What Americans Get Wrong About Freedom

Freedom is one of the most abused and diluted words in the English language. It is not possible to discuss it without first clarifying what exactly we mean by it. Let me offer my definition of freedom as the intersection of three sets:

  1. What an individual may want to do.
  2. What an individual could conceivably and realistically do.
  3. What the rules of society allow that individual to do.

It is immediately obvious that the resulting set is different for each person. People want different things, and people have different possibilities. If we had laws making it illegal to drink gasoline or to export bananas to another galaxy, I would not believe they would restrict my freedom. I have no interest in the first, I cannot do the second (however awesome it might be). Coming back to Earth though, there are regulations that restrict the freedoms of the privileged (e.g. taxes for the ultra rich, anti corruption laws for government officials) or the poor (sleeping in a car, urinating in public).

What is also pretty clear is that money expands set #2. In authoritarian countries that have experienced significant economic growth, people believe that they experience significant more freedom than they used to. This is usually hard for Americans to come to term with, because they tend to think more about set #3 when it comes to freedom.

Set #1 is interesting because it is so subjective. What a person may want to do depends on their personality, their imagination, and their culture among other factors. When set #1 expands, it will collide against the other two sets. For example, it had never occurred to me that I would be able to control a drone until recent years. Now that I can, I am aware of the many legal restrictions that exist for what you can do with them.

The main takeaways:

  • There are many ways to increase a person’s freedom that have nothing to do with laws. For example, poverty restricts freedom.
  • When people say they “fight for” or “defend” freedom, it is important to understand what is their position regarding the three sets above. Most likely they are concerned with laws that could collide with their sets 1 and 2.
  • You cannot impose your views of freedom on others. Before even discussing it, you have to understand their desires and possibilities.