It’s extraordinary how the juxtaposition of two innocent words can arouse suspicions and in some cases, cynical disdain. There is no better example relevant to this war than the idea of a free world. Its supporters sprinkle it in speeches; its detractors like to chide or mock it by putting it into quotation marks.

Does the phrase capture anything important, or is it a slogan, no less bovine than “Long live the Party!”?

The simple answer is that I think it does capture something more than a bland rallying call; it embodies something fundamental to human existence. To understand this requires getting beyond the casual use of the word “freedom” as a sound bite.

Freedom is a many-sided word. It might mean the question of whether, within that lump of matter affixed in your skull, there is anything beyond the determinism of chemical reactions directing you like an automaton. It might mean the more metaphysical question of whether freedom has any meaning to us as individuals, in the sense that a person can never truly be “free” from outside influence; otherwise they would not be a living thing at all, let alone part of a society.


But when people talk about a free nation or a free world, they use it in the political, social or economic sense. This is what concerns me here and I think we can clearly establish what we mean.

For long stretches of human history, many of our fellow creatures have experienced little beyond the immediate and raw needs to ensure survival. Those existential concerns were often made worse by the docility and obedience demanded by being another person’s property – in other words, a slave.

Yet even for those people who managed to escape being the identifiable property of someone else, servility still indirectly shaped their lives in the form of governments that largely directed the political and economic environment in which they existed. It required no master in the house to be a slave. Ancient history is awash with despotisms.


Then, with a flicker here and there – ancient Athens being the most lauded example, but by no means unique – human beings discovered that it was possible to order society without the ubiquitous dead hand of oppression.

When asked what freedom means against this history, I think most people would agree it represented a growing set of structures that protected the dignity and self-respect of individuals. From medieval times to the present-day this has included freedom of the written and spoken word, freedom of conscience, and governments that were in some ways accountable to people and could be dissolved at the behest of an unhappy population. In modern representative democracies, we include the presence of credible and visible political opposition.

Alongside these formal structures is a network of voluntary associations and organizations that constitute the richness and color of civil society. They provide the conduits for individuals to find a further field of action as well as a means to express dissent about society’s direction and priorities in meaningful ways.

Then, of course, part of this recipe has been the complex apparatus of a judicial system that treats people as innocent until proven guilty, gives them the right be represented and heard by an impartial judge; a system that, needless to say, protects them from torture and cruelty before trial, and, just as importantly, after a verdict of guilt.


These are just some of the collected set of innovations that most of us, when we talk about a “free state,” are referring to. Is there any commonality between these multifarious ideas? I think that there is, and it cannot be expressed in the form of a policy that can be clearly written down. It inheres in an attitude. Countries and peoples that seek this idea of freedom are ones that maintain as a lodestar in their behavior the presumption of individual agency as paramount. We see a recurrent theme of personal decency and honor given primacy in the arrangements of society.

Being “free” is a way of understanding and experiencing relationships among individuals. One might simply say that a free society is broadly one which encourages a disagreement about the very meaning of the word free and provides the mechanisms for the population to act on these deliberations. That requires the state, which can stifle this discussion, to be tamed.

I’ve sometimes said, crassly, but I don’t think inaccurately, that in a free society, the individual is always innocent until proven guilty, whereas the state should always be presumed to have nefarious intentions until proven innocent.


Perhaps this is a bit cynical, but it captures an essential wariness towards state power and the underlying approach towards institutions that have the power to coerce. In a truly healthy free country, the state itself will encourage its youth to develop this critical and enquiring mentality towards power.

A strong free state is not one that can mobilize blind obedience and demonstrate its ability to repress dissent; rather, it is one that goads and prods its population to think for themselves and to possess the self-respect to challenge authority. Sapere aude: dare to know. This is the unspoken motto and impulse of a people and state worthy of freedom.

Certainly, free countries can mobilize the state to do certain things: for example, build roads or raise an army. The other extreme, a militant dislike for collective action when a consensus suggests it could be useful, is not what freedom is about either. Freedom is not a crass demand for self-realization; it is a tilt towards the individual with a responsible appreciation that sometimes the individual can achieve the best through collective action.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that we have achieved anything near perfection in such an organization of humanity. But of all solutions on offer, liberal democratic orders, despite their many imperfections, do not seem a bad way to shackle the power-hungry and rapacious; and I think they are a system of governance that should be examined and taken seriously by any person who wants to live in a place where the state’s power can be limited through the actions of the population. You don’t have to be “Western” to find merit in this view.


To return to the title of this essay, following from a free state or nation is this idea of a free world: a vision of a larger group of people who pursue these tenets. “World” is an unfortunate word since it can imply an uncompromising intention to impose a view on all peoples of the Earth, a little like the Marxian ambition of world revolution or a “communist world.”

I don’t think many people, myself included, are demanding such a vision. When I use the phrase “free world” I mean a voluntary collection of people or nations that constitute their own “world” of free states, not necessarily a world in its literal planetary meaning. Here the critics of the phrase “free world” have a valid point. Having said that, one might hope that the promise and delight of freedom would encourage many people to want to join such communities.


The final aspect of freedom, and perhaps its most stubborn and mystifying character, at least to those who do not feel empathy with it, is that the lack of clarity in its essence is exactly the reason why people are ready to go to war for it.

It is within the slippery meaning of freedom, which admits of a million interpretations, that the individual finds their own equilibrium with the world around them and in their association with other people.

Being willing to risk everything to defend something you cannot write down in a manifesto, ideology, dictate or state slogan, seems strangely contradictory, even hypocritical to some, but it is the very core, and the inspiring substance, of a free world.  


The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.


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