It is a common misconception that those in power necessarily have more liberty than their less powerful counterparts. Intuitively, a country’s king has the freedom to act in more ways than the peasant, the rich have more options than the poor, the slave owner rules while the slave is ruled, and a government official often treads above the laws they pen for the people. However, there is a hidden assumption in this way of thought— that liberty is proportional to quality of life. From a pragmatic point of view, most would choose the life of the king over the life of the slave, the rich over the poor, the slave owners over the slaves, or the above the law status to the law abiding one, simply because the quality of life of one is so much greater than the quality of life of the other. This is not the same as having a greater amount of liberty. I contend, in fact, that if one group does have a greater amount of liberty than the other does, it is by a small amount and hardly decidable as to who has more liberty.
In this discussion, I will use freedom and liberty interchangeably, with the intended meaning of both to be that which one is able and allowed to choose to do. For instance, I am able and allowed to vote in congressional election this year, therefore I have the freedom or liberty to vote. However, while I am able to set fire to an orphanage, I am not allowed to, therefore I do not have the freedom or liberty to commit arson. Additionally, I will make a distinction between freedoms and what I call mini-freedoms. A freedom is what one is able or allowed to do by law, or in public. A mini-freedom is what one can do on the level of gestures, speech, habits, posture, eating style; it is anything that concerns an individuals slightest motion. For example, voting is a freedom, while how one chews their food is a mini-freedom. To aid in this discussion, I will examine closely Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter, and the cast of characters in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
We begin with Hawthorne’s Puritan soap opera and one of its principal characters, certainly one of the most pitiful men in American literature, Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale (this is not to suggest that he is cruel, sinful or wicked, merely that one can at most feel pity for the way he supports a way of life that crushes him). Within the limits of Boston in the mid-1640’s Dimmesdale, being a minister, is quite revered. His faith is envied, his audiences awestruck and his role as a leader in the community assured. If we define power to be influence over another, then Dimmesdale holds great power in both his words and actions. However, compared with others in his community, did he have more freedom?
I mean by asking the question concluding the preceding paragraph to raise another question. Are freedoms only what one is allowed to do in the public arena? Or the private arena? Or in both? Certainly, our ability to speak out against a public official is one of many easily...