November 18, 2011

Social Freedom

In an earlier essay (, I examined the idea of free will, which I take to be chiefly concerned with freedom in an absolute sense – whether or not we can be original sources of causation. By “social freedom,” I mean something rather different. In this essay, I intend to focus on the way our actions are constrained by others within a broadly social context. Political freedom, economic freedom, and religious freedom can all be subsumed under the broader topic of social freedom. The fact that these topics have usually been treated independently has been the source of much confusion, and it is this that I hope to rectify.

Social freedom in its most general sense concerns itself with what we may or may not do because of the assent or constraint of other people. It excludes questions that concern abilities or constraints we have because of the impersonal and unconscious laws of nature or due to our own intrinsic qualities. No one constrains our freedom to fly by flapping our arms rapidly. One will neither be arrested, nor fined, nor excommunicated for attempting to fly in this manner. It simply will not work. On the other hand, presuming one is minimally able-bodied, nature does not constrain us from the act of shoplifting. We are constrained from shoplifting because it is antisocial, criminal, or sinful. This is the realm of social freedom.

Other people can constrain our freedom in a variety of ways. Most obviously, if one is physically imprisoned, one is constrained by barriers put in place by others. Constraints need not be physical, however. The threat of violence, or constraint, is itself a constraint. An awareness that one is under surveillance is a consraint. Likewise, the threat of ostracism is a functional constraint. Humans are social animals. To be part of a society is to avoid creating too many social barriers between oneself and others on whom one is dependent. Limitations in available resources are also constraints. The ownership of land is a simple example. One may be free, in a legal sense, to purchase a certain parcel of land, but this freedom is effectively nullified if the land is owned by someone else who adamantly refuses to sell. In all cases, social freedom is more-or-less narrowly defined by the customs, laws, perceptions and prejudices of the particular society in which one lives.

To make the unqualified statement “I am free” or “I live in a free country” is to assert nothing. It is essentially like saying “I am big”. Without some context to refer to, the word “free” means no more than the word “big”. You are free, probably, to read the next sentence in this essay and to draw your next breath. Beyond that, your freedom is wholly contingent on the vagaries of circumstance. Social freedom has no natural guarantor that stands above the social context that defines it.

It is usually more meaningful to talk of specific rights than to discuss freedom in some extra-contextual sense. Again, we must avoid the vague connotations usually carried by the term "right," and reduce it to some workable definition. A right is behavior or state of being that is acceptable within a certain social context. To exercise a right is either to do something acceptable or to be something acceptable. Rights are entirely social in nature. Copper does not have a right to conduct electricity nor does it need one. The electrical conductivity of copper is inherent rather than volitional. There is no copper that can elect to be non-conductive. Similarly, the brute fact of one’s existence cannot be socially constrained. One can be ostracized, or even executed, but no one can be utterly removed from the physically causal world. Even if someone kills you, you still were, and your existence in one region of space-time will continue to yield consequences indefinitely.

Rights sort all behaviors into acceptable and unacceptable realms. They define both individuals and the societies they inhabit. Societies, in an important sense, are no more than the application of a certain set of interpersonal constraints to a certain body of people – and rights are merely the field of action left unconstrained. If one had the universe entirely to one’s self, the idea of rights would have no meaning.

Being the product of the vicissitudes of human beings, all rights are both temporary and provisional. There is no such thing as a right which cannot be taken away. Beyond one’s brute existence, however fleeting, there are no actions or future states of being (other than death) which cannot be constrained by some human agency. We have rights only at the sufferance of others.

I will not go so far as to say the term “rights” is synonymous with the term “privileges”. The term “privilege” carries connotations which imply something even more fleeting than a “right”. Privileges are always granted by specific authorities, whereas rights may be basic assumptions of a certain culture, not granted by anyone in particular. Indeed, many rights are no more than a reflection of such cultural norms. If someone cuts us off in traffic most of us feel we have a “right” to honk our horns. This is an actual right, as it is certainly possible to imagine a society in which such horn honking would be unacceptable. It is not, however, a delineated “privilege” that anyone in particular has bestowed on us. It is merely an acceptable display of frustration in our culture.

Politics and Economics

A great error has occurred in assuming that political and economic rights are somehow neatly separable. John Stuart Mill and other like-minded people put forward a notion of freedom that was almost wholly political. In other words, all excessive social constraints worth our concern originate with political authorities. The government, whether oligarchic or democratic, present the only important danger to individual freedom in Mill’s view. Karl Marx and others of his school took essentially the opposite view. They believed that the most important impediment to individual freedom is economic. In other words, that it is not the government that enslaves a person but the employer or the landlord. In truth, the entire distinction between political and economic authority is illusory. Let me illustrate with two examples.

Imagine a society with a high degree of individual political liberty – universal suffrage, equal rights before the law, all the usual trappings of a liberal society – but no constraints whatsoever regarding the exercise of property rights. Now, imagine a family living in a house they own, but which is wholly surrounded by someone else’s property. The only access to their house is across this second party’s land. One morning the family wakes up to discover that their neighbor has posted a “NO TRESPASSING” sign on their access route. The family’s dilemma is simple. They may break society’s rules by violating their neighbor’s property rights, or they may starve. In such a case, the government has not curtailed the family’s freedom, but simply upholds the property rights of their neighbor.1 One could argue that, as the guarantor of property rights, the government is still responsible for the family’s fate, but it is clearly not the active agent in the curtailment of the family’s freedom. Anything the government might do to resolve the matter, perhaps allowing the family to cross their neighbor’s land in order to vote for example, would necessarily constrain the neighbor’s right to choose who may or may not cross his land. Is it less of an assault on freedom for the government to actively constrain the neighbor’s right than to passively constrain the family’s? Political freedom alone simply will not save us from this kind of situation.

The case using opposite conditions is even more straightforward. Imagine a society with all sorts of economic guarantees – the right to work, free healthcare, public pensions, etc. – but which excludes the general public from all meaningful political processes. It is easy to see that under such circumstances any rights exist only at the whim of those who govern. The government is, after all, that body which is sustained neither by its wisdom nor by its benevolence, but ultimately by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. When governments are unconstrained by the annoyance of democratic institutions and find it desirable to curtain individual rights there is seldom any mechanism in place to stop them.2

In actual practice, both economic and politic spheres preside over exactly the same question: who is to exercise material control over a society’s material assets, and thereby exercise control over other peoples’ lives. To be politically powerful is to be able to set people and things into motion to carry out one’s will. To be economically powerful is the same. Power is fungible. Typically, political and economic rights are played off against one another by people who benefit from increasing the centralization of power in one realm or another. An understanding of what freedom means within the context of any particular society involves more than the veneration of whatever rights it happens to bestow – it involves a critical examination of the constraints its citizens take for granted.

At this point, we also need to acknowledge that freedom is a somewhat self-contradictory notion. To grant everyone the right to vote, for example, is also to deny everyone the right to be an unelected despot. We are accustomed to thinking of universal suffrage as a freedom, and a laudable thing, but it is a curtailment of freedom in some absolute sense. It deprives one of the freedom to rule arbitrarily. That this is probably a good thing is beside the point. Many constraints on individual freedom are certainly in the public’s best interest. Few if any of us would prosper long under conditions of absolute anarchy. Too often, though, people confuse freedom with equality, when the two are actually contrary notions. To be guaranteed equality in any area of life is to have someone else denied the freedom to excel in that area. To have freedom in any area is by necessity to have the potential to excel beyond someone else’s talent or means.3


Religious freedom is nothing short of an oxymoron. All religions are, or at least contain, elaborate systems of constraints on individual behavior. Even a religion like Zen Buddhism, which at first blush seems unburdened by arbitrary rules, constrains its followers to certain patterns of thought. Even such self-serving belief systems as Satanism demand that their followers be obediently anti-altruistic. Thoroughgoing nastiness requires a certain dedication, after all.

What is usually meant by “freedom of religion,” then, is the freedom to practice whatever system of religious constraints your upbringing and inclinations happen to mark out for you. It means that the government promises not to go out of its way to oppress you for oppressing yourself. Of course, when governments do persecute certain religions (or the denial of them) it is, straightforwardly, a curtailment of individual freedom too. Again, our interest here is to describe the nature of social freedom, not to argue about what is or isn’t beneficial. Arguably, a government which criminalized a belief in ghosts would do the public a service by advancing the cause of truth, but this must be balanced against social costs of employing such draconian interventions against the minutia of peoples’ beliefs. Those societies perceived as un-free are not necessarily those that have the most constraints, but are often those who impose constraints the most gratuitously.

Within religions themselves, I am aware of no rights that are offered in the usual sense of the term – that is, in the sense we would use in saying one has the right to vote or the right to free speech.4 Gods are capricious, and do not grant to mortals any concessions that they cannot overturn if the whim suits them. Rights within a religious context would constrain omnipotence. Rather than enumerating freedoms, religions generally promise rewards for obedience and conformity. I have heard such constraints described as freedom, just as I have heard the world we live in, complete with disease, natural disasters and all the other sources of human suffering, described as evidence of “God’s love”. While constraints may be a good thing, and may even be conducive to individual happiness, it is incoherent to say that freedom is constraint, just as it is incoherent to say that causing or allowing untold suffering is an expression of love. This is simply to hijack the positive connotations of a certain term and apply them to its opposite.

Like political and economic systems, religious beliefs prune away the myriad ways in which an individual might behave and think and leave behind a relatively uniform, predictable personality. We are defined not by our freedoms, but by our boundaries. If you know a person has a certain job, lives a well-adjusted life in a certain culture, and ascribes to certain religious beliefs – you can infer a great deal about them. A truly free individual, unconstrained by any social conventions or beliefs, might behave and think in any number of different ways, being bound only by the ineliminable forces of nature. The socially adapted individual must conform to a great many behavioral expectations if society is to function at all, and what remains to be recognized as freedom is merely the residual latitude a society is prepared to tolerate.


It would be a mistake to think that we constrain ourselves by conscious choice or that human societies are unique in having constraints. Any pack of wolves or troop of baboons will show plenty of examples of social constraints and even ritualized behavior. Obviously the wolves and baboons do not sit down and discuss a sort of social contract under which they will live. They do not delineate their rights in documents. They know instinctively that they live safer, easier lives when they cooperate, and between this instinct and subsequent learning they become functional members of their own small societies. Human beings are not different in kind from wolves or baboons in this respect, but differ from them only in their capacity for abstraction and complexity. Each of us trades freedom for security to a high degree, and does so unconsciously and uncomplainingly. Our genes compel us to do so. Those who are indifferent to society’s scorn are aberrations, and suffer predictably.

If one has a desire to understand one’s place within a social context, rather than merely react to one’s perceptions, it is well to remember no one is ever really free. Questions of freedom are really only questions about what rules we will have – not about whether we will have rules. The consistent feature of episodes of social anarchy is that they are hastily replaced with some degree of order. Power abhors a vacuum. Sooner rather than later, people coalesce around a leader who, for better or worse, will offer them the promise of security. The equal, free, and ungoverned society that 19th century anarchists proposed was never more than a dream. They believed that human societies could get along perfectly well with neither leaders nor laws. The objective evidence of history, however, shows that social stratification is not an artificial condition created by a few avaricious miscreants at the top, but a normal state of affairs in which almost everyone gravitates toward their own particular social position. Constraints on individual freedom thus arise spontaneously. Any society which provides tolerable conditions for enough of its members will be stable as long as it can do so. I myself may chafe under constraints on information access or constraints on speech, but I know well that many of my fellow citizens would live quite happily without these things, and would be quite content with food, shelter, a little alcohol, and a football game on television. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can, for most, be adequately replaced with life, stability, and the pursuit of entertainment.


1 For those who imagine this sort of exercise of power by the private sector is farfetched, consider the various historical applications of the truck system in which employees were paid in either goods or company scrip instead of standard money. ( ) Here we have a system that was the functional equivalent of slavery, but which, in most cases, operated in a political context that gave its victims the right to vote, legal equality, and exactly the same property rights as their exploiters.

2 Soviet Russia is the trite but apt example. Initially, a great deal of effort was invested in giving soviet citizen various positive economic rights, but in time, as power became more centralized, these rights withered. Stalin continued to give lip service to the Marx’s ideal of a state organized for the common man while in fact presiding over the most centralized authority imaginable.

3 Equality, too, is self-contradictory. It must be granted that no real body of human beings is equal by nature. We all have differing abilities as well as differing starting circumstances. Thus, equality must always be artificially enforced by some governing authority. Members of such a governing authority, however, must necessarily be unequal to those governed. Were they not so, they would have no authority.

4 Thomas Jefferson’s poetic formulation in the American Declaration of Independence is an interesting, and generally misunderstood, example of the juxtaposition of rights with religion: “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.” The legal meaning of “unalienable” is non-transferrable. It is certainly true that neither one’s life, nor one’s liberty, nor one’s pursuit of happiness can be transferred to another person who is either dead, enslaved, or unhappy. I am convinced, too, that this is precisely what Jefferson meant. While there may have been additional reasons for amending Locke’s formulation of “life, liberty, and property,” it is plain that property is readily alienable. Jefferson was making an observation about the uniqueness of these entities; he could not have been suggesting that they were entities that it was beyond the capacity of human beings to curtail. He was certainly aware of gallows, prisons, and the many ways that the pursuit of happiness might be impeded. To say that these entities are endowed by a creator was, for a deist like Jefferson, not much more than saying that they exist. If he had believed that the creator was prepared to protect such “rights” against human interference he could not have been aware of the realities of 18th century life. His intention, then, had to have been to establish these rather general notions as rights within the new republic, not to assert that a creator was the guarantor of these freedoms. In his reference to equality too, it appears that Jefferson may have only been referring to the equivalence of one individual’s state of being alive with another’s state being alive -- or free, or happy, as the case might be. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unquantifiable and in some sense equal in potential. If that is all he meant, Jefferson was not asserting much about equality in any practical sense.

Note: I made minor revisions to this essay on 9/26/14.  I have noted a steady internet traffic to this work from the time that I posted it, often from quite interesting places.  If you have read the work and have an opinion, I would love to hear it.  Frankly, I would also just like to know who you are and why you are interested in the topic.  If you enjoyed this essay, you might also be interested in Why is Slavery Wrong?  (  -emc

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