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freedom

I have had some deep conversations with politically active people, both on the left and right end of the political spectrum. The one thing that has stuck out to me is that almost all of them has invariably concluded that the average person is probably not suited to real freedom. At first, I was a bit perplexed, and a bit offended. Isn’t that just a mealymouthed way to rationalize authoritarianism? To be clear, I spoke to a narrow subset of people so obviously these views are far from representative. Still, I sensed weariness in their voices. I could definitely understand that, regardless of their political views. I think that activism can take a toll on the soul, especially if the political losses continue to mount. Trying to convince an apathetic and disgusted public can be quite draining in the spiritual and personal sense.

Much hay has been made of this Harvard study, which shows that too many choices can perplex and turn off most people. But does this truly prove that the majority simply don’t like making choices? Is this an indication that freedom really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

I speak only from my experience, so take what I say with that grain of salt. That said, I do think that the problem isn’t the methodology of the studies, but the assumptions it operates on. For instance, what exactly defines choice? How different do the options have to be to constitute as a true option? If the choices are simply variations of the same, then was it really a choice at all?

Look at the current American political system. Voting is how the people are allowed to express their will. But when the candidates are beholden to the same economic and political interests and offer almost the same economic and social policies, it’s not really a choice. There are only 2 viable political parties in our winner take all system, and I don’t see how this lack of choice has ensured the happiness and satisfaction of the American public. In fact, a powerful argument can be made that the 2 party system has increased alienation and anger in the general population. Is it really freedom to only be able to choose between 2 parties that serve the same masters? European voters have more political parties to choose from, and they are not unhappier with their political system than Americans in general.

In the United States, the less money you have, the less choices you have. Are poor people markedly happier than their wealthier compatriots, with their lack of choices in housing, jobs, healthcare, transportation, and food? Were women happier back in the good old days, when they had no say over their bodies and had to bring every pregnancy to term, regardless of their health, financial, and social circumstances? Was it good for women to stay in bad marriages just to avoid financial ruin and homelessness? Were gay people that much happier when the only option was to keep that closet door firmly locked? Were married couples that much happier when divorce was either illegal or extremely expensive or difficult to obtain?

I think it’s telling that we’re getting the message that choices make us unhappy, right when the powers that be are taking away our options. Still, I see plenty of powerful evidence that people (overall) are happier with more freedom rather than less. Otherwise, the punishment for rejecting establishment sanctioned options would not be so sadistic, punitive, and severe. If freedom is as bad as the authorities say it is, then they would not fear the existence of other viable choices because people would simply vote with their feet. Of course, those in power know better than to give people a taste of REAL freedom.

So what is freedom, and what makes it so scary to certain segments of society? To the autocratic elites, people making their own choices means that they may choose to pursue their own hopes, goals, and dreams instead of signing away their time and labor to advance establishment interests. For the average Joe or Jane, freedom may mean having to face responsibility over life choices, which can trigger feelings of guilt, doubt, and shame. I believe it is this particular viewpoint that is predisposed to characterizing freedom as something painful that must be avoided.

So the question that must be asked is, why do so many people think that freedom is inherently painful and miserable? My answer is that those who seek to maintain the system have created powerful disincentives to “encourage” people to choose slavery over starvation, which of course is simply coercion by another name. The mechanisms in place are extremely powerful and restrictive, making freedom simply “unaffordable” and nonviable for the common man and woman.

I will explore this idea in depth in the next post.

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