The Nature of Freedom

By Bill the Butcher

A long time ago, when the dinosaurs ruled the swamps and I was a teenager, formulating my outlook on life, I used to keep coming across the phrase, “The Free World”, in the media and in books (there was, of course, no Internet then; we’re talking about the Mesozoic Era, don’t forget).  The “free world” of course, was the Western capitalist democratic model, and anyone who did not belong to it was automatically part of the non-free world.

Even then, it sounded to me a bit odd.

After all, these champions of the Free World were the same people who were aiding and abetting the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was anything but free, and supporting any number of spectacularly nasty dictatorships in South America, Africa, and Asia. These champions of the Free World were also the people who stood by as the government of West Pakistan massacred three million East Pakistanis in 1971 – and I’m not even mentioning the Zionist regime and its actions in Occupied Palestine, or the American championing of those fighters for freedom – the bearded and turbaned Mujahideen in Afghanistan who would go on to spawn the Taliban and inspire a goodly portion of global jihad.

There seemed to be something a bit wrong with the term “Free World”. In general, it revolved around the word “free”.

In recent days, in fact, I’ve been reading a lot of discussions online about the meaning of freedom, so it chimes in neatly with my own thoughts on the subject.

So what is this creature called “freedom,” anyway?

Is it freedom on the personal level: the ability to do exactly as one wishes? Or freedom on a social level: the ability of a society to function without restrictions? Or is it economic freedom: the laissez faire policy? What about political freedom: democracy? And if it is one or more of these, just where does that get us?

Back in those days again, when dinosaurs walked the swamps, etc, the civics textbook we had in school told us that there was no such thing as absolute freedom, and illustrated the point with the example of a man who was pulled up in court on charges of having punched another man on the nose. The man claimed he had a right to swing his fist. The judge informed him that the right to swing his fist “ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This might seem basic – the idea that there is no such thing as absolute freedom; but if you have ever taken part in any of these online discussions, you’ll know that “absolute freedom” is a concept that keeps being bandied about.

Much of the discussion, in fact, is circular logic – the idea that such and such a nation is a free country only because it’s declared itself to be a free country, therefore there’s no need for further discussion. So-and-so country is a free country, and anyone who dares say otherwise is an enemy of freedom.

Setting aside the arguments of such people, or the juvenile efforts by the gentlemen and ladies who in 2003 decided to rename French fries “Freedom fries” (I wonder how many of them cringe at the memory today?), it might just be worthwhile to take a look at freedom and what it means to us.

First, freedom on a personal level. I may be just a tad wrong on this, but it seems to me just possible that a modern functioning society can’t function very well if each individual does exactly as he wishes (or as his conscience tells him to). Hell, I can’t imagine a Neolithic village functioning if each individual does exactly as he wishes to. I can’t even imagine a Robinson Crusoe character doing exactly as he wants to. Just imagine some guy on an island. Can he do exactly what he wants? Obviously not. His freedoms are restricted by his environment, on his need for shelter, food, a source of water, safety from predators, and so on. What freedom is there? None.

As a further expansion of this idea, complete freedom will mean that Mr X is completely free to knock Mr Y over the head with a club (or shoot him with a Colt revolver) if he has a minor disagreement with the latter, say, over who should have access to a woman or a job or a parking space or whatever. You’ll note that I mean that Mr X must be free to do this without any fear of official consequences (as he has complete freedom); though of course Mr Y (or his friends and relatives) have the same complete freedom to knock Mr X over the head in retaliation.

Can any society survive like this?

(As an insert here; some Islamic nations do allow a version of this: the relatives of a murdered person are allowed to pardon the murderer or execute him, as per their own wishes. Strange that these nations aren’t generally considered free, isn’t it? Even as some burqa clad ladies say the veil gives them freedom from the tyranny of having to primp for the male gaze? OK, I’m being facetious here!)

I suppose you could make a case for freedom as the only basis for an expanding nation with a frontier to expand and a wilderness to conquer, though even their “rugged individualism” will have to give way to co-operation in order to survive. And co-operation brings with it its own rules; and rules, of course are directly restrictive of freedom.

Therefore, on any meaningful basis, absolute individual freedom is meaningless. It only has meaning within limits and placed in a social context, which leads to the next point: the social aspects of freedom.

I’m an Asian. My cultural context, therefore, is Asian; and Asian societies (like African) have always tended to submerge the individual in the larger context of the society. Many things that would normally be considered “freedom” in the West, for example the theoretical freedom to sleep with whom you want when you want, as long as the other person is of right mind, is not an option open to Asians, even if they have the legal right to do so. Asian cultures are highly society-intensive, with unspoken limits on a very large part of behaviour, because the individual is expected to conform. Of course, things are changing, but slowly, and most of the change is bitterly opposed and done in secret until a certain critical mass is reached. But still and all, overall the Asian society is a far more freedom-restricting one than the European (for the purposes of this post I’ll include Australia and New Zealand in Europe – for convenience’s sake).

But is that always a bad thing? The original Asian society was still one where there was a deep safety net for stress, and where co-operation was always promoted over “individualism” – and all the great civilisations of antiquity arose in Asia and Africa, long before the rise of Greece and Rome, which had their own severe restrictions on freedom. You can’t get away from that.

In fact, you can’t even get away from the fact that until the end of the Second World War, even European nations had very little in the way of individual freedom, can you? What freedom did a Junker’s son from Prussia have, or a peon from Andalusia? How about the Cockney kid who would leave school at fourteen to become a costermonger’s assistant? Anyone?

Free speech? It sounds very nice to say such and such a country allows free speech – until you check the reality. Just compare the amount of coverage given to pro-war voices in the American media in 2003 to the coverage given to sane people, and you’ll see what I mean. Free speech is basically a fiction. In some respects it has to be. You can’t have one section of the population calling for wholesale extermination of another section of the population in the name of free speech. If you do, you’re promoting fascism, which isn’t free at all.

Let me go back to the beginning of this piece and what I said about the “free world”. Back then, another thing struck me as a mite odd: the idea that freedom can be measured in material possessions.

I once knew a Latvian man on a social network online whose anti-Soviet tirades were both bizarre and entertaining. One of his “arguments”, if one can call them that, was that blacks in South Africa during apartheid times had more cars than citizens of the USSR did. Ergo, blacks in South Africa had more freedom than Soviet citizens did.

Excuse me while I laugh. Even if I accepted the argument about the car ownership (I couldn’t because he provided no numbers, of course), how do you measure freedom in terms of car ownership? If a populace had access to cheap and convenient public transport, why on earth would it want cars?

Similarly, it seemed to me to be a bit odd that a nation that provided cradle-to-grave social care could be held to be less free than a nation where those who couldn’t measure up to the rat race might end up in soup kitchens and sleeping under bridges. This feeling was more or less confirmed when I watched the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, where under the benevolent and free (American-certified!) leadership of Boris Yeltsin, Russians, free of the yoke of communism, suddenly began freezing to death in doorways and starving in the alleys. Somehow, it strikes me that this is not freedom.

Also, if one means economic freedom, total freedom can only mean a completely laissez faire policy with no supervision or control of economic activity, where each entrepreneur can do precisely as he wishes, break as many laws as he wishes, exploit as many workers as he wishes, all in the name of profit. Classic bandit capitalism, in other words. Unfortunately for the proponents of this economic model, this can only end in one thing – the complete swallowing of inefficient or less efficient or merely more ethical concerns by others which can afford to undercut or otherwise destroy the competition, so the inevitable end result is monopoly by one organisation in each sector – which, of course, isn’t freedom at all.

Let me illustrate what I mean (in case anyone has missed the point). Let’s say there are four firms, A, B, C and D, that make clocks, all of roughly the same size. The system allows complete economic freedom. Company A follows strict ethical models and pays all workers a fair wage. Company B does the same but also follows environmental norms. Company C is a concern that tries to squeeze profit by ignoring the environment and also fires workers without notice, and Company D follows no rules at all, pays workers slave wages, dumps poisons in the rivers and air, and cuts every corner imaginable.

Obviously, all other factors being equal, Company B will soon fold because its production costs will be greater than the others. The market now divided between three concerns means A will then be squeezed out because C and D can sell their products cheaper. If it comes down to C and D, D will ultimately win, since it’s got the least overheads and can make the biggest profits and so can also undercut C. So, in the end, D rules the market single handed and can do damn well as it wishes, including chucking all concept of quality control out of the window. Where is the freedom here?

Therefore, and the point is reinforced by recent economic history (think Meltdown), there can be no absolute economic freedom, either.

So how about political freedom? I’ll stick my neck out a little bit here and say that if you don’t have food, shelter and clothing enough to go around, political freedom – the freedom to vote for your leaders – doesn’t mean a load of manure. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that such a freedom will be misused and twisted to make sure that there is not enough food, shelter and clothing to go around, so that the people who aspire to lead you can do so on the premise that there will be, if you vote for them, enough food, shelter and clothing to go around. Maybe I’m cynical. But that’s the reality of non-European/North American democracy as I see it, and I’m not quite sure about the North American component of that either. And, in any case, since the politicians you vote to power typically have no real difference between them, in policy or deed, what freedom of choice do you have?

No absolute freedom, ergo, in any of its components; but look around you. Bound by job and family and mortgages and represented by people who don’t give a damn about you after you’ve voted for them, how many can claim they have any freedom at all?

What was that about the free world, again?