Can Freedom Be Individualized?

     “Professor, I can’t understand you. I don’t insist that you call it ‘government’—I just want you to state what rules you think are necessary to insure equal freedom for all.”
     “Dear lady, I’ll happily accept your rules.”
     “But you don’t seem to want any rules!”
     “True. But I will accept any rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

     [Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress]

     It’s a classic statement about moral responsibility…and something else as well. Among us are many who seek to make rules. Usually they’re rules for other people to obey. From the same source:

     Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws—always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: “Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop.” Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them “for their own good”—not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

     It’s pervasive among us. There’s probably no hope of eradicating it. Our sole conceivably realizable hope is for fleeing it: beating feet to escape its reach. But even then, except for him who flees alone, there’s likely to be someone nearby who’ll want to make rules…if not now, then in the near future.

     What’s a lonely freedom seeker to do?


     The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. – Albert Camus

     Camus’ sentiment was echoed some years later, with lots more detailed recommendations, by Harry Browne. I’ve often wondered whether their language was simply too direct for me, because I failed to understand what they were driving at. What could their conception of “personal liberty” mean in a world steadily surrendering to totalitarianism? What good would it be, now or in the future?

     It’s a tough nut to crack. The typical freedom advocate is interested in political freedom: the limitation or abolition of the authoritarian State. He doesn’t think in personal terms. But as matters stand, the odds are stacked massively against him.

     How likely is it that an ultra-reductionist, completely individual approach along the Camus / Browne lines would work – i.e., would yield results that would satisfy the individual freedom-seeker – where the political approach has not?

     That’s the question before us today.


     I encountered this video at NC Renegades:

     Moving, poetic, inspiring…yet the question remains unanswered: Is it possible to be “personally free” in a land ruled by an authoritarian State? Where that State can take whatever it wants from you, while compelling, forbidding, and regulating all of human conduct and enterprise? Wouldn’t it require a radical reconceptualization of freedom itself?

     The nut remains uncracked, especially for those surrounded and dominated by would-be rule-makers. Something a dear departed friend said to me long ago strikes me as relevant. He, like me, was an applied mathematician. As “we spoke the same language,” I was able to grasp his meaning at once:

Within a suitably defined region, any group ready, willing, and able to impose its will upon the individuals within that region is a State de facto.

     It’s a bit like the Implicit Function Theorem. If you’re not alone, there’s a State near you, even if it’s not doing much at the moment. Indeed, you might be a member. This is redolent of Lao-Tse’s lament that the only liberty one can achieve inheres in solitude and quietism: to want nothing and to accept everything. To him, all other aspirations were futile.

     How, then, to “liberate” oneself in a fashion that doesn’t require the acceptance of rule by others?


     I don’t have an answer that satisfies me. I have to designate this a question for further contemplation. But stay: What if our quest is badly aimed? What if the goal we should seek lies elsewhere than in the rejection of coercively imposed authority?

     Herbert Spencer’s blockbuster 1850 tract Social Statics came with a subtitle: The conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed. The subtitle was more revealing than the title, for a reason that has eluded men for centuries. Indeed, Aristotle told us the reason, yet the majority of men have failed to grasp it:

Happiness is that we seek as an end in itself, and for no other reason.

     In Spencer’s conception, we seek freedom as a route toward greater happiness. Spencer was aware that happiness is our ultimate temporal goal. He believed that men cannot be enduringly happy unless they’re free. In mathematical terms, freedom is a necessary precondition for happiness.

     Whether Spencer was right or wrong about this, freedom is demonstrably not sufficient.

     There have been free societies in which there were many unhappy people. They wanted or needed something more…or something else. Indeed, some of them could not become happy without imposing their wills on those around them: i.e., become the local State. That poses a problem insoluble in political terms.

     We all want to be happy. By Aristotle’s definition, that’s tautologically true. But happiness is no more guaranteed to a man than a particular job, or spouse, or lifespan. Some want to be free; others want to be rulers. (A few want to be slaves; they advertise in various urban publications.) Whether freedom is necessary for the happiness of the great majority is uncertain. Given the trends of the century behind us, there are arguments both ways.

     None of this will satisfy the man who wants above all other things to be free from coercion. And who knows? Even if utterly free he might remain miserable to the end of his days. I could name a few such. Would that mean that he doesn’t really know what he wants?

     Food for thought.


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    • Old Bill in TN on February 4, 2023 at 10:09 AM

    A thought: WHY is freedom a precondition to happiness? If all physical needs were met, interesting intellectual and stirring cultural pursuits provided, why then would we still be discontented (as we would be)?

    Perhaps because the actual desires/needs of men are incompatible with passivity.

    We need a purpose, and that implies a struggle-towards-a-goal. Struggle=conflict. Ergo, our nature is not really compatible with happiness as envisioned. There is a reason the Frontier is romanticized in  our minds: the formula is freedom combined with successful striving.


    1. So you would contend that Huxley’s Brave New World is an unrealizable fantasy, then?

  1. Very thought-provoking in an all-too often ignored way.  I’m reminded of this quote from Nietzsche:


    You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought and not that you have escaped a yoke. Are you such a one as was permitted to escape a yoke? There are some who threw away their ultimate worth when they threw away their servitude. Free from what? What is that to Zarathustra! But your eyes should announce to me brightly: free for what?

  2. At the end it appears you acknowledged the wistfulness of happiness without ever really developing it. Knowing you, it surprised me you ended not with more anon, but with food for thought.

    Happiness is indeed wistful as well as very individual dependent. I have often quipped about the dark secret of Utopia. Billed as the place where everyone is happy, but that merely gladens the practical joker salemen who know it’s invariably run by misanthropes. (Don’t they count?)

    We’re an obviously perverse species. Better an Elon musk who enjoys always looking for real advancements rather than a George Soros or Bill Gates who use their Billions to rend turmoil to defeat their unhappiness finding money doesn’t really buy everything.

    I’m not all that brilliant. But I long ago grokked the hidden benefit from abiding the 10th Commandment. Men who are super wealthy but so inured to life that joy is but a memory. “How dare the poor be cheerful while I am not!” Coveting — not the love of money — is truly the spark for all evil. “The hoi polloi ought be miserable so let’s make sure of it.”

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