Deconstructing Freedom

“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.

Simple view of employee-employer relationship

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.

Systems view of employer-employee relationship

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.

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2 Responses to Deconstructing Freedom

  1. Abandon TV says:

    Are you talking about ‘freedom’ or ‘freedom from consequences’?

    Our education system, the media, advertising and government tend not to emphasise this important distinction. For example, we already DO have the freedom to murder someone or stand up in a cinema and shout “fire!” if we decide that is what we want to do. But there are likely to be consequences. Consequences are a natural, er, consequence of having and exercising your freedom.

    To be ‘free’ of the natural consequences for murder or yelling in a cinema would imply that either (a) you’re a tyrant who everyone is scared of confronting or (b) that you and the rest of society lack even the most basic moral principals (and just carried on chatting about the weather even though you just murdered someone in front of them!)

    “…Sometimes, limiting freedom between individuals can increase freedom for all. …”

    This is a dangerous mindset even though it does contain an element of truth. It is dangerous because you do not make clear *what* or *who* is actually doing the ‘limiting’ of freedom. Nor do you specify *how* they achieving this ‘limiting’ of freedom. These are very important factors which need to be made clear.

    Also your statement implies that freedom is ‘freedom from consequences’ which implies that in order to limit any predicted negative consequences freedom must logically be limited. This is not strictly true. This may seem pedantic but its a profound point of HUGE importance to society…….. Freedom is freedom! If you ‘limit’ freedom it is no longer freedom.

    We can all act in specific ways which have natural and inevitable consequences such as reducing traffic congestion, or allowing everyone to concentrate on the movie without being disturbed, or allowing everyone to carry on living, or giving yourself some options in case of unexpected redundancy or whatever….. these are all still expressions of freedom and NOT limitations to freedom. They might be limitations in terms of *behaviour*, but that is not the same thing. Not killing your dog and eating him for breakfast is a limitation on our behaviour which most dog owners ‘impose on themselves’ every day – but it is not a limitation on their freedom. They are still free to eat their dog if they wish to do so. But what sane person would choose to exercise that freedom?!

    We are all free to drive like idiots on the wrong side of the road, or try and turn in front of oncoming traffic. We are all free to shout in the cinema, we are free to murder, rob, steal, and take a piss on the floor of the supermarket if we want to… we are also just as free to NOT do those things. They are ALL freedoms we can indulge in, or CHOOSE not to …. for a load of moral, practical, sensible and obvious reasons ;)

    As with most things in life the most crucial distinction we need to make when talking about ‘freedoms’ is whether or not FORCE is being initiated by one party against another.

    We live in a hierarchical society controlled by the state which enFORCES all policies, laws and regulations through the initiation of force/ violence (or threat thereof). This is not a ‘political opinion’, it is just a scientific fact.

    Everyone is free to take out insurance against being made unemployed/ redundant (or having an accident or whatever). We are also free to save money in the piggy bank to provide a safety net in hard times. We are also free to spend all our wages on consumer electrical goods or going out clubbing every weekend. Each behaviour has its own set of short and long term consequences.

    When the state steals half your wages each week it is limiting (ie violating) your freedom through its use of force against you. If you decide you don’t want your freedom limited in this way the state will limit your freedom even more by eventually sending men dressed in matching blue costumes round your house to kidnap you and throw you in a cage. If you try to defend your freedom and your person and property at this stage (or try and regain your freedom by attempting to escape from your cage) they might limit your freedom even more by tasering you or even shooting you.

    Again, this is not ‘opinion’ or ‘judgement’, this is just cold hard fact.

    And this leads us back to the subtle but profound difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘freedom from consequences’…. and we could add ‘freedom from responsibility’ as well.

    Because freedom, consequences and personal responsibility are so intimately linked, if you take consequences (and thus responsibility) away from someone you are actually taking away their freedom as well.

    However, this taking away of their freedom can be (mis)represented as ‘giving’ them ‘freedom from consequences’ and thus ‘freedom from responsibility’.

    This is exactly what happens in certain unhealthy relationships, especially the classic ‘kept wife’ scenario. The man takes control of the woman by ‘giving’ her ‘freedom from consequences / responsibility’, He does this by paying for all meals, all air fares, gym club membership and by giving her lots of ‘free stuff’ such as clothes, jewellery, cars and so on. He allows her to move into his house and live rent free. She doesn’t even have to do the cleaning! Now she no longer has to work or worry about bills or worry about anything! She’s on a perpetual holiday and living a life completely ‘free from consequences and responsibility’.

    But of course the man now completely owns her. And being owned is the opposite of being free. If she ever decides to leave, or if HE ever decides to ditch her and go off with a younger woman, or if he ever goes bankrupt the woman will find herself out on the street with no friends or contacts, no life, no home, no qualifications and no experience of the real world. If the man starts to abuse her she will probably put up with it because she does not feel she is free to leave (for the reasons just given). Note how her freedoms were taken away by the man *giving* her stuff.

    In a similar way the state also takes control of the population by ‘giving’ society ‘freedom from consequences / responsibility’ by paying for healthcare, education, infrastructure etc and by giving society lots of ‘free stuff’ such as welfare and social housing. In this way the state allows an underclass of dependent poor and uneducated to develop and grow (poverty in the US was being eradicated at a steady rate year-on-year until government welfare was introduced, at which point poverty levels immediately started to rise continually). The state allows everyone to live a life relatively ‘free of consequences and responsibility’ by providing state funded safety nets everywhere. And as a result the state now owns us and controls us to a large extent, because we have allowed ourselves to become, as a society, totally dependent on it.

    However, unlike the ‘kept wife’ scenario the state does not actually pay for any of the things the state ‘provides’ for us. The state does not actually generate a single dollar of money by itself. We pay for all the ‘free stuff’ which the state ‘provides’. And unfortunately for society the state likes to ‘have many wives’, as it were. The state provides ‘free stuff’ and ‘perks’ to just about everyone in return for votes, favours, cash, loyalty etc. The state ‘provides’ so much ‘free stuff’ that it has to continually borrow money from banks to pay for it.

    And so society is a bit like the kept woman who is living with a violent and abusive husband who pays for everything, except in the case of the state everything is now being paid for by a credit card.

    Do the ‘limits’ imposed by the state (by force) sound like a recipe for freedom to you? … or a recipe for disaster?

  2. Thank you for your extensive comment. You have provided an interesting counterpoint for the readers to digest. It is editorial policy of this blog not reply directly to comments but to carry ideas forward to future posts. Certainly an important clarification that must be made is about the what, the who and the how involved in the limiting of freedom. As the cliché goes, the devil is indeed in the details.

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