This section is from the book "Principles Of Sociology With Educational Applications", by Frederick R. Clow. Also available from Amazon: Principles of sociology with educational applications.
. . . Freedom is the more or less limited capacity of the highest organisms to inhibit instinctive and non-rational acts by intellectual and rational stimuli and to regulate behavior in the light of past experience. Such freedom is not uncaused activity, but freedom from the mechanical responses to external or instinctive stimuli, through the intervention of internal stimuli due to experience and intelligence. - Conklin, Heredity and Environment, p. 406, first edition; 482, revised second edition.
This is freedom in terms of physiology and psychology. Social freedom assumes the presence of this freedom in the individuals composing the group. An institution can allow large liberties to its members only on condition that they intelligently direct their conduct so as to further the ends for which it exists and inhibit their impulses to action that would be detrimental. Intelligence and inhibition are the two legs on which freedom must walk.
Freedom and democracy are closely related. Freedom is so precious that the members of a self-governing group will impose upon themselves no more restrictions than are necessary. Democracy assumes that human nature is essentially good. If the common man can be trusted to govern others, he can of course be trusted to govern himself.
Although the power to coerce is implied in the very nature of government, yet the coercive element has shrunk to a small proportion of its former prominence. Rulers have learned that it is easier to lead people than to drive them. Serfdom, slavery, and guild organization, which formerly fixed the industrial status of large classes of the population, have now nearly disappeared. Old caste systems have weakened. Each person is now free to select the costume, manners, and recreations which suit him best; to get into the social circles for which he is able to qualify; to associate with the persons who are agreeable to him and to whom he can make himself agreeable.
This personal liberty is not altogether a gain, but sometimes has its disadvantages. Just as some persons are strong and some are weak, so also some are wise and some are foolish. Some conduct themselves for their own advantage and that of the community, while others never fail to get into trouble wherever they go or whatever they do, and would be better off with less liberty. Some misunderstand themselves and try to get into occupations for which they lack talent; the result is only the more disastrous the greater their perseverance. Furthermore, in the life of any one person the freedom to choose an occupation is only transient. The youth with life before him has liberty to choose his career; but after he has once chosen and made his preparation he can change only at a loss, and as he advances into middle life change becomes practically impossible.
Then there is the liberty to form private organizations, and the freedom that is permitted them after they are formed. Private institutions differ from political or public, such as the state, the city, and the public school, in that they do not include all of the persons of a given age in a given locality; membership in them is optional. Their coercive power is therefore limited; the extreme penalty they can inflict is forfeiture of membership. That means that their power to discipline is limited by the benefits they confer. A business partnership, a literary society, an athletic club, can impose fines on its members if they will submit rather than be expelled and thus lose all the privileges of the organization.
These private organizations and institutions have multiplied tremendously - large and small, industrial, recreational, educational, religious, and many to promote this or that activity by the civil government itself. Formerly the civil authorities opposed free organization because they feared it, thinking that it meant opposition to themselves. In some countries the law prohibited the assembling of more than five persons. Now, however, the civil authorities permit and protect private institutions of all kinds, excepting merely those likely to be dangerous to the public. They have made the discovery that persons engrossed in private enterprises have little time to foment conspiracies against the public authority, and are not disposed to risk their lives and property in that way as much as persons whose private activities are cramped. Then, again, as has already been observed, membership in a variety of organizations tends to make a person conservative; multiplying his interests means that no one of them will develop explosive intensity. The likely young man who comes to town finds a dozen institutions competing for his favor. Any one of them can therefore enroll him as a member and hold him only by offering the maximum of satisfaction and the minimum of coercion. A century ago, to cite a single example, each country had an established religion, or at least one so prevalent that the person who wished to avoid trouble was practically forced into conforming to its requirements. Now, in the newer countries, a town of a thousand population offers the choice of several churches, and the man who does not attend any of them may still be a leader in politics, industry, or even education - a condition to which the older countries are approximating.
Similar in principle is the local self-government which is accorded to public and private institutions alike. Each town, village, school, church, lodge, or trade union is an autonomous unit except as it is joined with other units for ends which it could not secure singly. Wisconsin, for instance, is doing away with the small rural schools, not by forcing the districts to consolidate but by offering financial aid to consolidated schools.
This substitution of voluntary cooperation for enforced subjection has contributed to human happiness in a degree that is simply inconceivable. Well do France and the United States, the twin-born democracies, exalt the emblematic figure of liberty. But all the countries of the world have felt the life-giving touch of freedom. England developed the largest measure of it in early modern times, and now has it in full measure. Prussia evolved an installment of it in 1808 and another in 1848 along with several other countries of Europe. But this growth of freedom and its share in the marvelous progress of the last century is a long story.
. . . James B. Angell who, for thirty-eight years preceding his retirement in 1909, was president of the University of Michigan . . . had, in the first place, a notable faith in human nature, in the better instincts of the young and the good sense of the plain people, which made him patient and optimistic in the midst of manifold trials from the vagaries of the populace both inside and outside of his institution. "Never lose faith in the boys and girls," I have heard him say to an assembly of teachers, and no sentiment was more spontaneous than this in his own mind. - The Survey, Vol. 36, p. 116, Cooley, "A Builder of Democracy."
. . . Freedom enables an intelligent and good man to do better things than he could do without it; and when it is thus used it stimulates progress, and intelligence, and goodness. But it must be remembered that this same freedom allows an unintelligent or bad man to do worse things than he could do without it; and that if this happens on a large scale it may prove destructive to the resources, and even to the safety, of the commonwealth. ... - Hadley, Freedom and Responsibility, p. 44.
... It was only after a long and terrible experience with debt slavery that the ancient lawgivers recognized that free will is not always a will to freedom and that they denied a man the power to bind himself into thraldom or to pledge his person for the repayment of a loan.
Gradually it was found necessary to recognize in the normal individual certain powers essential to self-effectuation, of which he cannot divest himself, i.e., "inalienable rights." Hence modern law gives no force to a contract which without due equivalent cripples one's future freedom to act or to contract, e.g., to live in a certain place or outside a certain place, to marry or not to marry a certain person, not to carry on one's trade or business, not to exercise the right of franchise or to exercise it in a certain way. . . .
Society will not permit the surrender of rights essential to the public welfare. . . . Legal standard insurance policies have virtually removed insurance from the domain of contract. Personal safety is not to be contracted away; one cannot legally bind himself to engage in dangerous work or to remain in a dangerous place. ... In all these cases, what at first glance appears a fetter on the worker's freedom to contract is really an enlargement of his freedom, since it prevents the stronger from snatching out of the passing distress or dependence of the weaker a lasting advantage over him.
Thus we see that the celebrated assertion of the American Declaration of Independence that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" is not a "glittering generality," but the epitome of a great historic movement. - American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 23, pp. 70-72, Ross, "Class and Caste: Equalization."