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The Limitations of Freedom
Or at least today's version of freedom
This week’s Upstream episode is a discussion with David Sacks about his intellectual and political journey to where he is today.
This week’s Moment of Zen episode is about picking markets, NFTs, disinformation, fentanyl, and more.
This week’s Cognitive Revolution features Nathan Labenz on AI causing economic transformation and Jaan Tallinn on why he wrote the AI pause letter.
This is the first post in a series on liberalism
Liberalism introduced a radically new notion of freedom: freedom for the individual, from society itself — including all inherited culture, religion, custom, tradition, hierarchy, place, behavioral norms, associations, and relationships standing in the way of the fulfillment of individual desires.
This was a radical departure from the old definition of freedom. The newer view, echoing Locke, to view liberty as the ability of the individual to exercise choice in the pursuit of the satisfaction of self-interest. Or, “living as one likes”. The older view, echoing Aristotle, holds that “Liberty is the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world”. In other words, making yourself free from your base desires, or doing the opposite of “living as one likes”.
Another way of describing the new freedom, or “rights”, is the abdication of all duties and responsibilities. True liberation from all non-chosen relationships. This implies a state of nature in which human beings are perfectly equal and perfectly free and don't take on any obligations or responsibilities, except the ones they consent to. The goal is for our personal obligations to be minimized to the point where all interactions can either be handled by the market or the state.
Of course, the consent model shrivels immediately upon inspection. After all, we are born into families and are families are born within countries, none of which we’ve consented to. From the very beginning, we are dependent on a society we are part of a civilization that we were born into and could never escape. The “social contract” is a myth.
The Rousseauian way of looking at it is, “I didn’t consent to this. Everything must change: The Culture. The State. Human Nature.” A better way of looking at it is, this “I’m a part of something bigger than me. A gift I’ve inherited from the past”. Obviously among interpersonal relationships, consent is very important, but when it comes to the family or culture or country you’re born into, you can’t expect to consent to that.
The pre-liberal tradition had rights, but they corresponded with duties, whether they be your duties as a parent or a citizen.
The new view of freedom is based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, the belief that an individual’s choices may never be legitimately hampered, by anyone at all, except if he is harming others.
We previously understood that an excess of freedom made it hard to avoid the things that lead to a bad life: Gambling, porn, drug-abuse etc. Today, we admit that those things cause harm, but we see giving people the freedom to succumb to sin and deprivation as a basic human right, as granting them dignity. This is why we’d rather give homeless people drugs than send them to rehab or even strongly suggest it.
Overtime, of course, the harm principle would get abused in other ways, where harm expanded to mean something as innocuous as speech someone doesn’t like, and that the people who had less privileges were the only ones who could define “harm”.
So the harm principle, which was originally meant to sort of reduce the ability of a government or authority to go after our experience of pleasure, now became used as a weapon to go after people who did not submit to compelled speech.
So in order to enforce freedom, paradoxically, one of the main roles of the liberal state becomes the active liberation of individuals from any existing limiting conditions, whether those be economic, familial, community-based, class-based, group-based, or even biologically based.
We must deploy the coercive power of government to promote freedom; we must limit freedom for the sake of freedom.
So under a consent based morality, any choice must be validated or else it is oppression. Which means every interaction is at risk of becoming oppression. Because if you need everyone to validate you at all times, and any violation of that that is a form of oppression, well then eventually you're going to avoid everyone lest any of them contradict what you believe about yourself at that given time.
This explains why some are trying to liberate consciousness from our own bodies, to fight back against what has not been chosen.
Indeed: A certain strain of liberal ideology, as well as redesigning culture, is also trying to redesign nature.
As R.R. Reno once put it: “If no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, why, ultimately, should any aspect of any person be fixed or limited? If there is no metaphysical content to nature, why cannot nature simply be overruled in any given case? What is nature but a set of irrational, or non-rational, restrictions?”
This definition of freedom as lack of constraint is almost the polar opposite of the classical and traditional Christian conceptions of liberty, which did not mean being free to do whatever one wished in the pursuit of pleasure, but being free from enslavement to one’s base appetites — a condition predicated on the cultivation of a self-discipline, through which one could, through the fulfillment of duties and obligations, achieve over the course of one’s life a lasting sense of meaning and happiness.
We are free now, freer than ever, and yet it’s not enough. Everywhere I look, I see people who are free — free to be alone and adrift, without callings or commitments.