“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

— George Orwell

“’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”

— Friedrich August von Hayek

“Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish? Nothing else.”

— Epictetus

“The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage.”

— Thucydides

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

— John Stuart Mill

“You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.”

— Robert Frost

“Freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.”

— Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

— Sigmund Freud

People talk about wanting freedom, but few truly do. Freedom requires personal responsibility and initiative, which few people want. Most prefer to be led – but with a light hand. Absolute freedom does not exist. What we can do is always constrained in many ways. Many people are okay with being “acceptably-constrained”. Do you know why?    

Just what is this state of existence we call freedom? The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a starting point:

  • the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
  • liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another
  • the quality or state of being exempt or released

Umm … I don’t think so, or at least there is much more …

Freedom to me is being able to do one’s own thing, without any external constraint other than not hurting or damaging the freedom of others. Of course, this qualification is really a constraint on our having absolute freedom to do, think, feel, say, and in general act as we might wish.

Absolute freedom does not exist

Our personal freedom is in reality highly constrained by all kinds of rules, laws, social expectations, resources, abilities, the freedom of others, … . So, we have only some degree of personal freedom – which varies with the context.

We can’t infringe on the personal freedom of another person – unless of course we are among the rulers-and-ruler-wannabes. Laws and social norms, and often our own conscience – our sense of right and wrong, provide the constraining context.

We can’t burn down a forest or blow up a bridge, even if no one is directly affected. Laws and regulations restrict what we are free to burn down or blow up. Not much, in practice.

There are in fact so many things that we are not free to do, or where our freedom is tightly constrained, as to make the term freedom alone almost meaningless. Context must be specified to define its meaning.

In this respect, life is a process of acting (et al) within whatever set of constraints apply in our personal contexts at each point in time. We are never truly free.

Is this a bad thing? Even if unavoidable – that is, our freedom is always constrained in some manner – this situation may well be highly beneficial in many cases. Our personal survival may well depend on our particular set of living-process constraints.

Would you really want to be completely free? Don’t we all require at least a few guardrails and guidelines so that we don’t have to think about the wisdom of our every move? Most of us, and perhaps virtually all, could not exist without some limits to our freedoms.

What we are more likely to be concerned about is constraints on our personal freedom that negatively affect each of us. We are all not-free, but only in different ways and to different degrees. We have constrained freedom.

Political freedom

We don’t live in a free country. Nobody does. Everyone lives under a huge set of laws, regulations, and of course our rulers’ dictates, restrictions, and whims. Our political freedom is in truth defined by the set of constraints imposed by our rulers, leaders, and their organizations. Our political freedom is what they say it is at any point in time, and enforced by various kinds of nastiness.

We may claim to live in a democracy that gives us a high degree of freedom, constrained mainly by a governing “constitution” and “bill of rights”. Assuming that these remain in effect, which seems less the case each day. In reality, we live under a set of constraints imposed by our rulers-and-ruler-wannabes, along with enormous numbers of meddlesome and largely ineffective governing organizations.

This means that we actually live under a set of political permissions and procedures, most of which are strongly-enforced. Is this necessarily bad? Or might it be vital to the proper functioning, with order and stability, of a state?

The answer of course is that it depends. If these permissions and procedures are favorable to one’s life in general, then they are good. If they seriously damage or constrain one’s existence, then they are bad. Kind of a personal thing, yes?

A democracy is not freedom, but just a particular set of political constraints that change over time.
A democracy is not freedom, but just a particular set of political constraints that change over time.

Freedom has several dimensions in practice

While it seems common to view freedom as not-slavery – a basically political definition, freedom in practice has at least a few other dimensions. This means that we can be “free” in one or more dimensions while being constrained to varying degrees in the others. Here is one example:

  • Regy Andrade writing in LinkedIn describes freedom as being multidimensional in reality: “8 Types of Freedom”:

Physical Freedom.
Your own body is your most important property. Physical freedom in the context of personal sovereignty is the belief that a sovereign individual has the right to live their life and make decisions about their body without interference from any outside authority. …”

Mental Freedom.
Individuals should have total control over their own thoughts, emotions and actions. Mental freedom means having the ability to choose from a variety of options to make decisions that will lead to personal growth, success and fulfillment. …”

Emotional Freedom.
Emotional freedom is the belief that an individual has the right to make decisions about their emotions, thoughts and behaviors, without the influence of anyone else. …”

Freedom of Time.
Time is the most valuable asset in the world. We spend the majority of our lives trying to buy back our time on earth; many people spend their lives exchanging their time for money. …”

Geographic Freedom.
Geographic freedom is the idea of being able to live where you want, being able to travel freely and without restrictions. …”

Cultural Freedom.
Cultural freedom is the right to practice your own culture in the way that you choose. This includes the freedom to express yourself in the language, clothing, arts, and customs of your culture, as well as the freedom to choose the religion of your preference. …”

Spiritual Freedom.
Spiritual freedom can be understood as having personal sovereignty over one’s own spiritual beliefs and practices. It means having an autonomous internal knowledge and connection to one’s own spiritual truth, rather than being dependent upon or obligated to an external religious authority. …”

Economic Freedom.
Individuals have the right to make decisions about their own economic lives without interference from the government or third parties. This means that individuals must be able to freely choose how to spend and how to invest or save their income and assets. It also means that individuals must be able to start their own businesses, buy and sell products and services without external control and use their money as they deem best for themselves and their families. …”

If we were to set these eight freedoms into some kind of scorecard, and we assigned our own personal scores, each person would likely have a different set of perceived freedom rankings. We are different as people, and we have different contexts of life. I might rate myself as being “acceptably free” overall, but not-free or minimally-free in one or more dimensions.

Freedom and responsibility

Being free in any dimension requires taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences. Or so some say, like Freud …

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

— Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies seen as originating from conflicts in the psyche.

Sigmund Freud busy creating conflicts in the psyche?
Sigmund Freud busy creating conflicts in the psyche?

If I don’t like taking responsibility, whatever this may mean in practice, I might very well be quite happy with few or even no responsibilities. I might even feel “free”, if you can imagine such a state. Other folks may say that I’m not really free, but this simply reflects their personal definition of freedom – not mine. My definition might include having as few burdensome responsibilities as possible.

Each of us then has a personal definition of “freedom”, which may in most cases be implicit. We feel “freedom” rather than assessing it analytically.

This is rather inconvenient, yes? How can we talk about “freedom” if each of us has a different, mostly-personal, definition?

Worse yet, the majority of folks – maybe up to 70% of a population – are mostly-okay with what I myself might regard as tyranny. The prior post looked at this issue in terms of our global trend toward obedience and compliance.

What if maybe 70% of a people are willing to accept a high degree of being told what to do, think, speak, …? They may well see themselves as being “acceptably free”, whereas I would probably see them (and myself) as being largely “not-free”. Do I have any right to object to them feeling “free” according to their views?

Freedom is meaningless in practice

At this point, it appears that “freedom” is little more than a propaganda or agenda term. It is defined by interest groups for their particular purposes. What I might define as “near-tyranny” may be defined by the majority as “okay-freedom”. Are we enslaved by any credible measures? No? Well then, we are okay-free.

Even if I personally might not feel free, there is a majority of folks out there who feel differently – free-enough. Some, based on what I read in current news, feel that we are too free, that the freedom of some is damaging the freedom of the majority. Or at least the majority’s self-appointed spokespeople say so.

Has it not always been this way?

Some, often a majority, are okay-free based on what their rulers-and-ruler-wannabes say and allow. It has surely always been this way.

A few, often a mini-minority, will disagree. Their freedoms as defined by themselves are severely constrained or virtually eliminated. It has always been this way.

Freedom is a personal, social, political, …, concept. Depending on what its current definition may be, we (whoever we is) are either free or not-free to at least some degree. In absolute terms (whatever these may be), we are either free or not-free – depending on who says so.

Being not-free is based on whatever the not-free folks consider to be their current freedom situation. Being free is based on whatever the majority and their agenda-drivers say is freedom. Freedom here may be nothing more than obedience and compliance in several dimensions and in degrees of not-free constraints.

So, depending on one’s political, social, economic, …, leanings and current contexts, we are free or not-free to varying degrees.

Are we willing to fight for such a “freedom”? Of course, on the condition that freedom is defined as we would have it. I will fight for my definition of “freedom”, but I may not for your definition of “freedom”.

Has a kind of tribal ring to it, yes?

Freedom as defined has some generally accepted boundaries

In the murky middle-ground, freedom has no actionable meaning. Perhaps I won’t fight for it or against it (whatever it may be). Perhaps you won’t fight for it or against it either. Perhaps neither of us will fight for or against it. We will just live within whatever the current working definition may be.

We will of course be eager to fight for our country. Umm … what country in particular is that? Well, the country that was fought for and won a couple of hundred years or so ago – by George Washington and the Patriots – who gave us a constitution and identified various fundamental rights.

What was then is no longer. Change happens. We are not what some folks were in the late 1700’s. We are different for a whole bunch of huge reasons, such as technology. We are us, today. Very different.

Freedom then means something much different than it did in the 1700’s. Or does it? Maybe there are some persistent boundaries to what most folks would consider freedom and its consequences. What was “freedom” in Roman Empire days? Are there any aspects that we might have in common today?

Well – yes, and no.

There are no absolutes in people-stuff. What was off-limits in Roman times, assuming that anything was, may not be off-limits today. We are not Romans. We are … 8+ billion people, mostly invented in the past few decades. Things have changed a bit, as you may have noticed, since Roman and George W. days.

What about occupational and workplace freedom?

The eight freedoms noted above seem to be missing one that is truly huge and experienced by almost every working adult: freedom relating to work. This freedom is highly constrained by both government and the workplace itself. It may in many cases be the most severely constrained of all our “freedoms”.

Remote working via the now ubiquitous Zoom calls, as technology expands work and workplace freedom options.
Remote working via the now ubiquitous Zoom calls, as technology expands work and workplace freedom options.

One of the most contentious areas today concerns the work-from-home vs. back-to-the-office battle. How is this a freedom issue? Unless your work is clearly tied to a location such as a hospital or factory, great advances in technology have made work-from-home-or-anywhere a practical alternative to the office. Are you free to choose your working location, assuming you can meet primary job requirements there?

Employers are reluctantly allowing some degree of freedom in this choice, such as the number of days each week you are required to be in the office. Three or four in-office days seems to be a common compromise. Such significant office presence is required, whether or not it makes any difference to your work quality and productivity. Just face-time?

The only thing preventing employers from mandating office-only work is the risk of losing some of the best people who value workplace freedom more than job security. This in fact has led to a huge increase since COVID in workers opting for freelance and self-employed work. They value both work freedom and workplace freedom very highly.

Oddy enough, having a strong boss provides many workers with a kind of freedom – freedom from most responsibility. They want to be told what to do, and find a freedom of sorts in just doing their jobs well. Many of these are almost ideal employees, without which quite a few businesses would fold.

Managers tell employees what to do. Leaders, on the other hand, provide vision and enablement – leaving workers to figure out how and what to do more or less on their own. A fair number of workers greatly value such independence and freedom to innovate, create, and experiment. This also is work and workplace freedom – working for a leader.

The ultimate in occupational and workplace freedom: Be your own boss

Working for oneself is a dream of very many people. Practical considerations such as family, healthcare benefits, and mortgages tend to keep this as just a dream. But, as noted above, this freedom – constrained like all the others, but differently – is becoming a reality for many.

COVID and huge advances in technology have enabled a greater number of workers to realize their dreams of work and workplace freedom. How many? Well here are some figures:

Fabio Duarte writing in Exploding Topics offers some recent numbers: “Number of Freelancers (2023)”:

  • As of 2023, there are an estimated 73.3 million freelancers in the U.S.
  • Approximately 59 million (36% of the US workforce) are classified as independent workers.

Note: BLS has the civilian workforce at about 164 million.

Gig workers 2022.
Gig workers 2022.

Also, there are a great number of self-employed and small business owners who don’t report earnings on IRS Form-1099 as freelance and gig workers mostly do. These are referred to as “independent contractors” who bill customers and clients and report payments as business income, not personal income. Statista reports that only about 22% of “gig” workers are full-time gig workers, 11% are part-time, and 32% are “occasional”.

Definitions get a bit confusing here, but the bottom line is that there is a huge number of “freelancers” out there today. Emphasis on “free”.

“Freedom” means acceptably-constrained in practice

As noted above, freedom is both subjective and context-dependent. You and  I in the same context may find you acceptably-free while I am feeling seriously-constrained. In this respect, freedom is probably defined in practice by the majority in any given situation.

Think about living in a democracy, which is theoretically minimally-constrained – or acceptably-free. We can vote for whomever we like, and those offered for such elections can be selected by those in charge of such matters. Of course, there are about a zillion rules, regulations, laws, customs, and persuasions that figure into this democratic freedom, but again these are regarded as acceptable by a majority. At least in most cases.

Because freedom is subjective and context-dependent, there are always going to be quite a few folks relatively content to live in what others might consider tyranny or even quasi-slavery. Harsh rulers help this contented group to grow. Rulers just have to be harsh in a kindly-seeming manner:

“… the greater part of the population is not very intelligent, dreads responsibility, and desires nothing better than to be told what to do. Provided the rulers do not interfere with its material comforts and its cherished beliefs, it is perfectly happy to let itself be ruled.”

— Aldous Huxley

Paraphrasing George Carlin, the average person is not especially smart, and this means that roughly half the population is significantly less than not-especially-smart. This suggests a rule for rulership: work diligently to make sure that your target population is mostly in the not-especially-smart category, and thus mostly contented to be ruled.

Note: I see “smart” as being quite different from “intelligent”. Intelligence is what IQ purports to measure – brain-power. Smart is a kind of wisdom in the practical sense – as in street-smart.

Acceptably-free people will mostly go-along-to-get-along

Facts don’t really matter to such folk, along with the true believers who need and highly-value belonging. I have addressed this aspect of human nature here and here. They truly believe that they have freedom.

I read so much today that attempts to explain why things are the way they appear to be, and where they may be headed as a result. Scary stuff for the most part, no doubt intentional. These trouble me for three reasons:

  1. The track record of these prognosticators and fear-mongers is not evident, so that they are as likely (or more than likely) to be wrong vs. being right.
  2. The stories rarely address the crucial matter of what someone such as myself might do about any of what they are predicting.
  3. Their recommendations nearly always involve a mysterious “we” that must do this and that, and more.

I am not by nature either a true believer or a go-along-to-get-along person. Much of what I believe and do flows from gut-instinct, which is heavily tempered by experience. Plus a bunch of reasonably careful and thoughtful analysis.

It seems pointless to try to persuade others by means of what I believe are facts (or are, more likely, just my beliefs however grounded). They have their beliefs, which they are unlikely to change absent a catastrophe or worse; I have my beliefs that may change as I learn or experience more.

Bottom line:

In the end, it looks like each of us has our own idea of freedom, implicit in general, that we live by. It may change as a result of painful experience, but it remains part of us. How we define freedom is determined in large measure by our own human nature. A large majority are true believers or who go-along-to-get-along, and these are acceptably-free in their own minds. 

Freedom is personal. My idea of freedom will differ from that of most others because each of us is different in so many ways. We can form groups around our commonalities in defining freedom, but in the end what each of us regards as freedom is personal and probably unchangeable baring some especially nasty mind-changing occurrence.

“The measure of freedom in any society is the degree of inclusion for those who stand on the margins, those who linger on the edge, and those who suffer in silence.”

“The potential and eventual realization of inclusion is evidence of a free society, of genuine enfranchisement for all who seek it. Good rulers take care of those who come under their authority, including those parties on the losing side of military conflicts. Freedom is not achieved by overturning the results of conflict, revising the past, or instilling guilt and shame on the victors. “

“Every nation was formed as the result of conflict, either with other nations or political groupings, or because of conflict within nations. Often it was military conflict over boundaries, land, culture, or history. Many nations, over time, have brought the losing side of conflicts under a broader national umbrella, often promoting, and preserving some elements of their culture and history. It is how a nation treats the losing side in conflict that really defines the substance of freedom available to citizens.”

“… True greatness is found in individuals who know that they are free to pursue their goals in life, free to express their opinions, free to create, free to work, free to love, and free to live. This is true greatness for a nation. It is not land or boundaries or geography, or even history, it is freedom.”

“Let us not doubt the love that people have for their nations. Men and women fight under their flags and die for their nation, which they call their own, a nation they love, a nation they serve, and a nation that is theirs. Whatever their cause or flag, history is often the story of men and women who truly believe in their place under the sun, and we respect all who fight with honor with mercy. We can be reminded that the bonds we share transcend flag and nation, and that if we talk of blood, we can be assured that the same blood runs in all of our veins. “

“As I said at the beginning, the measure of a free society is how that society brings people under its banner, under its flag, those who win, those who lose, those on the margins, and those in the middle. A free society is not one that carves out special deals for special people, but one that offers the possibility of a positive future for all, one where everyone is welcome, and a nation where everyone can call home. This is freedom, and it is worth fighting for.”

  • Zen Buddhist sage D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927) wrote that we are fundamentally free in our hearts:

“Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world.”

“… This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows moldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.”

  • James Baldwin writing in his essay collection Nobody Knows My Name (1967) argues that we are as free as we want to be:

“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.”

“… There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it — and almost all of us have one way or another — this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.”

“One of the oldest questions in psychology, and in other fields such as philosophy, is whether humans have free will. That is, are we able to choose what we will do with our lives?”

“Our choices feel free, don’t they? I decided to be a psychologist because I felt called or inspired to understand what makes people tick. That was my choice, wasn’t it?”

“The free will issue is especially thorny because it represents a collision between two opposing, yet equally valid, perspectives. From a purely metaphysical perspective, if we don’t have free will, why are we here? What is the point of life if we cannot choose our own paths? Yet from a purely scientific perspective, how is it possible that anything can occur without having been caused by something else? If we really can choose, then these choices must be uncaused — something that cannot be explained within the model of science that many of us rely on.”

“There is no consensus within psychology as to whether we really do have free will — although much of our field seems to assume that we don’t. Freud and Skinner didn’t agree on very much, but one thing they did agree on was that human behavior was determined by influences within or outside the person. Freud talked about unconscious conflicts as causes of behavior, and Skinner talked about environmental contingencies, but either way, we were not free to decide.”

“And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims. Subsequently, however all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming ever more materialistic. The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize Winner, Russian author, and historian.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize Winner, Russian author, and historian.