The Dodge Challenger commercial from early 2011 claims that “there’s a couple of things America got right – cars and freedom”. Aside from the fact that a Dodge Challenger would be a remarkably bad idea as a battlefield weapon, it does raise the question of what it would mean to get “freedom” right.
Everyone claims this concept as their own. No one proudly claims “I am not free” – at best, some may give up some freedoms in order to gain others. But all of this is based on the idea that freedom is a thing we can have more or less of. It’s a property. Let’s start by examining that. The central question here is, what would you consider real freedom?
1. We sometimes talk about “negative freedom” This is “freedom from”, or the lack of coercion. So long as people act of their own will, and are not coerced, then they are free. For many people in the US, this is what freedom amounts to, and it is the reason why anything that seems to “limit choice” or the exercise of one’s own individual will, is seen as a limit on freedom.
But what if there is no external limit on your will, but there are no choices available? Henry Ford used to say that people could have any color of Model T that they wanted, as long as it was black. Now, at the beginning, people probably didn’t care much about the color of the Model T. It was enough that it worked. But things didn’t remain like that – eventually people wanted other colors.
What’s negative about negative freedom? Just that we assume that freedom is a natural condition that we all have, but there are barriers to its exercise. So, having freedom means getting rid of things that stand in the way of exercising my free will.
2. So, let’s supplement this simple version of freedom. Let’s say that freedom is the lack of coercion plus a multiplicity of personal choices. So, I go to get my Model-T, and now it could be one of several colors. But how many do we need, at this point, in order that I consider myself free? Would it be enough to have three colors, for instance?
The issue is probably not that there’s a specific number of colors that provide freedom. Its relative, not absolute – if everyone else (or even a few others) have a choice from among hundreds of colors, and I only can choose from three, then I might see myself as not having freedom. If there are only three colors available to everyone (or, only three colors in the world), then I would probably not think much about it. But what that means is that freedom might be a relative rather than an absolute concept. In other words, the issue might be about having a range of options, but it is also about how my range of options compares to the range of options someone else has.
But there’s still a problem. I want that Model T. I know what color I want, and it’s available. Can I just go get it? Well, not necessarily. I might not have the money.
3. So, let’s supplement this version of freedom again. What if freedom = non-coercion + a range of personal choices + power to make the choices come to pass? Is this now freedom? Surely the mere fact that there are cars in the world, doesn’t mean that I can automatically have one. Even if we imagine a world which doesn’t run on the exchange of money for goods and services, things are unevenly distributed, and getting whatever I want isn’t possible for anyone.
We might just think that this is an argument for having lots of money, but it’s worth remembering that money is just a means to an end. You still have to know what end you want, and that’s harder to come by than people might realize. There are lots of cautionary tales about the folly of just acquiring whatever you want. You might, in fact, obscure your ability to know what your real ends and goals are, rather than enhance that ability. In other words, you might not get to know yourself well enough.
What does this have to do with freedom? Well, consider a drug addict. We might say that that person is free – he or she chooses to take drugs each time that the drugs are taken. But of course, addiction is the opposite of freedom – it’s compulsion. Even though you choose, you aren’t choosing freely. I had a friend who smoked, and when I told him he wasn’t acting freely (he was another philosopher – we talked like this all the time), he said, “No, I’m completely free, and I will now demonstrate it – I will choose to have a cigarette.” Every time, he’d make the same choice, and every time, he’d claim that he freely did so.
So, did he know himself? Well, in many ways yes, but I would say, not completely. And yet, do I, a non-smoker, know myself any better? Probably not. Where are my compulsions, where are the things that direct me to do something, when I tell myself I’m freely choosing (hint: it probably involves Oreos).
In other words, even if I have the ability to make my wishes come true, how do I know that I don’t have some inner compulsion that is nevertheless hampering my choice? One way to know this is to rely on those around me.
4. Let’s revise our definition of freedom again. Freedom = non-coercion + societal choices + the power to make the choices come to pass. What do I mean by societal choices? Not that society makes a choice for me, but that society lays out a range of choices, and a range of human experiences, and that helps me to decide. Do I want to become a drug addict? Well, no, but why not? Because I can see what it has done to others (and of course, I know that few drug addicts reflected on whether they wanted to become addicts, and chose to do so. It’s an illness, not a consumer preference). In other words, I look around at the experience of others, and that helps me decide. What if I was a slave, and emancipation came along, and I decided that my life was more comfortable living in the predictable reality I had known than in the new and uncertain world that I didn’t know. Could someone freely choose to be a slave? Or would we say, they are not yet aware of all their options, and haven’t seen a compelling model of what life looks like outside of slavery?
And there’s another issue here – is there a difference between being free and feeling free? Is it possible to in fact be free, but not feel like you are? Or, is the opposite the case? Surely that must be the case – as corporatization grows, our options in fact become more restricted in many ways (there are fewer car companies and computer companies than in the early days of either of those technologies). Yet, companies spend a lot of time convincing us that buying their products give us freedom, and is an expression of our own freedom. In other words, we can feel free, whether we in fact are or not.
Are we free by this point? Is it really possible to have non-coercion, and at the same time recognize that there are social choices, the sorts of things that people would choose if they knew what was good for them?
Note that what has been sketched out here is a kind of political spectrum. The first version is basically a libertarian version, whereas the final version is basically social democracy. In the first version, freedom just means a lack of constraint on your choices. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of those choices (and, that’s also built into classical economics – we can’t dispute over taste, and we can’t look inside the black box of people’s minds. All we can see is their action, and make inferences about their opportunities and constraints based on their preferences). The final version assumes that social models matter, and education matters, and social institutions that make up for past inequalities matter.
And you can probably see how, from each end of the spectrum, the other end looks like a lack of freedom. The libertarian looks at all those social institutions and says, that’s just a set of limits on choices. The social democrat looks at the libertarian and says, there’s no mechanism for anyone to get to know who they are, and realize their true selves. They’re wide open to manipulation, and while they may have choice, they have the same level of freedom that an addict does. They’re just in denial about the reasons for their choices, they’re not making truly free choices.
5. To this point, it’s all been about freedom as a property, or something that we can have more or less of, and that we strive for. What if it’s not like that at all? What if we can’t help but be free, and all our talk about a lack of freedom is just talk. At every point in our lives we make a choice, and there would be no greater or fewer choices if we were millionaires or paupers. It’s just choice, at every minute, but we spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that we don’t have choice. What if it’s not that we have freedom, but freedom has us?
This is existentialism in a nutshell, more or less. Freedom isn’t a property, it’s what it means to be human. We can’t escape it, except by dying. So, the issue really is, what are all the ways that we, and others, convince us that we don’t have freedom when we really do?
This has all been about freedom in the abstract. If you read my introductory diary on this series, you know that I want to get into the question of how concepts look different from different places. This is a start – it gets at the different senses of freedom in the US. But the world is a big place, and the US is only 4.5% of that place. Freedom has meant a lot of other things out there.
I’m not sure the Dodge Challenger ad is right about cars, and I’m quite sure that, while the American version of freedom has been absolutely crucial in the world, it’s not the only one out there. That’s what I want to think about next time.