Freedom Isn’t Free: Q&A with Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is an award-winning author, scholar and journalist. Freedom Isn’t Free takes an analytical look at political, economic, social and moral trade-offs in a world in flux. Highly readable, the volume’s collected foreign affairs essays have a wide range and are engaging—from covering manageable regional issues to dramatic geopolitical tensions—presented not as distant complexities, but as relatable events.

What is personal freedom? Personal freedom means a combination of a sense of security in all its forms: freedom from want, for example. It is also a freedom to believe and to articulate independent thought without fear of wanton retribution. Personal freedom does not mean, however, that one can assertively or coercively infringe on another person’s freedoms. It is not a zero-sum formula. As a result, there are inevitable trade-offs. When we live in a diverse society and desire healthy communities, we face sometimes difficult choices regarding our personal property and whether it should be taxed, for example, in order to provide a governing structure the resources it needs to help guarantee our freedoms. In democratic nations, we agree or vote to limit some of our freedoms for a collective good or to achieve a society that is more equitable, fair, and, ultimately, free for all.

With the massive movement of people across countries, what do you think the top focus should be in terms of facilitating the refugees? Refugees, by definition, become stateless because they are either fleeing or have been forced to leave their homes. When refugees seek asylum in other nation-states, there are international treaties guaranteeing their reception and accommodation. This is easily done when the number of refugees is low and manageable by a receiving state. Problems arise when target states are overwhelmed by numbers of refugees who cannot be easily or quickly accommodated. The problems become political, social, and economic. My parents arrived in the United States as non-political refugees, arriving in the country via the World Council of Churches, which secured their passage and entry. I am a grateful son of refugees and never forget this reality. They arrived at a time when immigration was more welcome in the United States than it is today. Unfortunately, there are states that have chosen to weaponize refugees. Turkey, for example, cynically uses refugees as bargaining chips, strategically releasing them and forcing them to cross into neighboring countries in order to weaken European Union countries’ political stability and create social backlash.

Why is it that some individuals value their freedom so much that they sometimes tend to deprive others? We live in social constructions, nation states, that require us to make trade-offs all the time. In the best of times, we are open and willing to make the type of personal concessions to our government in exchange for security and other societal goods we desire. In democratic states, this trade-off is easier than in authoritarian societies because individuals are the government. They vote. They participate. They organize. Imperfectly, to be sure, but nonetheless individuals are engaged in their own governance and make their trade-offs consciously and willingly.

Authoritarian and totalitarian states demand the trade-offs from the individual and society as a whole. There is a philosophical and structural issue that also needs to be addressed: Are we a society that privileges individual freedoms over collective freedoms? The reality is that even the most individualistic societies make trade-offs for collective goods – public schools, police, trash collection, national defense. When individual liberty becomes unyieldingly dominant that people do not wish to make any concessions for a collective good, then their ideological commitment leads them to deprive others of their potential liberties so that their own freedoms are unfettered.

One of the main problems with this is that depriving others of freedoms has proven inevitably to lead to the deterioration of everyone’s freedoms and the collapse of social and political structures. Balancing individual liberty, responsibility, and authority with the power of the state is a dynamic and interminable process. Authoritarian states argue that individuals are incapable of rationally and, at times, selflessly making these trade-offs. They see individuals as irrational actors and project the state as paternalistic, well meaning, and good. Democracies trust in the intelligence and rationality of rational and respected individuals able to make good collectively good choices. Today, there is a competition between two narratives and two powerful and dominant state structures that exemplify these approaches. They are China as the authoritarian, paternalistic state and the United States as the democratic standard bearer. President Joe Biden has framed this ongoing competition as a “battle” between democracy and autocracy.

When is one absolutely free? The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis is known for his many treatises on freedom. One of his books is titled “Freedom or Death.” His commitment to freedom is unquestioned and his lifelong pursuit of its meaning – both personal and societal – defined his intellectual struggle. In life, absolute freedom is an ideal to which we can aspire, but likely never achieve. I ascribe to Kazantzakis’s ultimate characterization of what it means to achieve ultimate freedom. It is inscribed on his tombstone on the island of Crete. His epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”