate tonight!

Watch the debate here.


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