Degrees of Freedom

Generally, we all like the idea of ‘freedom’ as its definition, as a word, implies the absence of coercion or constraint, such that we might conceptually be free to say or do anything. Of course, in reality there are many constraints, some necessary, which limits the degree of freedom we might have as an individual. However, before proceeding, it might also be useful to introduce the term ‘degrees of freedom’. From a somewhat abstract perspective it might be said to represent the number of independent ways in which a system might change without constraining other freedoms. Of course, how this definition might be interpreted in mathematics or engineering differs when applied to the social sciences, where freedom has to be considered in terms of an individual within a collective society. While we do not always think about a ‘society’ as a system, in reality, this seems a reasonably appropriate way to summarise the sum total of all the various interactions that take place, i.e. social, economic and political. However, within this system of interactions, the desire for absolute freedom, as an individual, often runs into conflict with the goals of a collective society, such that society invariably limits the degrees of freedom of an individual.

Note: In the discussion ‘The Limits of Morality’ reference was made to the work of Adam Smith, first in terms of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and then Wealth of Nations (1776), where the Moral Sentiment first introduces the idea of an ‘invisible hand’ at work within society, which then found application in the Wealth of Nations. However, while Smith was an advocate of what is now called ‘free market economics’ driven by self-interest, he also recognised the need for constraints to be placed on excessive self-interest when detrimental to collective society. However, it was later argued that while some individuals might be constrained by a personal morality, collective institutions were essentially amoral, such that they had to be constrained by ethical laws, policies and regulations.

So, based on this general introduction, it might be accepted that irrespective of the exact nature of the institutional systems that surround us, individuals are invariably constrained in some way in what they can say or do. While it might be suggested that such constraints are often imposed for the common good, history also suggests that many of the constraints imposed by society have only serve to benefit a smaller minority. So, the question that this discussion seeks to consider is:

Is there an optimal limit to freedom that best serves the individual and society?

From a historic perspective, the governance of a society, encompassing its political, economic and social institutions, was invariably founded on authoritarian control. However, the essence of such control was that it was centralised and prioritised the goal of a small minority. Of course, the idea of authoritarian governance can also be considered in a future context, as reviewed in the opening discussion of ‘Brave New Worlds’ that considers some of the implications, and differences, between  the novels of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, which while both authoritarian in scope, differed in style. However, in both of these fictional cases, we might question whether an individual would perceive this type of governance as a utopian ideal or dystopian nightmare, irrespective of their position within such a society, as both clearly placed severe constraints on individual freedom. Of course, given the negative connotations of the previous description, we might wish to consider the idea of minimal governance, which we might initially characterise as libertarian in style. However, while there are many criticisms of libertarianism, we might initially judge a libertarian society, not so much on a person’s position in some limited social hierarchy, but rather on their natural ability to succeed. For it is clear that all are not equal in ability, such that individual morality and institutional ethics would still require that even a libertarian society might need to put constraints on individual self-interest, if detrimental to social stability.

Note: In the current context of discussing freedom, the idea of authoritarian or libertarian governance is not making direct reference to any specific political system, see Scope for Political Evolution or Political Addendum for wider details. Likewise, while some may perceive democracy as an alternative to authoritarian governance, a democratically elected party in power may not necessarily aspire to deliver greater individual freedom, especially when democratic choice is effectively limited to one of two political parties – see Post-Democracy and the Populists for more details.

In the same year, 1776, that Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, the United States of America pronounced its freedom in a Declaration of Independence. The authors of this document believed that freedom, both of the state and individuals, was of such importance that much of the second paragraph of this declaration articulates what it declares to be ‘self-evident’ truths.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness - that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed - that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.

However, it might be noted that the word ‘freedom’ does not actually appear in the text above. In fact, it does not appear anywhere in the declaration of independence. However, we do see the use of the word ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’, although it might initially be assumed that liberty is synonymous with ‘freedom’. Even so, in the context of this introduction, we might seek some further clarification of the semantics of such words. While not necessarily rigorous, it will be suggested that ‘liberty’ is more associated with the ‘rights’ of an individual within a collective state, such that we might see the connection with ‘libertarianism’, which seeks to maximise individual freedom within the collective state. However, the idea of ‘freedom’ is not really defined by the institutions of government, as it possibly expresses the more fundamental idea of being free from any type of constraint, be it psychological or physical in nature. Therefore, in terms of the declaration of independence, we might infer that it is the new government of the collective state, which defines the scope, and limits, of liberty and therefore the rights of its citizens in law.

Note: The semantics of words may only have substance, if supported by deeds of individuals and governments, where it has been suggested that only individuals might be guided by personal morality, while governments are guided by institutional ethics, i.e. laws. In this context, we possibly need to remind ourselves that slavery in America was not abolished until 1865, some 89 years after the declaration of independence was written. For while many of the founding fathers opposed slavery from the outset, it was recognised that considerable political and economic obstacles would have to be overcome before this particular aspect of equality could be realised – see The Limits of Morality for wider discussion.

As outlined, it is possible that the concept of freedom has often been tempered by pragmatism, which is not necessarily a ‘bad thing’. However, today, we might reflect on the state of American politics given 250 years of hindsight and question the current state of its founding idealism and ask whether this is a ‘good thing’. Of course, we might recognise that social attitudes have undergone considerable change over this time, although we might question whether the separation between idealistic principles and pragmatic implementation is now too wide. So, within this developing framework, some attempt has been made to outline the conceptual idea of ‘freedom’ and its limitations in terms of ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’, when both are increasingly defined and controlled by the institutions of a collective state.

But what about the future?

While many aspects of the Mysearch website have indulged in all manner of predictions, it has always tried to highlight that most, if not all, predictions turn out to be wrong or, at least, wide of the mark in the substance of their detail; especially when extended ever further into the future. However, this discussion will continue to argue that the future will still be defined by ‘winners and losers’, which may be further compounded by both population growth and increasing resource demands. Of course, while advances in technology may mitigate some of the impacts surrounding the issue of sustainable growth, it may also create new problems in terms of automation, which may increasingly aggravate the issue of unemployment within the expanding urban populations around the world. 

But how are such issues directly relevant to freedom?

While we might accept that freedom in the modern world is constrained by collective governance, we might still perceive some of the benefits associated with the ‘freedom of choice’, which can obviously encompass an individual preference about how we want to live our lives. Of course, choice also depends on opportunity and opportunity often depends on the state of the world into which we are born and the ideas that have shaped it. While the US declaration of independence might possibly be described as idealistic, it nevertheless contains some important moral truths that are still worthy of consideration. This idealism is captured in the assumption that humanity has ‘certain unalienable rights’ that lead to ‘ life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ’ and that ‘all are created equal’.

Note: Please accept that the statement above is not an argument against the ideals expressed, simply the acceptance of a pragmatic reality of a finite physical world and the sum total of human demands on such idealism. See the ‘Nature versus Nurture Debate’ and ‘Brave New Worlds’ for wider discussion of these issues.

For the moment, let us simply accept that the physical world does not understand the concept of an ‘unalienable right’ to life or happiness, as these are essentially conceptual ideas to which humanity might strive. Of course, we might hope that human society will continue to develop according to a moral code, which it seeks to embody in the institutional ethics of society, although this cannot necessarily be taken for granted. For, as reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, much of humanity continues to fight for survival on a daily basis, while only being able to hope for a better life. Today, the world population is approaching 8 billion with a projection of a possible peak of 11 billion by 2100, although subject to some considerable variance. However, by 2100, it is projected that much of this global population will be concentrated in Asia, India and Africa, which currently have the lowest standard of living that might be better characterised as abject poverty.

Note: Today, more than a billion people live on less than $1 per day, while a further 3 billion people, i.e. 39% of the current global population, live on $2 per day. It is estimated that 450 million children are underweight, while nearly 900 million adults are illiterate, two thirds being women. Every day, it is estimated that 30,000 children under the age of 5 die from avoidable diseases, while another billion people do not have access to healthy water, a major cause of disease. Over one billion people do not have access to electricity, while three billion people still cook over open fires fuelled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal, another major cause of disease.

At this point in time, it is far from clear how technology will solve all of these problems by 2100, especially if compounded by a further population increase of 3 billion and located in the areas of the highest existing poverty. Based on this assessment, probability suggests that a large percentage of this global population will not have any real ‘freedom of choice’, even if we assume that the global economy can provide the resources to keep them all above the poverty line. While it is realised that such facts paint a depressing picture of the future, it is one that possibly puts the issue of freedom into better perspective before we consider the ‘degrees of freedoms’ to which we, in more developed societies, might still aspire.

So, what degrees of freedom might we wish for?

Before attempting to address this question, let us table some assumptions on which we might proceed. First, we shall assume that most developed economies require the infrastructure of a collective nation state, which may be authoritarian or democratic in nature, although the scope of democracy might be questionable in many instances. Second, we shall assume that the majority of the population in developed economies will be concentrated into urban areas, which requires individual freedom to be subject to the rule of law imposed by central governance. Third, we shall assume that these urban societies cannot maintain stability without technology of all kinds and a functioning economic system to provide resources. At face value, these assumptions do not appear that controversial, such that they might provide a reasonable framework in which the freedom of an individual might be further discussed. However, we might add one further assumption of a more controversial nature by suggesting that many people within these urban societies will accept draconian restrictions on their freedom, as individuals, if it maintains their basic survival needs. If so, it leads to another question that possibly requires some initial consideration.

What priority do people put on freedom?

We might extend the history of the original Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, by highlighting that independence was not formally realised until 1783. Likewise, independence only secured the freedom of a new nation state, not necessarily the freedom of the people from the dictates of government. However, the US constitution, written in 1789, has been subsequently amended 27 times, which has allowed the idea of the ‘inalienable rights’ of the American people to certain freedoms to be clarified. As previously outlined, while these freedoms might be assumed, they still have to be granted by the government that determine the laws of the land. Recognising this issue, the founding fathers of the American constitution also developed the 1st amendment, written in 1791, which restricted the government from making laws that affected the freedom of religion, speech and the press plus their right to assemble peacefully or to petition the government for redress of grievances. Subsequently, the 2nd amendment, also in 1791, added the right for individuals to ‘keep and bear arms’, which while possibly understandable after the fight for independence might appear more questionable today.

Note: While there are other nation states that have a written constitution, the US constitution was a new and radical idea at that time. For the 1st amendment consolidated the idea of freedom and the secular nature of government, even though most people held strong religious beliefs at that time. However, the belief in some ‘higher authority’ still underpins the constitution, and its amendments, by stating that the ‘rights of the people’ are granted by ‘a Creator’, not by the state, and therefore it is the people that grant rights to government. While this concept would be far-reaching, we might still have to question its validity in today’s world.

So, returning to the question above, the history of the US tells us that its people, from many regions of the world, were prepared to fight and die for the freedoms expressed in its constitution. However, it appears that many of today’s 190+ nation states do not necessarily accept such ideas and actively restrict the freedom of its citizens – see State of Global Politics for more details, especially when it comes to the issue of the freedom of speech granted to its citizens.

Note: In China’s view, it is the patriotic responsibility of its citizens and the media to promote positive propaganda, such that public opinion must be ‘supervised’. In 2017, this idea took the form of an official directive to ‘strike hard’ against what the government defined as online rumours, harmful information, fake news, news extortion, fake media and fake reporters - see Freedom of Speech for more details.

However, it is not just authoritarian centralised nation states that question the right to individual freedom, as many Islamic states classify blasphemy as any impious utterance or action concerning God, Muhammad or practically anything considered sacred in Islam, which then restricts the freedom of speech of others. However, many sections of western societies are now also trying to restrict the freedom of speech of anything that does not conform to the possibly subjective and expanding definition of ‘political correctness’. In this context, freedom of speech is considered secondary to the political stability of the nation state, the religious certainty of a belief or the righteous certainty of political correctness held by different sections of society. Given this state of affairs, we possibly need to consider a more contentious question concerning freedom.

Does everybody require freedom in the pursuit of happiness?

While the question above may appear relatively innocuous at first glance, it can lead to some contentious issues, especially when viewed from the perspective of political correctness. The first issue is simply the inference that only some smaller percentage of the population need or value freedom, which then leads to the second and more contentious issue as to why. On the first issue, it has been argued that, in practical terms, there are only degrees of freedom, if collective society is to protect its citizens from the excesses of self-interest of others. Therefore, despite the ideals of the various constitutional principles outlined, governments can, and do, restrict individual freedom, but not always for the best of reasons. Likewise, some authoritarian governments actively suppress individual freedom based on the argument that the stability of the state takes precedence over individual freedoms. Of course, it might also be highlighted that the argument surrounding the ‘stability of the state’ may only reflect the self-interests of a small minority of the population. However, based on the previous introduction, it has been argued that nobody has, or has ever had, complete freedom, only the liberties and rights bestowed by some form of collective state, and not a creator, although Islamic governments might try to debate this last point.

But what of the second issue as to why everybody might not require freedom?

While the question above is not suggesting that most people do not conceptually desire some degree of freedom to live their lives in a certain way, it is clear that most societies impose many restrictions, i.e. political, economic and social. As such, most people have to simply adjust their ‘pursuit of happiness’ to conform with the collective norms of the society into which they are born. However, it is possibly premature to assume that even those living within authoritarian political system have to be unhappy, if we reflect on the fact that ‘happiness’ is not necessarily a priority within the lives of many, when viewed from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While the previous link explains the nature of these needs in more detail, the diagram right provides a visual reference to the inference that the bottom three needs are more to do with basic survival. Of course, if these needs are satisfied, the emotion of happiness might still result and while, the top two needs can also infer happiness, if achieved, this emotion is probably not the primary motivation in the pursuit of such needs. In addition, economic poverty of the state or the individual can also severely restrict the freedom to pursue happiness, if we accept that much in the modern world now requires some level of financial wealth, at least, not to be unhappy. In this respect, we might perceive a dichotomy in that freedom from financial debt and the 9-to-5 routine does not necessarily equate to happiness in most cases. However, while poverty can be imposed on some for no fault of their own, it is clear that all are not born equal in ability, even if having been given equal access to opportunity, which the ‘Nature versus Nurture Debate’ has already discussed.

What has nature and nurture got to do with freedom?

Up until this point, most of the arguments being forwarded for discussion have not really been that controversial, although some might disagree with many of the underlying assumptions. However, the last few questions have only really skirted around the issue of freedom from the perspective of whether everybody needs freedom in their everyday lives, such that some possibly controversial ideas about nature and nurture need to be considered. By way of an initial anecdotal story, it is said that if you have 100 prisoners of war, observation may identify only 5-10% with the necessary ability to escape. On a similar, but more extreme line of thought, the idea of Price’s Law might be raised, which suggests that the square root of any population is responsible for 50% of the results in any domain. In a small population of 9, this law suggests that 3, i.e. 33.3%, will produce 50% of the results. However, in a larger population of 900, this law suggests that only 30, i.e. 3.33%, will produce 50% of the results. While we should not necessarily extrapolate this law too far, especially in terms of an entire national population, there still a suggestion in both examples that not everybody in a population has the ability to maximise all or any of the freedoms granted by their government.

Note: Sigmund Freud also characterised the need for freedom by stating that most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

While this may be true in some cases, it may also have to be accepted that many people simply do not have the ability or inclination to use freedom, even if available, for much of their lives is pre-occupied with other priorities, which in many cases around the world is simply basic survival.

OK, if we were to accept all these limitations, is freedom still important?

Strangely, given all the limitations outlined, this discussion will now argue that certain individual freedoms are essential to the future development of humanity. For if all individuals are denied certain degrees of freedom to ‘think outside the box’ and express new ideas that mainstream society might initially reject, and therefore try to suppress, progress runs the risk of slowing or even grinding to a halt.

Note: Earlier in the discussion, three types of restrictions on freedom of speech were briefly outlined, i.e. authoritarian governance, religious dogma and excessive political correctness. While none of these restrictions may necessarily halt innovation, it is far from clear that they facilitate developments outside what might be perceived in the self-interest of some collective worldview. Freedom of speech can also impact science, as reference to the Consensus and Climate Change discussion, which highlighted that a minority claiming to represent an apparent consensus of 97.5% of scientists want to end debate and implement a range of radical energy and environment policies, which many others believe will not solve the problems and only lead to higher energy costs, which developing economies cannot afford. 

If such arguments have any validity, the idealism of various freedoms historically expressed in the 1st amendment not only have practical validity today, but may be essential to the long-term ‘vitality’ of any society, even though such freedoms may only be utilised by a small minority of any population. However, it is possible that this perspective is rushing to a premature conclusion that western democracies present the best compromise between individual freedom and the constraints of government, such that we need to table another question.

How might we assess effective freedom?

While it has been suggested that not all in any population will use the liberty and rights allowed, a smaller minority of this population need these freedoms to develop the ‘wealth of a nation’ hopefully to the collective benefit of all. However, the accumulation of national wealth can have many facets and take many generations to accumulate and therefore possibly reflects the effort and freedoms of the past. As outlined, there are many different types of conceptual freedoms, which may be both constrained and redefined as liberty and rights in laws controlled by government. Based on this outline, we might initially consider whether the effectiveness of freedom might be measured in terms of the wealth or Gross Domestic Product GDP of a nation, which in 2019 might be summarised as shown right. So, despite the many issues of concern about human rights in China, it seems that its economic wealth has improved much over the last 30 years, possibly because it has allowed greater economic freedom, at least, to selected entrepreneurial citizens.

Note: The link above regarding human right suggests that the Chinese government imposes many restrictions on individual and institutional freedoms involving free speech, the media in all forms, movement and travel, religious beliefs, political choice plus many other areas of political and social life. 

Again, we might question whether all these freedoms are really a necessity for economic prosperity, while also reflecting on whether the democratic model in the West provides true democracy to its people and whether those elected are the best representatives of the people.

Note: The Chinese system clearly opposes the idea of electoral democracy as the means of selecting political leaders at its higher levels of government. Instead, it states a preference for a ‘meritocracy’ where its political representatives are selected and promoted having first demonstrated above average ability in terms of both formal examinations and performance evaluations at lower levels of government. Of course, it might be recognised that this system also demands allegiance to its political ideology, although corruption can and does undermine this meritocracy system at all levels.

So, at one level, we might start to wonder which system is best for the population as a whole, if much of the population does not have the ‘ability or inclination’ to use freedom in its many forms. However, this might also be a premature conclusion as the suppression of freedom can lead a society down a path towards Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or, worse still, Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ dystopian nightmare.

Note: While reference to what are fictional novels might appear tangential to the freedoms in the real world, the reader might wish to review two videos, which possibly present a very worrying development to all. The first produced by the Wall Street Journal called ‘Life Inside China's Total Surveillance State’ details the ever increasing presence of domestic surveillance in China, which possibly needs to be considered in terms of the wider discussion of ‘Information Control’ and China’s Social Credit System, see diagram below, which will in late 2019 require its citizens to submit to facial recognition before they can access China’s already restricted internet. However, if these references might appear worrying developments, the discussion in the next video entitled China vs U.S. - Trade War to Cold War? are far more alarming in scope. 

While this discussion has criticised aspects of democracy, it is also accepted that the freedoms expressed in the American constitution allow such criticisms to be openly expressed and discussed, such that improvements might be developed over time. While such developments may not necessarily be of particular interest to many in these democratic societies, they are still the beneficiary of these freedoms being given legal status as human rights under international law. So, while China’s government may claim to be acting on behalf of its people, we might wish to simply ask why it refuses to give its people the freedom to decide on its own future. As such, this discussion will end by suggesting a revised wording for a constitution, which might be more applicable for the modern world.

“We declare that all are created equal in law and human rights, which includes the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Governments must derive their powers from the consent of the governed and whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government. Based on such principles, those bestowed with the power of government should prioritise the safety and happiness of its people, not the pursuance of its own self-interest.”