What is freedom in the 21st century?

10 months ago
32 in philosophy


Do we have more freedom than in previous eras? Or does our idea of freedom blind us to reality?

Our sense of freedom

As children, we learn very early that there's things we can do and things we can't do, whether these constraints are imposed by our parents or imposed by nature, these constraints themselves shape our sense of freedom, and to a greater or lesser degree, our identity.

Moving through childhood into our teenage years, we push against these constraints as our consciousness expands and our awareness of "what's out there in the big wide world" intensifies. In my childhood I remember longing for the day that I didn't have to do what I was told, to go to bed early, to eat my vegetables or to do my homework.

So, in the western world we intrinsically connect the notions of restriction or limitation to being the polar opposite of freedom. In fact to even suggest that the two are not polar opposites can elicit some very confused looks from people.

To return to our child selves for one moment, imagine the parallel universe in which, as a child you had no boundaries, no rules imposed upon you. What would be the outcome?

Clearly the answer will vary from person to person, circumstance to circumstance, but would the you that had been bought up with boundaries and rules be better off than the other you that had not? Or visa versa?

Difficult one to answer, right?

More to the point, which of the two versions of yourself would ultimately be more free?

The present you and the future you

Ask most people if they are free and you will more that likely get an answer relating to their freedom right at that moment. However, everything we are in the future is the result of what we do right now, so things get interesting if we consider our freedom not just now but also projected forward into the future.

If I skip school today I get the freedom to ride my bike around on a school day, but what about poor old future me? future me will have quite likely had his freedom limited by present me, whether that's by getting lower grades or missing out on university or not getting into that dream career.

I say 'quite likely' as there is always the possibility that choosing to skip school, actually improves the freedom of future me. Maybe future me is inspired to become a world champion cyclist instead.

Our ability to project our thoughts into the future an predict the different outcomes of our choices is a key part of our intelligence. And intelligence, it seems likes freedom.

A recent TED talk by physicist Alex Wissner-Gross discusses a way of defining intelligence in terms of an entity making choices which preserves or increases that entity's future freedoms.

Viewed like this, its clear to see why children push the boundaries. This is our learning algorithm at work, reaching out into the world both literally and figuratively to discover what the world is.

What also becomes apparent is we need something to push against. Otherwise what is there to learn? Having no boundaries or nothing to push against is the equivalent of being in a vacuum. Fortunately, as the saying goes "nature abhors a vacuum". Even if we were free from any constraints made by society or family or law, we would still have nature to contend with. And nature rarely yields to our desires.

Limitation as freedom

Returning to my point about freedom and limitation not being polar opposites, we can see from the example of my present self skipping school that limitation in the present can mean freedom in the future. Furthermore, the notion of investing for the future is exactly this, accept some financial limitation in the present for some financial freedom in the future.

But there are yet other examples of this concept which are often overlooked, especially in the fast paced world we live in. For people in creative fields, limitation is often a source of inspiration. This may sound perverse, but in many creative fields the creator has too many options at their disposal, or too much freedom.

The infinite freedom of a recording artist sitting in front of a computer loaded unlimited virtual instruments, with unlimited recording time and endless ways with which to sculpt and modify the sound can leave the artist with nothing but a blank mind, a vacuum.

On the other hand, if she picks up a battered guitar and sings into an old tape recorder, she has to fight against the rusty old guitar strings to keep them from buzzing and not sing too loudly into the microphone to keep it from distorting. The vacuum disappears and she finds limitations and has to work with them in order to express herself.

We applaud this kind of struggle just as we applaud those who overcome adversity and live their lives regardless. It reminds us that living in a vacuum is not freedom.

The real boundaries

Sadly, in the 21st century, our notion of freedom is obscure. Firstly, many of our boundaries and limitations are self constructed, or at least, self perpetuated. Secondly, in a world drowning in media, PR, viral marketing, 'choice architecture' and corporate interests of organisations with more power than some nations, we are presented with a dazzling array of false choices.

As our lives fill up with having to make decisions for each one of our false choices, 'shall I buy the ultra-white toothpaste or the total health toothpaste', 'shall I vote for the blue party representing the privileged classes or the red party representing the privileged classes', we become distanced from the real boundaries in life. The boundaries imposed by nature and the boundaries imposed by ourselves. The former being ones we likely can't change, the latter being ones we often can.

The false choices presented to us, whether from a desperate government's monetary policy, or heavily lobbied corporate interests, provide little opportunity for growth and learning for the average person. In fact these choices often result in confusion through lack of consistency. Because, just like any conjuring trick, our attention needs to be carefully focussed in order for the false choice to appear as the only choice. And just like any conjuring trick they should leave the viewer puzzled as to what to believe.

Real choices, real boundaries and limitations on the other hand help people grow if they push and fight against them. This is where character is forged. Just like a dog needs to chew on something to develop strong teeth.

Conclusion

Society has developed in such a way that today, we often miss out on the real opportunities for learning and growth and in their place are confusing and unnecessary false choices which give the illusion of freedom.

This is having an effect not just on the developed world but also across the world as the agendas of the institutions which are most adept at controlling the media and public discourse have caused problems such as inequality, environmental issues, economic destabilisation, conflict and so on.

As humans, we possess the power of empathy and understanding and the ability to use these gifts to forge relationships, learn from one another, trade with one another, compete with one another; and in times of crisis, support one another.

This is what it is to be human, any choice or boundary or limitation which distracts us from this reality is imposing on our freedom.

Our freedom to be human.


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56
  ·  10 months ago

My only contention that 'limitations' imposed by loved ones and yourself are one thing, a matter of 'guardianship' and consent in one or the other and both cases.
When discussing freedom in this sense, I agree. It is when we discuss social freedom, the limitations placed on us not only by nature, those we meet during interactions and ourselves, but those placed on us with little input or consideration for our wishes by the masses(mob rule) or the 'rulers' that I believe that 'limitations' being good isn't so true.
But very good points for what it is discussing.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

Would a society be truly free if there were no income redistribution whatsoever? A society where the rich get richer, pass the wealth to their children, who rent it out and get even richer off the labor of others? Such a system leads inevitably to monarchy, where a small number live at the top of a very large pyramid, and a huge number of serfs toil away at the bottom, creating all the wealth but getting a tiny fraction of the benefit. We are well on our way to that scenario today - the Walmart Royal Family live on their inherited billions, while the millions toil in their stores on wages so low that they need welfare to live. Remove the welfare (because its based on redistribution), and their living standard falls even lower, to third-world levels.
So the question becomes - Freedom for who? The few or the many?

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56
  ·  10 months ago

Well, first, let me say I am by no means well versed in economics. However, what I see today is exactly what you describe. My only available contention is that it seems to be accelerated and exascerbated by the system of society we have today, ie, the state. While it claims to be seeking wealth equality, equitability, et cetera, nearly every measure put forth by the state inevitably leads to more consolidation of wealth, resources and power into the hands of a few.
So if I were to choose between inequality within a coercive system or inequality outside of a coercive system, I would choose to be outside each and every time.
As for the 'freedom for who' that really depends greatly on what you consider freedom. The freedom to believe you are entitled to this and that so long as you mind your behavior at the edict and demand of complete strangers you may or may not agree with? Or the freedom to live your life as you see fit, to be self-reliant, take responsibility for you and you alone, to seek out the ways in which you may survive or thrive and to allow that to others thus, on principle, not withholding the same freedom from others?
The argument that, without a system of governance, we would be doomed to be at the mercy of the few is, at best, presumptious. And no matter what, when what we have is no different than what you fear, it is not so much an argument. Regulations, legislation and subsidization has led to monopolies and the maintaining of unethical and harmful business practices as those businesses that would fail from boycotting are propped up against it through regulated monopolies(such as utility companies), bailouts(such as the banks and automotive industry) and limited competition through heavy fees and requirements making it all but impossible for small start ups to be able to arise, much less compete.

I would put much more into this but, if I were versed enough to discuss this at length, I'd likely make a post. Also, your screenname makes me wonder if the effort is for naught, lol.

Suffice to say, perhaps, just perhaps, without government we would have inequality in resources on a large scale. But that's already the case and has been the case for most of the 6,000 year history of government. I don't know about you, but when a system fails to provide what it offers for 6,000 years and actually oversees the worsening of conditions it claims to be trying to fix, maybe it's time to abandon the system and start looking to yourself, your family, your friends and your community for the answers.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

The argument that government is the problem is specious; The Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark) as well as others of like mind (the Netherlands, for example), have high levels of government control and a great deal of redistribution, resulting in far, far less inequality than in America, which prides itself of how much it has reduced the role of government compared to European Socialist countries like those listed above. At the far extreme are countries without functioning governments, like Somalia, where you have enormous inequality. So inequality is not created BY too much government; it is created by too LITTLE government. Simply put, in the USA, there are low controls on minimum wage, on work conditions, on welfare payments, and on taxation on the ultra-rich. This all yields LOW levels of redistribution, and allows employers to easily exploit their workforce.
The only possible way in which "freedom" (in the conservative sense of the word) would truly reward the best is to tax all inheritance at 100% and ideally, to switch babies at random between parents at birth. That way, each person who enters the world has a statistically similar change of success (although the difference in foster parent assignment would still make a big difference).
In reality, in modern America, one's station in life is largely dictated by the lottery of one's birth. Your chance at decent nutrition (essential for a healthy mind and body), at access to good schools, to good clothes, to good teeth, to good connections, and to good seed capital, all depend on your parents. Trump is Trump because he was given a million bucks to gamble with by his parents. Where would he be if he was born black in a slum? Possibly a gang leader or in prison.
For most of your 6,000 years, democratic government was not available. You had complete freedom - where there were no rules on what you could or could not achieve. For most, that was a life of appalling poverty, for the lucky few, it was born lucky. We finally developed meaningful democracy, and after WWII, some degree of social justice and sharing of the wealth as a birthright. This led to a huge expansion in living standards in all countries that adopted this and that were not under the thumbs of foreign influence. Then in the 1980's, we adopted Reaganism/Thatcherism, and for the past 40 years, we have seen huge increases in wealth for the few and economic stagnation for everyone else - despite now having both parents working, and huge numbers of machines working for us. By all accounts, if the benefits of mechanization and science were shared with all, we'd ALL be living like kings. Instead, the few are living beyond the dreams of emperors, and the vast majority of people living in countries in the first world are living in economic stagnation. As for those living in the third world...
Among those first world countries that DO engage in economic redistribution, most people lead happy and engaged lives, and income inequality is low.
I am indeed looking to myself and my COMMUNITY for answers. The problem is the few who look out only for themselves. The tiny few. The few for whom $10 billion is not enough, they need to cut wages even further on those who create their wealth.

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56
  ·  10 months ago

Again, if you consider entitlement to a certain percentage of income/resources to be freedom, then your argument is airtight, in those regions, which are very much the exemption. And let's not forget that for all the redistribution that occurs, most people in those regions lose half or more of their income to taxes in order to have it 'redistributed'. But then the question becomes how is that freedom when you aren't free to keep what you earn?
How much of another man's resources or income is YOURS? That's not freedom. That's slavery. Whether it is slavery to each other or to the state or to a bank, it's slavery because you don't even own your labor. Hell, you don't even own your body, even in those regions.
Your assertion that redistribution somehow equates to freedom is less than specious, it's flawed from the get.

I'll hit on another point you made, for most of the history of government, democracy wasn't available. Sure it was. It's known as mob rule. At least, in terms of today's democracy. The idea that the 'majority' decision is somehow principled, moral or ethical and that the minority should be dismissed and forced to abide by the majority's decision. That's mob rule, literally.
Furthermore, any cursory study into sociology will tell you that the largest group is the most likely to be unethical, immoral and unprincipled. So, thankfully, democracy is relatively new and so it hasn't had time to become even worse... though it is trying.
Democracy is what killed Socrates. It was also abandoned by the initial adoptors of it(Greece), if it wasn't all but abolished by interested parties such as Caesar, Mao, Stalin, et cetera.
Democracy has had several centuries to prove itself to be a way of freeing people from their masters and yet, somehow, we are more theirs than ever. What's more is that we are WILLING to be theirs, so long as they give us some trivial choice that we likely don't really have(see North Korea for the most honest reality behind democracy).

Furthermore, I am not positing that the state, in and of itself, is, in fact, the CAUSE of our troubles, but rather a severe symptom only making the problems worse. The cause of our problems is that people want to be taken care of. They don't want to be self reliant. They want to pretend that they aren't responsible for their actions, they just want to follow orders and obey laws so they are absolved of any responsibiilty for their decisions. They want to be infantalized and they use the state to achieve that. It's basic human nature, we don't want to grow up and have to answer to ourselves because we are our worst critics at the end of the day. We want external validation of how special and entitled and deserving we are.

You can talk all day about redistribution, but even your shining examples of redistribution still put most of the money in the hands of the few through taxation and subsidization. I know little of economics and even I know redistribution of wealth ain't fucking free.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

"Regulations, legislation and subsidization has led to monopolies and the maintaining of unethical and harmful business practices"
So laws forbidding pollution create harmful business practices, and antitrust regulation creates monopolies? There was far less regulation in the days of the robber barons - perhaps corporations were more responsible then? It is this kind of thinking that insists that if we lose the minimum wage, that somehow employers will magically pay more? Or that eliminating pollution regulations will stop pollution? Or that allowing Microsoft to buy up all its competitors will end its monopoly?
True - those with the money can buy legislation that it wants. The answer is not to ban legislation, it is to ban corporations from buying legislation. In fact, corporations should be banned from having legal presence as humans. And anyone found donating any money to a politician should be thrown in jail, together with the politician who takes it. Money is not "free speech", and corporations are not "people".

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56
  ·  10 months ago

No, it's the thinking that if you don't like pollution, don't patron a polluting business. Don't like what a company pays their employees? Don't patronize them. Don't like a monopoly, encourage someone to compete with them.
Windows is a great example. Between them and Mac they have a pretty tight reign on the OS market, right? Except that some college kids came up with an OS that is open source and free and works GREAT. Better than either of the big boys.
Monopolies can only occur if business owners sell to the big guys. But if the small guy is nickled and dimed for doing business, then he is encouraged to sell his business for a windfall.
As for regulations reducing pollution, if that were the case, we'd see a dramatic drop in pollution rates over the last 5-10 years. We really haven't. You see, instead of actually stopping pollution, there's just a price on it now. You can't do it for free. But pay this negligible fee(carbon taxes) that the big guys can afford easily and it's no worries. Oh, the little guy can't afford that, guess he'll sell to the big guy now. Hell, they TRADE the ability to pollute on the stock market.
The ability to govern will always lead to those with influence and money taking the reigns and turning it to their favor. It has, EVERY, FUCKING, TIME. You can reset all you want. It'll just come back to that, again and again. That is academic, historical precedent and fact. Government always seeks to grow, control and always becomes the tool of those it is perceived to be against. The robber barons went on to control government. It's how they managed to continue profiting and growing more and more influential. That never stopped. They simply made what they do 'legitimate' in the eyes of the law.
If you are looking to save yourself and the world, you'd be a fool to rely on ink, paper and strangers to do it for you. And if you think that laws somehow equate to ethical or moral, maybe you should look more closely at the history of laws.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

If I dont like pollution, I can stop all pollution by not patronizing a polluting business? Right. Great solution, there, Einstein.
If you dont like socialism, dont patronise socialist businesses. If you dont like ISIS, dont patronise ISIS-run businesses.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

"As for regulations reducing pollution, if that were the case, we'd see a dramatic drop in pollution rates over the last 5-10 years. We really haven't. "
We really have in cases where the law has been changed. Tea party been in power for most of the past 6 years, and before that, Bush vetoed all regs. But WHEN regs were applied - acid rain, ozone hole - they worked very well. LA used to be smog so think you couldnt see your contact lenses.

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37
  ·  10 months ago

"nd if you think that laws somehow equate to ethical or moral, maybe you should look more closely at the history of laws."
Some do, some dont.
Depends on who writes them and for what reason. Look up the laws on genocide, slavery, child trafficking and murder.

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32
  ·  10 months ago

If we take the Walmart example, you can see the endgame of their business model play out. You have a store which grows into a small chain, then into a regional chain then into a national and multinational chain. Their success coming from organisational efficiencies, keeping costs low and benefiting from economies of scale.
However, that trick only works at certain scales. Once you reach the scale Walmart is at, then your ability to keep costs low starts to impoverish large chunks of society (workers and food producers). This triggers a reaction, strikes, boycotts etc. All of which are ultimately very bad for business and the economy and points to their model being unsustainable.

There was a time where monopolies got dismantled by governments (Standard Oil being a notable example). However, the appetite by governments for doing this seems to have waned.

25
  ·  10 months ago

The "recent" TED Talk is nearly 3 years old. Not exactly recent, especially in tech.