Freedom: Back to the Basics

The first basic point about freedom is that absolute freedom does not exist and never has. Every object and/or entity is constrained by its environment and by other entities.

The second point is that, above the forager/near subsistence level of human culture, material improvement is linked to population density and the production of an agricultural/food surplus, i.e., those producing food need to produce more than they consume to feed others who design and produce tools that make life above the subsistence level possible. All technological improvements come from communities, not isolated individuals. Virtually all major advances in human technology have been developed and been implemented in urban centers and cultures, or financially and technically supported by those centers.

Third, increasingly urban areas and areas with high population density cannot continue to exist without restrictions on human behavior, either through manners and custom, through laws, or through some combination of both. Moreover, the greater the density, the greater the need for more restrictions on the excesses of human behavior.

At least so far, every advancement of human technology has created more toxic waste products, and the need to manage such wastes requires enforceable rules. If such wastes aren’t managed, then substantial segments of the population have their freedom to a healthy life restricted by the freedom of those benefitting from the sale and use of those goods.

The bottom line is very simple. Functioning societies need restrictions on “freedom.” To remain functional over time, a high-tech, high consuming society needs more restrictions than a decentralized low-tech society.

Who enacts such restrictions and upon whom? In an autocratic state the ruler does. In a state that has some form of popular government, those elected to govern do.

The greatest problem for either form of government is understanding that everything affects everything else and that simplistic maxims don’t work well in practice. In essence, the struggle over the direction of U.S. government has been the conflict between two “principles.”

That government is best that governs least.

The government is best that strives for the maximum good for the maximum number.

The first is, at best, in effect a defense of the status quo, and at worst a maximization the power of those with power, wealth, and skills that can be easily monetized or turned into wealth and/or power.

The second, at best, puts the determination of “good” totally in the hands of government, and at its extreme, becomes a socialism that disproportionately rewards those of lesser ability and determination.

A government that governs least is highly unlikely to restrict the abuse of personal freedoms. A government determined to obtain maximum good for the maximum number is just as likely to crush innovation and excellence, and in doing so, bring about its own eventual downfall.

Neither extreme position works, or not for long, yet the Americans who control the two political parties, at least lately, are polarizing to the extremes, while the majority of Americans in the middle bemoan the lack of middle ground even as they largely vote for the most extreme politician on “their” side, and then attack the few in the middle who try to work out compromises.

5 thoughts on “Freedom: Back to the Basics”

  1. Postagoras says:

    I agree with your point about the conflicting principles. I completely disagree with the “both-sides-ism” at the end.
    It’s the Republican “Party Of No” that has abdicated from passing legislation, and from legislative policy. It’s Republican leaders (and voters) who punish legislators who don’t speak and vote in lockstep.
    In the current situation where Congress is pretty much split 50-50, it would still be possible to get things done if Republican legislators could vote for Democratic bills. It’s not possible for Democrats to vote for Republican bills, because there really aren’t any, just political theater.
    Sure, there’s a Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But that’s one part of a party that contains multitudes. As Will Rogers famously said, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    I largely agree with your thesis and argument, but one of the conclusions is wrong:

    “.. the majority of Americans in the middle bemoan the lack of middle ground even as they largely vote for the most extreme politician on “their” side, and then attack the few in the middle who try to work out compromises.”

    As one of those ‘middle’ Americans, I contend with your statement that we (yes, being bold and representing for all of us here in the middle) do NOT largely vote for the most extreme politician, nor do we attack the few in the middle attempting to work out compromises.

    We are forced to vote for those who are either the devil we know or those who are the least of the evils. I don’t know of any, though there are probably a few, who attack the moderates trying to work things out.

    Perhaps you – or someone else – edited a little too tightly. If this is really how you see those of us who are political moderates, please let me assure you that there are at least some of us who are actually trying to find common grounds.

    (FWIW, when push comes to shove I:
    > am liberal on social issues such as gay marriage, ERA (this dates me, I know), education, immigration, health care (which includes abortion);
    > conservative on fiscal and defense issues (10 years in the Navy deployed to a couple hotspots leaves me with few illusions about our overseas ‘friends’); and
    > believe in the Bill of Rights AND support a sensible form of gun control, bail reform, and further separation of church and state than what evangelicals are cramming through local and state laws/regs.

    1. I have to disagree with your disagreement. From what the statistics show, the moderates in either party are being driven out or ignored. Congressional voting statistics show the same pattern. While there are those of us who vote exactly the way you describe “middle” Americans, there are fewer and fewer who vote that way in each election, and even without gerrymandering the number of “swing” districts continues to decline. It’s not that I’m so much mischaracterizing those in the middle, but there are too few left in the middle, in terms of how they actually vote, to overcome the polarization. Over the years, I’ve heard so many people who believe they’re moderate essentially hew to the party line because they find “the other side” too extreme.

      1. Wine Guy says:

        As the Japanese say, “A so.” Then mark me along with several of my family and my acquaintances as the “fewer and fewer” of which you write.

        More evidence for your point, perhaps, is that California does not permit those who are undeclared or independent to effectively vote in primaries since primary voting is done by party. Further marginalization of the middle.

  3. Tom says:

    “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson: – and that is why some social scientists believe that we may escape our Terran fate by choosing “To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

    Postagoras and Wine Guy have points that appear factual to me but I do like your exposition of “FREEDOM: BACK TO THE BASICS”.

    It seems to me that the chaos of democracy invites libertarians and anarchists (and others) which if they lead will inevitably end in at least authoritarian governments rather than no government type of “freedom”. The centralists (I include myself) are not as effectual in a society which thinks celebrities know something more than acting and self-advertising. But we do exist and rather than voting for our lean towards the left or the right, we tend to vote for meritocracy (which might appear on either political side at any given time): seeing none, we may not vote and that is when voter turnout is low. This may happen even when significant issues are discussed in the media, the pubs, and sewing circles (if they still exist); rather than the US Congress which is where the debates on issues should be heard and solutions considered and voted on. If the issues are only dealt with at the citizen level then we in democracies do have the choice of who to place in city, county, state as well as federal governing positions: that choice is easier closer to home because we do have better access to pressure local responsibility.

    The US has a good Constitution. Unfortunately at this time our focus on individuality gives minorities an inordinate power which confuses our political leadership. Our elected officials have a nation to govern but the system gives individual citizens the freedom to demand personal “rights” – meaning benefits superior to others in a society of “equals”. So we dilute our national power, be it economic, educational or military, by demanding personal attention and pandering when we would all do better with administrative actions which result in the best life possible for each individual citizen.

    Of course: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” -H. L. Mencken. We should use the tools we have: the US Constitution can work if we apply the checks and balances.

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