What does freedom mean?

Freedom is a term that’s used or implied readily by politicians of all parties and ideologies.  From espousers of the free market talking about “consumer choice” to populist demagogues telling their audiences to “take back control,” the underlying message is clear: we will give you more freedom. More freedom to choose which newsagents/healthcare provider/poundshop you want to use; more freedom to control the direction of your country and freedom from the nasty, corporate elites. Freedom is seen as a virtue that everybody wants to acquire, but politicians rarely explain what they mean by it. In the same way that Brexit means Brexit, freedom, apparently, just means freedom. 

Or does it? Can we come to a consensus on what freedom actually is? Or, given the range of different ways it is used in popular discourse, is there a way we can define what freedom should be?  Let’s give it a shot.

Perhaps the most commonly used meaning of the word freedom (in recent political discourse, at least) is that of “freedom from” — the idea that people are free if they are not being interfered by other people, for example through blackmail. In politics, this normally means “freedom from the state”: ideas about taxes being too high and “red tape” harming businesses are two common arguments that have this conception of freedom at its heart.  It can also manifest itself as the basis for arguments against big business, for independence or separatist causes or against international institutions like the European Union.

“Freedom from” is an integral part of what freedom is, for sure — someone who is being blackmailed or locked in a cage cannot be considered free; they can only be considered free if they are not being blackmailed and they’re out of the cage.  But while this idea is necessary, it is not sufficient for explaining what freedom really is. For example, a subsistence rice farmer in southern Asia may be free from interference by government, businesses and any other person or organisation. But because he or she has to grow rice all day, they aren’t free in the same way a rich British businessman is free. So a good start, but not the whole story.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the idea of “freedom to”.  Advocates of “freedom to” tend to mean the freedom to fully participate in their community and society — the freedom to vote for who you want to be in charge and the freedom not to be discriminated against because of your sex, ethnicity or religion are two examples of the “freedom to” conception. In politics, “freedom to” has been the bedrock for trade unions, women’s suffrage movements and the politics of diversity.

“Freedom to” is a significant contribution to our ideas of what freedom is, and has proven an important idea in enacting change by broadening participation in the political process. However, this idea of “freedom to” doesn’t feel like it covers all bases. For example, while “freedom to” allows anyone the freedom to participate in social activities, it doesn’t protect them from interference from other people. A society completely governed by “freedom to” principles would mandate everyone to vote, whereas in the UK the right not to vote is considered as important an idea as the right to vote. While that doesn’t sound too bad (heck, mandatory voting might in some ways be a step in the right direction for this country) a society governed by “freedom to” would almost certainly mean mandatory church attendance, social club attendance and other similar activities — it doesn’t take into account social pressure or interference. “Freedom to” allows you to participate in your community to your heart’s content, but doesn’t account for the possibility you might want to shut the world out for a bit and watch Netflix.

So both “freedom from” and “freedom to” don’t quite encompass what it really means to be free.  So what is it really like to be free?  What is real freedom?

Funny you should mention that — real freedom was a term invented by the philosopher (dare we say it, our favourite philosopher) Phillippe Van Parijs. Van Parijis argued that, for someone to be free, they essentially had to both qualify for “freedom from” and “freedom to”. He said that to achieve real freedom, a person must not be prevented from acting on their will (they must achieve “freedom from”) and be completely capable of enacting their free will.  In essence, then, to be free is to be able to do what you want to do.  If you want to become an astronaut, being free would be to fulfil that ambition. If you want to stay in all day and watch Netflix, being free would be to not feel compelled to do anything else. And if you were truly free you would be able to change your goals and ambitions at a split second without incurring any penalty to yourself. For example, say you decided that you wanted to become a bestselling author instead of an astronaut. If you were truly, really free, it would be easy for you to do so.

Now, we’re not suggesting such leaps are realistic, so it’s important to think of freedom as a sliding scale: it is possible to have both less and more freedom than you do now.  It’s also worth remembering that exercising your freedom shouldn’t in turn infringe upon anybody else’s freedom — in a society where everyone is truly free, everyone’s ability to exercise their freedom would be equal.

Taking a step back from such utopian visions and looking at the current political world, what should the powers-that-be do to allow people to gain and maximise their real freedom — their ability to do what they want to do?  It could be argued that multiple things afford some people more freedom than others, including their family background, social connections and where they live. But, ultimately, we think your ability to maximise your freedom is dependent on three factors: money, time and power.

The first one should be fairly obvious: on the whole, rich people have a greater capacity to do what they want to do than poor people. Richard Branson can decide to build rockets to send people to the moon; Elon Musk can decide to build rockets that send people to Mars; Mark Zuckerberg can decide to rid the world of disease. These wealthy figures have more freedom than ordinary people, who are constrained by their needs to earn money to sustain themselves. Greater investment in infrastructure and education, as well as a Universal Basic Income that would allow people not to worry about their basic needs, would afford more people the freedom currently enjoyed by the wealthy.

But you need more than just money to be free — you also need time to be able to do the things you want to do. For example, a banker in the City of London may be earning thousands of pounds, but they can’t truly be free if they can barely see their children because of the long hours they have to work. Giving people more time to see their families, enjoy themselves, gain a greater education or start a new career path (essentially, do whatever they want to do) would give people the freedom they lack. A four day working week or just cutting down working hours would go a long way towards this.

Finally, to be truly free people need more power.  There may be many employees in Britain today who have decent working hours and a healthy salary, but from nine til five are at the whims of their employer — what they do, where they work and so on are controlled by a lofty omnipresence — with no ability to influence what they spend the majority of their week doing.  This is the opposite of real freedom, and needs to change — perhaps with a policy of co-determination that would allow employees greater control over the direction of the company they work for.

Freedom, like so many other important terms in our lexicon, is disputed.  But at its heart is the ability to do what you want to do. We think that it is vital that individuals, families, businesses and governments should try to maximise every person’s freedom, and the way to do so is to give them more money, more time and more power. People can only flourish when they have achieved real freedom — if they want to achieve it, then there should be nothing standing in their way. 

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Jack Perry

Jack is a trustee of Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland.

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