Muhammad Ali and freedom

Published 11:20 pm Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The world lost one of its leading citizens with the passing of Muhammad Ali.  A three-time world heavy weight boxing champion and an ambassador of peace and goodwill, Ali personified many of the virtues of America.  He became world-famous without being born to royalty, holding any government office, or leading an army; his success followed from his accomplishments, charisma and character.

America is exceptional among nations for being founded on the principle of freedom.  Our government would be for the people, not the rulers.  Freedom allows people to live the lives they choose, even when they follow their own path.  Living an exceptional and unique life is one of the ways Ali personified America.

Ali was born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, but he did not let this violation of his freedom prevent him from becoming an Olympic and world champion boxer.  Clay was brash, boastful, and backed up his talk with success, and so drew criticism from many traditionalists.  Even after winning Olympic gold, Clay was not accepted at a whites-only diner in Louisville, so he threw his medal in a river and vowed not to associate with those who did not accept his individual freedom.

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After winning the world title, Ali changed his name and announced allegiance to the Nation of Islam.  Few Americans have faced the criticism and controversy he did for merely changing his name.  Ali was also one of several high-profile African-American athletes who vocally supported civil rights.  Louisville eventually embraced Ali and bestowed many honors upon him; Ali’s activism and actions helped make the world around him better.

Perhaps Ali’s most controversial act was refusing military service during the Vietnam War.  This refusal highlights the nature of defending a free nation.  Throughout most of recorded history, people served nations.  Kings and emperors like Alexander, Caesar, William the Conqueror, and Napoleon made average people serve, fight and die to further their glory.

America was founded on the principles of equality and that government serves the people.  We still need to defend ourselves against those who would harm us.  We elect leaders who are supposed to only use our armed forces when our freedom is at stake.  But elections are imperfect, and a free nation should rely an all-volunteer military.  Conscription is consistent with a system where citizens are pawns of the government.  Our leaders should have to make the case to every man and woman in the military that their service advances our collective security.  Patriots should love America because our government protects our freedom.

We had a draft during the Vietnam War, of course.  Ali refused to serve on conscientious objector grounds.  He also said that he had no beef with the Viet Cong.  Millions of Americans eventually agreed that the Vietnam War did not serve a vital national interest.  Disagreement about matters of national security, however, is always troubling, although inevitable among a free people.

Ali faced scorn for his refusal to serve, was stripped of his title and prevented from fighting for three years.  He paid a price for living according to his principles, but as he once said, “You lose nothing when fighting for a cause. … In my mind the losers are those who don’t have a cause they care about.”  Ali came back to reclaim the heavyweight title, along the way winning some of the greatest fights in history, like the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla.  Ali took the world championship across the world, and made a point of staying at least two weeks everywhere he fought, exhibiting his appreciation for different cultures and peoples.

Normally we associate the phrase “freedom isn’t free” with the cost of defending our political freedom.  But the exercise of that freedom can also be costly.  We will let boxing experts debate if Ali was truly “The Greatest.”  Ali had the courage, strength and grace to live by his life by his principles.  This is exactly the kind of life that America allows people to lead.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy and Michael Kastner is a student in the Master’s program in Economics at Troy University.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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