The Human Condition:

Degrees of Freedom – July 23, 2017

Freedom among the clouds

The subject of freedom is much on my mind these days. As I’m now approaching late middle age—on the cusp of seventy years old—I realize that avenues of potential are continuously closing down for me.

Of all the things I might have become as a young man fifty years ago—doctor, lawyer, soldier, politician—none remains available today. Those are occupations you must train long years to become, or meet special physical requirements, or establish a steady track record of participation, and I no longer have the time or the stamina to even try. Of all the exotic places I might go—Machu Picchu, the top of Mount Everest, or even diving in the Caribbean—I no longer have the physical energy to attempt. Given that I no longer do well on long airplane flights, with their cramped seating conditions and my big frame, I probably will never see Europe again, unless I’m willing to pay the treble fare to fly first class. And given the amount of political uncertainty and violence that seems to be endemic in the rest of the world, I probably will never get farther east than Greece or farther west than Japan in the travels of my remaining lifetime.

So freedom as a practical issue of choice and possibility, rather than an abstract matter of statute or moral law, is always part of the human condition. It may technically be true that every boy—and now every girl—born in the United States might one day grow up to be President. But that destiny will probably be decided sometime before he or she gets out of high school, based on whether that person has the inclination or the aptitude to put in the time and energy, enter the American cursus honorum,1 and make the sacrifices required. And then, by about the age of forty, he or she will know where the top of his or her personal career arc will likely reach—and for a great many it will stop in some local or state office without ever attaining national prominence.

Freedom comes in many forms and at many levels, depending on personal and public constraints, as well as personal interests and desires.

At the most basic level are those freedoms assigned to bodily function: the freedom to decide when and what you will eat; when and where you sleep and for how long; when and how you use the bathroom; and trivial choices such as whether you want coffee, tea, or something stronger to drink. One would think that we are all perfectly free to make these choices, but not everyone and not all the time. Some jobs have assigned eating and sleeping times, limit the kinds of foods served or allowed in the cafeteria or mess hall, and limit or prescribe bathroom breaks. We accept these restrictions in favor of a greater good, such as the smooth functioning of the organization or maintaining good relations with our co-workers. Some people agree to give up these freedoms under special circumstances and for a limited time, such as a person joining the army and taking food and rest under a strict regime, and again the reason is for some greater good. Societies also place involuntary restrictions on these freedoms as a form of punishment, as anyone who has served time in prison can attest.

At the next level are freedoms associated with the details of daily living: freedom to decide where you will live and under what conditions; where you will travel and with whom; and how you will spend your time. For most of us, these freedoms are prescribed only by our economic condition. I would like to spend my time reading or playing games, but in order to earn my daily bread and the mortgage money I must work at a job that is not always of my own choosing and not always easy and fun. I would like to commute to that job in a Ferrari, but that car is too expensive and the freeways are too crowded anyway; so I ride the bus or the subway with dozens or hundreds of strangers. I would like to live in a 5,000-square-foot house in a nice suburb, maybe with a pool and a patio, enjoying a ten-mile view to the mountains, but again that kind of living is beyond my means. Sometimes the state or local authority intrudes on these decisions, such as when downtown zoning doesn’t provide enough parking for even a small Fiat, let alone a Ferrari. Or that big house in the suburbs is precluded by limits on land use, lot size, or utility hookups, so that I am forced to live back in the city.

A special category of freedom is associated with decisions about lifestyle and a person’s level of health or dissipation: freedom to decide whether to eat wholesome foods or processed junk; how much exercise you will take versus how much time you spend in sedentary pursuits; which vices you will adopt and which you will engage your will power to renounce. Aside from people in prison or the military, we all think we are free to eat what we like and exercise as much or as little as we want. But employer-paid health insurance is beginning to provide monetary incentives—more likely disincentives—to promote healthy lifestyle choices. And certain vices such as liquor, cigarettes, and recreational drugs have been subject to heavy taxation if not outright prohibition for most of the twentieth century.

And finally, the ultimate level of freedom involves decisions and opportunities that affect a person’s lifelong contribution to society, the search for meaning in life, or the fulfillment of some personal destiny: freedom to acquire education, skills, and training; freedom to think for yourself and make decisions about your career and the ultimate reach of your ambitions; freedom to guide your children in paths you believe will give them a good life. More than access to money and avoidance of public censure and state controls, the limits on these freedoms are often your own imagination. If you don’t know what the choices are and can’t think up satisfactory goals for yourself, you are as bound as if you wore handcuffs. Yes, in totalitarian societies, the freedom to think and become what you want is often proscribed—ask someone trying to publish the truth as he sees it in the old Soviet Union or in the People’s Republic of China. And yes, being denied access to education and the broadening effects of wide reading and personal inquiry can limit the imagination. But in most cases, the lack of goals and motivation usually comes from a failure of the home environment and lack of access to good teachers, mentors, and wise relatives like a favorite aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Since all of these levels of freedom—from bodily function to personal destiny—are subject to external limitations, the real question is how we want that limit decided. Do we take it upon ourselves to seek out and do what we want, live where we want, think what we want subject only to the natural limits of time, money, and our own skills, ambition, and energy level? Or are we willing to relinquish these choices to some other person or human agency, such as a prison guard, a platoon sergeant, a factory supervisor, the local zoning and school boards, or the representatives of one or the other alphabet-soup agencies of the federal government?

Persons with an “institutional mentality,” like a life prisoner or a career soldier—or many of the common citizens of more regulated societies in the European Union and the Middle East—will opt for a guard, officer, or commissar to do their thinking and deciding for them. Most Americans, however—at least those of the older generation—tend to guard their freedoms jealously and would by choice live in a cold-water cabin on the edge of the woods than in a marble mansion under the supervision of a nursemaid, perfect, or magistrate.

1. The cursus honorum was the “course of offices”—political, military, and religious—that an ancient Roman of senatorial rank was expected to fulfill on the way to political prominence and power in the Republic and the early stages of the Empire. The American equivalent would be something like getting a law degree and becoming district attorney, or serving in locally elected positions like being on the school board or town council, then running for state assembly or senate, then for Congress or a governorship. Other paths may be possible, and we certainly saw them represented in the Republican presidential candidates for 2016. But for someone who is not already independently wealthy, this course is the only way to attract the attention of publicists, campaign managers, fund raisers, and the funding sources necessary to attain high elected office.