"Crap! I think I just condemned myself to hell..."

Recently there has been a spate of world headlines related to freedom, whether it is the joyous occasion of 33 trapped Chilean miners being freed from what could have been their tomb, or the gloomier news that the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 has been awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving time in prison for his remarks and activities the government sees as a threat to its rule.

Freedom is a universal pursuit, despite claims to the contrary. Some charge personal freedom as essentially a western-centric concept. True, nowadays the west values personal freedom on a very visible basis, but how can the desire for personal freedom be a solely western construct when, for example, it is universally recognised that deprivation of freedom is regarded as some form of a punishment? That is why every country in the world has a penal system—in part to deprive the criminal of freedom as punishment. The universal pursuit of freedom is why slaves, prisoners and teenagers, from all cultures and eras, tend to try to run away. It is why, when invaded, enslaved and colonised, the founders of modern developing-world countries organised resistance movements to throw out the oppressors. Many charge the west for being hypocritical—espousing the virtues of freedom at home while imposing shackles on outsiders. But the charge goes the other way too: those who deride the hypocrisy of the west do so in confidence that their freedom of criticism will not subject them to the west’s silencing methods.

Of course, unmitigated personal freedom spells disaster—Thomas Hobbe’s famous quote “bellum omnium contra omnes” (“the war of all against all”) comes to mind. Freedom comes with responsibility and mitigation, as ultimately a compromise of some sort is needed if we are to form a community with one another, agreeing to sacrifice some of our freedoms in order to gain from communal living. Therefore at some point, personal freedom will always collide with communal values. There is no hard, fast way to balance the two; each case must be seen in its own light. But I believe that in such conflicts, it is much better to err on the side of personal freedom.

The benefits of freedom are plenty. Biologically and psychologically, humans like space—the bigger the better. That is perhaps why the houses of rich people are so big. Even the most authoritarian of dictators want freedom—they simply want it for just themselves and nobody else. Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy was based on the quest for “Lebensraum”, or “living space”, for the Aryan race. Imagine how Kim Jong-Il would react if he was told his supply of caviar was to be restricted, or if Robert Mugabe was actually forced to live on Zimbabwean dollars. For all the talk of “harmony” in China, how harmonious would Prime Minister Wen Jiabao feel if, say, he was jailed for something he said in a Politburo meeting? Actively restricting others from enjoying the same freedoms one does is at best dubious, if not simply hypocritical and deplorable.

More than us wanting it as a natural instinct, freedom brings visible benefits. The most obvious type is measurable: the economic benefits of freedom are plenty, as the freedom to specialise and innovate has created the most dynamic and prosperous international economy the world has ever seen.

Yes, there are drawbacks to unmitigated freedom. The sexual revolution of the 1960s precipitated family and social breakdown across the west. Our online freedoms have increased our vulnerability to cybercrime. The use of the freedom of expression by one cartoonist and a pastor inflamed people across continents. But such events or trends should not become arguments against the general desirability of freedom. The sexual revolution elevated the status of women. Telecommunications have made it easier to expose the wrongdoings of authorities. The offence caused by the Danish cartoon and the pastor’s threat of burning the Koran are beginning to take Islam into the place Christianity was in around the 1600s, when unrealistic expectations and assumptions about the world in the west were challenged. Although freedom does bring with it unwanted consequences, the first step to rectify shortcomings is actually freedom itself. Imagine a place where all wrongdoings are always hushed up. How will improvements ever be made?

Given humans’ natural desire for freedom, and freedom’s overwhelming benefits, in a conflict between personal freedoms and communal values, I believe it is much better to err on the side of personal freedom. I don’t think anyone should hold an opinion different from mine. But if you happen to disagree, guess what? You’re free to.

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