Thursday, 24 February 2011

What's so great about freedom anyway?

A simple man's discussion of liberty and freedom.

In the workshop the other day, working on a couple of small projects I found my mind wandering as it sometimes does when my hands are busy. Nothing much, just a little combination carpentry and engineering, general workaday stuff I do as a volunteer. I found myself wondering in the wake of the various Middle Eastern protests, what is freedom? What does it mean and who does it really benefit? Is it really in the words of the song; “just another word for nothing left to lose”? Why is it preferable (or not) to the alternatives? Why are people prepared to fight and die to attain it? Why do we make such a fuss?

What do the words ‘freedom’ and / or ‘liberty’ mean?

Here are some dictionary definitions for ‘Freedom’
  • Freedom is the condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints
  • Freedom is exemption: immunity from obligations or duties
  • Political freedom is the absence of interference with the sovereignty of an individual by the use of coercion or aggression.
  • Freedom is commonly known as a state of being free from government oppression.
  • Self ownership
Similarly for ‘Liberty’
  • Autonomy: immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority: political independence
  • Freedom of choice; "liberty of opinion"; "liberty of worship"; "liberty--perfect liberty--to think, feel or do just as one pleases"; "at liberty to choose whatever occupation one wishes"
  • Personal freedom from servitude or confinement or oppression
  • Shore leave: leave granted to a sailor or naval officer
  • Familiarity: an act of undue intimacy. As in “A downright liberty”
  • Liberty is a concept of political philosophy identifying the condition in which an individual has the right to act according to his or her own will. In feudal times, a liberty was an area of allodial land in which regalian rights had been waived.
So those are the dictionary definitions, but does being ‘free’ mean freedom from want or hardship? No. If anything it means you work a bloody sight harder to earn your daily crust. Longer hours, and there’s no extra money in it. There’s no magic support moolah from the state if work dries up. You’re pretty much on your own.

Does it mean freedom from fear?

Well yes and no. Fear is pretty subjective anyway. Having walked mean streets without body armour, with what often seemed every voice turned against me, I know that fear only gets in the way of dealing with daily risks. To be free of fear, you just have to look into your inner mirror and say; “Yes of course that scares me, but not so much that I can’t or won’t do anything about it.” Otherwise you’re just a soon to be ex-rabbit staring into onrushing headlights.

Does freedom mean having no ‘rights’?

Depends what you call a ‘right’, doesn’t it? Some contend that only an institution like a state or statutory body can grant ‘rights’. What these Statist ‘rights’ tend to be are generally along the lines of; “Whatever I want given to me for free, for doing nothing in return, right now.” Such as the ‘right’ to ‘free’ services like medical cover and education or the ‘right’ to safety (Whatever that means). For me a ‘right’ derives not from what I want from the state, but from what I should be free to choose for myself, providing I promise not to whine if I screw up and it all ends in tears.

Put simply, the Statist wants a free lunch in exchange for a reduction in their liberties and increase in everyone else’s taxes. Contrariwise, the Libertarian doesn’t want the lunch, the extra tax, or the loss of choice. They just want to be able to run their own lives without having to ask permission all the time, or to have to pay for the choices of others.

Freedom can also be viewed as a balance between rights and obligations. You may have a right, but you have an obligation not to abuse that right to the detriment of others. Who also have exactly the same rights as everyone else. In a free society there should be no private law or privilege for the wealthy or famous. No ‘superior’ rights, such as in the case of vociferous minorities. No handicaps or positive discrimination to make things ‘fair’. Because any such bias in a truly free society is ‘unfair’. If you don’t understand that, well, you don’t ‘get’ the concept of fairness or freedom at all. We all have limitations, it's what you turn them into that counts.

Freedom also means not being subject to summary arrest or detention without evidence or charge. It means being able to voice an opinion without intimidation, physical or otherwise, or any form of detention. That means no one is allowed to thump you, or threaten to do so, for speaking your mind on a topic. No one is allowed to harass you or yours for not agreeing with them. It also means you can’t do that to others if you disagree with them.

Freedom also means the right of self defence. So if you tell someone to leave you in peace and they either threaten you, or attempt physical harm, you can take such steps as are necessary to negate the threat. In this situation, your right to prevent yourself or others being harmed should out weigh their right to disagree with you, should they escalate to violence first.

So what good is freedom anyway if you don’t really get anything out of it?

Ah, the question of the born slave. In a word; motivation. Freedom, or the self determination that comes as part of the package means you are master of your own destiny. It means choice. On the simplest level the power to make decisions for yourself without having to ask permission, with all the chances and thrills that brings. Once you’ve gotten past the fright of finding yourself firmly at the controls of your own life, it’s a remarkably refreshing experience, and not one you’ll give up without a bloody good fight.

So why are people willing to die for freedom?

A nice easy one, this. See also last sentence of previous paragraph. Self volition, freedom of choice and suchlike are fundamental human needs. I could trot out a whole bunch of buzzwords like ‘empowerment’, but that implies the power in question wasn’t an option in the first place. No one, apart from a slave, and not even then, likes being bossed around and told what they can think, say and do. Given enough provocation by an uncaring elite, even the most downtrodden worm will turn.

Looked at from an historical viewpoint it’s almost inevitable that an enslaved population will revolt. Chronicles from ancient civilizations to the present day are littered with such events. From Spartacus and before to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement and beyond. Having the ability to decide your own fate, at least for humans, is as natural as breathing. We are not a herd animal. Tribal yes, herd, no.

Hang on, this freedom thing just sounds like chaos, no one really wants that do they?

Whilst a state of absolute chaos where no rules apply, is undesirable, rigid enforcement is just as undesirable. All rules have circumstances in which an exemption is desirable for the benefit of others as a whole.

Humans, and just about every organic life form on the planet follow rules which can be ascertained by simple observation. The ‘simplest’ tribal society has a raft of rules governing dress, behaviour and diet. Yet what is right for them would most definitely not be appropriate for the average Western city dweller, and vice versa. Yet even in supposedly chaotic situations there are rules. Arbitrary and eccentric, but rules nonetheless.

There are certainly those who cannot function outside of a tightly defined set of rules. I’ve met a few and I understand one thing about them. Rules give them certainty. Rules define their tight little comfort zones. Rules are their security blanket. They long to dictate to others simply because it gives them a feeling of power which has been attained without first attaining either merit or ability. They want everyone to be the same as them, and can’t tolerate those who are different.

There is a saying that one man’s Anarchy is another’s business opportunity. For those who are prepared to ‘wing it’, the looser the system is the better. Yet even such a system has rules, which can be learned and worked within. All that you really need to know are the absolute boundaries beyond which you may not go.

Yeah, but this liberty thing, it’s just people being selfish isn’t it?

Is it selfish to think of and for oneself, and allow others to do likewise? To quote Oscar Wilde from ‘The soul of man under socialism’;
“It is grossly selfish to require of one's neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he?………….…A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.”
From De Profundis he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson;
“It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people”
Freedom and liberty, if they mean anything at all, are about the sense of possession of one’s own spirit. To own oneself is by turns exhilarating, exasperating and exhausting, but a hell of a lot more interesting and enervating than the simple trudging existence of modern human bondage. Who was it that said. “The unexamined life is not worth living”? Oh yes, according to Plato, good old Socrates.

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