“Freedom” is meaningless. It’s up there with “terrorism” and “democracy” – words that have a high emotional impact and, when we look deeply, are like the emperor’s clothes – not really there in substance. Most of us probably agree that we want freedom, and that more of it is generally better. That’s where the commonality ends. Immediately we start to restrict freedom, e.g., our freedom can’t infringe on somebody else’s freedom (no murder, no yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). It’s in these restrictions where it all falls apart. The ways in which we decide to limit freedom depend on our whole value structure. “Freedom” as a term that drives action in the real world can differ drastically from person to person.
But enough of semantics. Let’s not let a pedantic point pause a pleasant parley. For now, let’s move on with the understanding that “freedom”, even if imperfect, is something we can understand, albeit in a vague way. Two seemingly unrelated situations help inform our understanding of freedom. The first is board games. Imagine a Monopoly game, where one player starts with a monopoly on orange, red, yellow, and green. All players are completely free within the rules of the game to make decisions about how to play in their best interest. Then again, some players are less free than others to move around the board safely. Also seemingly unrelated is traffic flow. As an example, dense urban areas have at freeway entrances meter lights that allow limited numbers of cars onto the freeways. The net result is that traffic flows better in the whole system and even the cars that had to wait at the meter light ultimately get home sooner. Without the meter lights, traffic would flow more slowly and everyone would take longer. With meter lights restriction of freedom results in a better outcome, even for those whose freedom was restricted. Without meter lights, allowing everyone to act freely in their self-interest results in an overall worse outcome.
The traffic example leads to the idea of a systems view of the world. In a systems view, individual parts (e.g., people) are connected to each other by relationships (e.g., market, professional, family, etc.). Each part is connected to other parts, forming a web or a network. This network can exhibit behavior that no single part exhibits (this is called an emergent property). For example, traffic is an emergent property of a road network. No single car has traffic; traffic has to do with how the cars come together.
Back to freedom. On one view of freedom, the focus is simply on the connection between two individuals. People who are of this opinion are satisfied as long as nobody directly limits the ability of the two individuals to act (for example, nobody tells a person in the rigged Monopoly game not to charge rent on a certain property). People who take this view are understandably bothered when other issues are brought into the mix. To give a real life example, we can consider the relation between a person and their employer (see diagram below). Under this view, what matters is that the person be able to leave the job at will and that the employer be able to stop employing the person at will. That’s it. Any claim that the relationship between the two is unfair is silly, especially from the point of view of the employer, who has nothing to do with the personal situation the person is in, who has plenty of other problems to deal with, and who is paying the person a fair market level salary for the work done.
Under a systems view, this picture is complicated by circumstances (see diagram below). Say the employee was raising a family on two incomes. The family was fiscally conservative, so they didn’t buy a house they couldn’t afford and they purchased health insurance when their employers didn’t provide any. Unfortunately, the spouse got seriously ill and can no longer work. The lifetime limit of health benefits has run out and the medical bills are piling up. They have had to take money out of retirement and college funds, but that money is starting to run low. The employer is not free of problems, of course, and some of these problems are increasing workplace stress for the employee, who really wishes to change jobs. Unfortunately, it’s a time of high unemployment and there are many job seekers for few jobs, so the chances of getting a job from another employer are small. The risks involved with being without a job are much too high.
Viewed at this level, the person’s position in the employee-employer relationship is less free. Simply put, the person cannot leave the job. The game of life was rigged for this person like the unfair Monopoly game. In a laissez-faire world, the employer has great freedom to hire and fire, the landlord to evict, the hospitals to charge exorbitantly, and the creditors to collect. This leads to a sub-optimal result at the system level. All people are afraid, tense, and constantly watching their backs. As in the case of traffic metering, some limits to freedom can actually raise the freedom of all actors. Some of these limits are already well-recognized and enacted (e.g., unemployment benefits, some rental protections, and union representation). On the whole, these limits to freedom enhance the overall ability of the individual actors to consider all options, instead of the single option they’ve been forced into. They can actually be free to consider a new job or the time to retrain for a new career. This might allow them the freedom to focus on growing as human beings instead of rote survival.
One can quibble with the details, whether or not this or that social policy is actually useful, or how the diagram was drawn. This is fine. The example is intentionally simple and has surely left out many relevant details. The point is to argue that our conception of “freedom” is nowhere near as simple and obvious as we would like. Sometimes, limiting freedom between individuals can increase freedom for all. Our pre-exisitng value structures decide on the limits that we impose and the types of freedom we value. All this goes to say that a commonly held opinion that “more freedom tends to produce better human outcomes” adds little in the way of figuring out this crazy little world we live in.