Freedom–How Much Is Too Much?

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Confucius Lives Next Door, by T.R. Reid

Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Better yet, what is the correct definition of freedom? And where, exactly, does your freedom overlap my freedom?

Are you, for example, free to open your front door and let your dog out onto your yard when mine is right next door and we both know dogs don’t understand where your yard ends and mine begins? Can a pedophile who genuinely gets some morbid sense of pleasure from his actions be allowed to have free access to innocent children because of issues of relating to his freedom to live as he sees fit? Can you impose your lifestyle beliefs on my children because you happen to be the teacher of the school they attend, even if I do not want you to? This is a question cultures have debated for centuries, but it is interesting that many non-Western cultures are becoming increasingly convinced that they have it right, while we and other Western countries no longer do.

Let me quote T.R. Reid in Confucius Lives Next Door:

“I heard this same indictment time and again from Asian intellectuals and business or political leaders: The United States has let crime, divorce, and deviant behavior go too far, the argument runs. But lifting the rights of the individual onto a pedestal, America has reduced the collective good of the overall society to a low priority [bold added, for emphasis]. In the name of freedom, individuals have been permitted to run amok, undermining the freedom of the community as a whole…[quoting Mahbubani]’American society has swung too much in one direction: liberating the individual while imprisoning society…What is striking is the Americans’ failure to ask fundamental questions such as: ‘Is there too much freedom in American society?’’” (P. 220)

The Mahbubani Reid quotes above is “Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat who has spent a good deal of time in America” (p.17) and he is further quoted on p. 17 as saying, “’…societies can be better off when some boundaries of individual freedom are limited rather than broadened. The resultant increase in social and communal harmony in turn can be liberating for the individual.’”

Another source Reid quotes as criticizing the excessive expression of U.S. freedom is from Malaysia’s president Mahathir: “’For Asians, the community, the majority comes first. The individual and the minority must have their rights, but not at the unreasonable expense of the majority. The individuals and the minority must conform to the mores of society. A little deviation may be allowed, but unrestrained exhibition of personal freedom which disturbs the peace or threatens to undermine society is not what Asians expect from democracy.” (p. 221)

Reid concludes, “…the dark and dismal picture of American society that is commonplace today throughout East Asia has convinced many people there that the United States, despite its vibrant economy, is a decaying society caught in a downward spiral.” (p. 222)

So what is the verdict—do we have “too much” freedom? Do we misconstrue the interpretation of freedom too heavily on the right of the individual at the expense of the greater good of the community? I think so.

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