The Contradiction of Freedom

Freedom appears to be the favored subject among my readers, so here we go into greater detail.  First of all we need to establish what I mean when I use the word.  By “freedom” I am referring to unencumbrance in the transformation from desire to reality.  This is distinct from the idea of “liberty” or the fulfillment of all intrinsic rights to the satisfaction of the individual being considered.  I believe the issue of maintaining liberty to be a solved one- however, the issue of freedom certainly is not.  The fact that there are no slaves, no wanton executions in the developed world, etc. etc. indicate to me that the fulfillment of basic liberty is not even particularly difficult if the conditions are right.  Freedom, on the other hand, is more difficult to work with.  The reason for this is that reality itself necessarily impinges on our freedom.  I want to be able to fly around, but gravity says I am not free to do that.  In my common definition of “freedom” I don’t consider such possibilities on the grounds that they are physically impossible.  It is a childlike idea that we should have absolutely everything that we want in a direct transmission from wanting to having.  However, it is not at all a childish idea of freedom that you should be able to make any choice you wish, including both the costs and the gains from that choice.  For example, I could choose to invest millions of dollars in inventing a sleek, compact jetpack that would enable me to fly around to my satisfaction- there is a considerable cost to this venture, and no certainty of success (risk is itself a cost), but I am free to try and free to succeed if that’s how the dice fall.

In this line of thinking, a direct transition from desire to actualization should be the default state of reality.  If an item I want has a cost associated with it, then I can pay that cost and have it without qualms.  This is not the situation of “I want, therefore I should have”- I cannot stress this enough.  Too many people are walking around in that sort of entitlement-based fantasy world.  However, if the demand is reasonable and I am prepared to deal with whatever costs, risks, or other consequences that arise from my decision, then the only thing standing in my way is a bunch of unnecessary human barriers.  If I want an apple and am prepared to endure the cost, given the circumstances, then I should have one.  Now, the circumstances can cause the cost to vary tremendously.  If there’s a grocery store then I only have to pony up the dollar or so required to buy it.  However, if I’m in the middle of nowhere, then the desire to eat an apple requires a more complex plan involving obtaining an apple seed, growing the tree, and then harvesting the apple and eating it.  It just so happens that this is a great deal of cost and effort for quite a small reward, which is why it is much more efficient to have consolidated apple farms which grow apples efficiently in large numbers and sell them to distributors.  Rather than the large investment of personal energy to acquire a tree’s worth of apples, I only have to pay for a fraction of that effort due to the scale of apples being produced.  If I’m an apple grower, this system is also to my advantage because if I grow a lot of apples, each apple costs me less to produce, and because I make a profit on every apple (or else I wouldn’t sell them) then the more apples I sell the more money I make.

This is all fairly typical free-market capitalist thinking so far.  However, the crunch comes when we consider that the government must necessarily introduce barriers to this system in order to do, well, anything at all.  Let’s suppose the existence of a government that has no barrier-producing authority.  Nobody has to take it seriously because it has no money since it can’t institute taxes, and even if it did institute taxes, nobody has to pay them because it has no power to enforce compliance.  THe only type of action such an agency is useful for is advising, and concerned parties can listen and take its advice when it is to their advantage to do so.  If this government started a campaign using volunteers to spread awareness about brushing your teeth, and it worked because it demonstrably improves your dental hygiene and health, that’s all it’s good for.  However, my usual case is that this is all government should be good for, because this isn’t actually a government- it’s a very weak and ineffectual DRO choosing to occupy the nonprofit niche instead of actively pursuing customers.  The idea that government should somehow be fundamentally nonprofit is just laughable.  Most people say that if you have a for-profit government, well that’s just loosing the dogs for corruption the likes of which has never before been seen.  They actually have a point, but the tricky bit is- that’s my point.  No company has a police force with the authority to arrest you if you don’t comply with that company’s policy.  If they did, they would be in exactly the same position as any typical government, minus the checks and balances that most modern governments have.  However checks and balances are like band-aids on a gangrenous wound- government just fundamentally will not be ethical, non-corrupt, balanced, fair, what have you, because it has the authority to seize as much money and power as it can grab.  It may have to disguise its efforts, but under the guise of national security or some other necessity it will do what it pleases.

So now we arrive at the contradiction of freedom that political scientists agonize over so much.  People want freedom, but they appear to need a government to secure those freedoms.  At the same time, in the act of securing their freedoms, the government itself must necessarily impinge upon those freedoms.  I understand the difficulty of wrestling with such a dilemma, but you’re wasting your brain cycles.  What you’ve got there is a conundrum of the first order- totally unsolvable with the same type of thinking that created it.

Here is the logical analysis of the argument in question: 1) People want to be free.  2) Freedoms are insecure in a state of nature.  3) Governments secure freedoms.  Conclusion: We should have a government.  The solution is brutally simple: the premise that governments somehow reduce a state of nature, or that governments act to secure freedoms.  Indeed, governments have only ever acted to reduce the freedoms of individuals beneath them.  Perhaps at times those citizens were under the impression that they were being aided in some fashion, at times perhaps a large majority of them were so deceived.  However the simple fact of the matter is that if what a government offered was so valuable then rational individuals would sign up voluntarily.

The proof that individuals can create extremely complex systems that are able to fulfill their needs is evident in government itself.  Government’s methodology is fine, with the single vital exception that participation is mandatory, and will be backed up by force.  In return, however, the government promises not to take everything you have, only a fraction such as one quarter or one third, which will be put toward projects you have essentially no control over.  Once again, I have no issue with any of these projects in and of themselves.  There may even be circumstances where actions as severe as the war in Iraq become necessary (they definitely were not in this case, but government idiocy is a side effect of the fact that the government retains power no matter what, even if the parties in it change).  Governments should offer services at a fair price, in a manner that its citizens will be prepared to pay for them.  One possible strategy is to have a single subscription model, requiring a third of your income, to which you must subscribe in order to legally inhabit land that the government in question owns.  As a subset of this government’s ownership, it is possible to own land.  We are approaching a fixed model of the US government where it’s essentially the same, with the critical exception that participation is voluntary.  Granted, the costs involved depend on your circumstances.  If the (rather impractical) stance of having a subscribe-or-leave policy were instituted, then you would probably stay just to keep what property you have, such as a house.  However, this solution presumes the existence of a government with the power to simply lay claim to your property as desired, and can use that threat to coerce you to subscribe in one final death throb to stab its superior and would-be-ethical successor in the gut.

So we arrive at the same contradiction for iteration round two.  In order to create a free society it is necessary for people already living under governments to somehow act as though they were not, at exactly the same moment that the government decides to relieve itself of its coercive power in favor of a voluntary or contractual model.  This is never going to happen.  So, the statist theorizes, in order to make a free society, you have to use coercive force to make them free, yes?  So we need a government to, not secure our freedoms, but force us to participate in our free society.  No.  Absolutely, definitely not.

The whole issue here is the idea of power.  The idea that a problem requires power to solve it, or that power is ever a solution worth choosing.  I am referring to power as the exercise of coercive power.  This is to distinguish it from freedom, which is the ability, or the facility, to accomplish something.  Using the definition from earlier, technology very clearly extends our freedom by enabling new courses of action that were previously physically impossible.  However, actions are morally neutral.  By creating new actions that were previously physically impossible, new crimes and new options for the use of power exist as well.  This is a cliche, but the invention of the blade creates both kitchen knives and swords.  The same holds true for everything up to and including F-22’s, although it’s hard to see how some of the more elaborate and expensive pieces of military hardware have any use at all beyond blowing stuff up, if that.  I digress here, but I am actually referring to the fundamental technological components in each case.  Technologies such as avionics systems in advanced fighter jets can be used in civilian planes and other places as well.  Simply that the F-22 and civilian planes are superficially different is taking advantage of the fact that, unlike primitive tools like kitchen knives and swords, they look and act very differently.  Although, if you looked into it, you would likely find that the design of cookware and the blacksmithing of military edged weapons were, and are, extremely different, although the fundamental technologies were the same.  Anyway, my point is that an increased availability of facility and options doesn’t actually get you anywhere in terms of the freedom versus power conflict- it only allows the scale to tip farther in either direction, irrespective of which way it is currently tipping.

I am aware that framing the discussion as “freedom versus power” seems to present a foregone conclusion, but keep in mind that I am referring to freedom as the ability to do subjective work, whereas power is the ability to have others do subjective work on your behalf.  While it is highly likely that the subjective work you have them do will not serve their own interests, there is no reason why this could not be the case.  I believe the origin of centralized authority was in the fact that disparate forces united to a common purpose can accomplish far more than they could individually, even though this means a subsuming of the individual’s judgment to whatever authority is making the decision about what must be done.  So when the scale tips toward freedom, by this logic, it appears that we are being modest in our desires.  We can’t accomplish as much in total.  I suspect this is why, in times of distress such as World War II, nations bond together.  States tighten up and hunker down, and the civilians set to work for the greater good, for fear of annihilation due to defeat in global war, but still a unified and powerful force.  It appears to me that this outcome is simply a result of economy of scale.  The issue, though, is that people are not cogs in machines, and we don’t necessarily respond well to economy of scale on the human level.  We don’t all want to eat the same food, even though it would be most efficient in the grand scheme of things to consolidate all the vast sprawling food industries into a single entity (if we utterly disregard politicking, management inefficiency, balance in parallelism, competition, and a ridiculous number of other factors) and have everyone eat well-designed vitamin and carbohydrate supplements with tap water.  It would cost virtually nothing, and free up so much human capital, labor, and time to other pursuits.  Unfortunately, as a side effect, everyone would have to live on vitamins and carb pills, which is clearly an undesirable situation.  However, on the other side of power, it’s clear that if we consolidate power too much, then human error becomes magnified.  If we consolidate absolute power in one leader then there will be fluctuations not only in that leader’s mood and ability, but also in the variation between leaders, where one person’s thought and personality can have profoundly different effects than another.  We get the good-king bad-king effect, with the good kings working steadfastly for the good of the people, and the huge contrast with the bad kings merrily chopping everyone’s heads off, starting wars and economic crises, and putting a pall of fear over the whole country.  So we see a continuum between power creating efficiency in terms of economy of scale, but inefficiency in terms of the magnification of human error.  Freedom, by contrast, limits the absolute utility available to the sum of the group in question, but also limits the effects of human error to the bounds of the party concerned.  If you want to smoke crack until you overdose- feel free.  You’ll probably be dead, but that will be the total extent of the damage you cause.

The issue with this description is that it isn’t entirely accurate.  In the freedom scenario, people still form together in groups and organizations, they just do so voluntarily only.  As a result, people in control of those large groups might still have a significant amount of power to direct and affect a large number of people.  However, and here is the critical difference, every single one of those people is free to leave at any time.  As a result, we get both the benefits of applying centralized power, and the benefits of freedom’s damage control.  If the leader is being totally ridiculous and irrational, he will either be replaced by those sensible enough to recognize it or everyone the crazy bastard has power over will jump ship and do business with someone else.  This creates a huge incentive for leaders to be effective, but also limits the damage if they are not.  It is the judgment of each person with whom they become involved, and also who they permit to have power over them, and to what degree.

Mandatory participation where each person has significant involvement and power, such as democracy in small communities, approaches this situation, but unlike mandatory democracy it scales to societies of any size.  With the possible exception of small groups in isolation.  However this is because it is assumed to be true in small groups in isolation, so the complex contracts are not worthwhile to make, resulting in stereotypical independence anarchy- the desert island scenario that statists like to employ so much.  However this fails too because the same system could be applied, and in fact would be if the situation became dire enough.  The Lord of the Flies scenario is unrealistic for rational beings (of course, there is some possibility that the circumstances caused them to become irrational) because when a problem arose, a solution, whether systemic or responsive, would be created even if there was only one individual to implement it.  This only fails when the rest of the group is behaving similarly, but treating each other as problems to be solved, resulting in never-ending conflict.  Eventually they’ll figure out how to trust one another, or kill one another first, just as barbarians of old did.  However the idea that appointing a leader prevents this type of worst-case scenario from playing out is shortsighted because the leader could easily be the cause if he tries to direct them in ways their own reason tells them are bad, and they have the independence to resist.  Anyway, this whole paragraph addresses an edge case which is increasingly rare in modern society, and irrelevant with regards to any community, city, state, national, or global scale.

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