Chapter 1: What is Freedom?

“The central question of politics (is) the question of obedience and coercion. Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else? Why should I not live as I like? Must I obey? If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’”
– Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty 1958

Chapter 1 – What is Freedom?

If you were to do a survey, asking a thousand people at random, both sexes, all races, from all walks of life, rich, poor, middle class, employed, unemployed, etc. if they were in favour of freedom, the results would likely be overwhelmingly yes.

But if you were to ask those same people what they mean by freedom, you would likely get a wide range of answers, many of them contradictory. There are many different conceptions of what freedom is.

Isaiah Berlin, in his monumental essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, says that “it is a
term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist”. He goes on to say there are at least two hundred senses of the word, though he proposes to consider just two of them.

Here are a few examples of the nuances that the concept of freedom can have.

In the movie Flight, pilot Whip Whitaker saves a doomed airliner through his superb skill as a pilot. The plane crash lands with only a few casualties. The pilot is hailed as a hero.

But Whitaker is a man with demons. He is an alcoholic. He was, in fact, drunk at the time, not to mention being high on cocaine. At the NTSB hearing into the crash, his lawyer manages to suppress the drug tests that showed Whitaker to be intoxicated. Whitaker has a crisis of conscience and over his lawyer’s objections, comes clean at the hearing.

The movie ends with Whitaker in prison at an inmates’ AA meeting. He tells the group that despite the fact he will be in jail for the next five years, for the first time in years he feels free.

Whitaker was a slave to alcohol. It was only by coming to terms with his addiction that he could be free. This is one of the 200 or so meanings of freedom that Berlin notes, and it is not an insignificant one.

Freedom can be considered from different points of view. We speak of psychological freedom, financial freedom and political freedom.

In his brilliant book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this psychological state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Indeed, the concept of psychological freedom has spawned a whole industry of self-improvement gurus – image consultants, self-esteem courses, motivational seminars and so on. (I know – I’ve attended a lot of them!)

Financial freedom is a big one as well. One Canadian insurance company, London Life, promotes its investment programs with the tagline Freedom 55. Use the company’s advisors and investment vehicles and they will help you achieve financial freedom by age 55. What is financial freedom? It is the ability to live your life on residual income, with no need to work.

Some celebrities – movie stars, rock stars, authors, professional athletes, etc. – don’t have to struggle to their senior years working. Often they earn enough in a few years to be able to retire from the work force at a very young age. Or their work continues to generate income even though they no longer work.

Indeed, some celebrities continue to earn big bucks from beyond the grave. Forbes Magazine, in October 2012 listed thirteen celebrities who earned millions of dollars even though they are no longer with us. Topping the list was actress Elizabeth Taylor who brought in $210 million, mostly through the auctioning of her jewels and memorabilia. But her perfume line, White Diamonds, brings in residual income in the millions as well.

Pop singer Michael Jackson was second, bringing in $145 million. Third was the legend himself, Elvis Presley. Dead over 35 years and still bringing in $55 million a year! Others include Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, reggae star Bob Marley, Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, actress Marilyn Monroe and genius physicist Albert Einstein.

For the rest of us, financial freedom requires some planning and hard work.

This book, however, is concerned primarily with political freedom. But even here, there are many nuances and issues to consider. Ultimately it boils down to the questions Isaiah Berlin posed in the quotation leading off this chapter. “Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else? Why should I not live as I like? Must I obey? If I disobey, may I be coerced? By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?”

The answers are not simple ones, although there are some who will argue that they are simple. Simple answers, however, too often turn out to be simplistic.

How we answer these questions depends on the paradigm we use.

NOTE: This is a preliminary effort. This chapter may be expanded and revised over time.


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