Freedom: a Resource, a Condition, a State of Mind, a Slogan, a Dream

by Erik Koht

flagg...or just an illusion? My God, listen to me, just another semi-intellectual do-gooder, talking about freedom. Barring some finer points, I have never suffered personal deprivation. In can in no way speak for the debt-slaves of India and Africa, the trafficked prostitutes of Eastern Europe, the political prisoners of Iraq, Egypt, Cuba, child labourers everywhere, the dispossessed farmers of Zimbabwe and China, all those trapped in systems of social or individual injustice they can’t escape – no matter the cause is religious, sexual, economic, political or medical. I cannot create within me feelings caused by ill treatment and bondage I have never been subjected to myself. To guide me I have only my small imagination and my not-so-small anger. Even though you may find this insufficient, please do not deny me the right of trying to express my thoughts on this subject. I am not intentionally making light of the suffering of others.

Freedom may be defined as the individual’s right of choice, no matter at what level, from choosing his brand of peanut butter to selecting the manner of his death. We can make an even broader definition, encompassing all of his society and the infrastructure this society has built for itself, a description of the way it organises its affairs and the level by which it is influenced by or protected from outside forces. It is society as a whole that maintains the conditions needed to sustain individual freedom.

The freedom ingredient flavours discussions on faith, administration, legal issues, economics, education, the environment, discipline and social responsibilities – and just about anything else you may think of. Like assuming that when a little salt is good, a lot of salt is better, we may be making the same erroneous assumption when applying freedom to the social order.

When UN resolutions mention freedom, they talk of freedom from hunger and want along with freedom from oppression. Thus we see freedom from the angle of that which it is not. It is neither slavery nor anarchy, nor does freedom require democracy. Rather, it's the other way around; freedom comes first and may or may not create a climate for democracy. Consider that democracy legitimises the rule of the majority over the minority, setting aside even the legitimate grievances of a minority. That way one group is paying for the freedom of the other. Asking a minority group to strive for this situation is asking a bit much.

Sustaining life is the first requirement of freedom. Then come further basic human rights, freedom from fear, hunger, thirst, sickness. It may not seem very important being able to cast a single ballot among a hundred million when life itself is at stake. Besides, not everything based on democratic principles offers protection against abuse or unwarranted restrictions. People exert legal influence over others in many ways; few of these may be controlled or counteracted by elections. The vote may be just a placebo, serving to legitimise corrupt and incompetent rulers. The writer, teacher, soldier, priest, capitalist, and bureaucrat, all exert power, no votes cast. Criminals, too, exert power, exploiting the weaknesses of society. Yet these elements are not all seen as the enemies of freedom, some may even represent expressions of freedom. For this to be true we must assume a reasonable curtailment of the power of each, along with a well-developed pluralism within society. The paradox of freedom is that it exists by that which restrains it: The Law.

No laws, no freedom. Bad laws, uncertain freedom. Trouble is, the world does not stand still, but laws often do. Situations and trends that lawmakers had no reason to suspect would ever come to pass, undermine laws that once seemed robust. The hope that something conceived by man will last forever and is universally applicable is very likely an illusion. There are always, and should always be, shifting priorities, brought to light by new insights. Freedom is not an expression of quality or even logic and it must always be understood within a specific time frame. In a dictatorship the responsibility is obvious. The dictator is either to be praised or blamed. In an open society ultimate responsibility is less obvious, sometimes pulverised. Someone may get a medal or go to jail depending on the result rather than the underlying effort.

Individual perceptions also play a role, depending on what level of freedom each of us finds reasonable, adequate or desirable. When we grow up, we are taught the rules of society, and most people find it convenient to abide by these rules, thinking of them as laws of nature or an expression of some greater wisdom. We are also frightened by the prospect of great upheavals that may ensue when the rules of the game change from whatever we are used to.

Recently having visited pharmacies in Asia, I got to thinking about “freedom of choice”. You visit one such shop and are faced with a hundred cures for what ails you. Visit another and get another hundred. It doesn't stop there. Easily accessible information about all these brands was lacking. Choice became a major challenge, hardly worth the effort. Choice unlimited is not synonymous with freedom. That is to say, not with my freedom. In stead, I was confronted with the freedom of pill producers. I was not alone in the pharmacies of Asia, about three billion people were standing right next to me in line, so I suppose that a selection of a few thousand varieties of the same basic cure isn’t unreasonable, considering the total turnover of pills and potential profits to be had in this enormous market. But individually each of these tree billion consumers are confronted with the same bewildering array as I.

In that particular situation I needed only the choice of one as long as a cure and not price was the issue. If one brand is substantially cheaper than the next, you may reasonably ask “why?” We think we are making a choice based on logic and reason. In reality someone, somewhere has made our choice for us. In this case by setting the price. In most cases, the producer is the initiator of choice. We can’t pick what isn’t there, we can’t read what hasn’t been published, we can’t vote for a demand that isn’t on the ticket. When it comes to changing the rules of the game the act of a single individual is almost always futile. Chances are that the result of his efforts will apply only to himself or none at all. We may celebrate the life of Ghandi, but without the millions of people supporting his cause, his efforts would have come to nought. He broke the law of the land, demonstrating its injustice, he stood at the head of a movement that lent force to his words, and that word reached around the world.

Thus we have four elements that need to be integrated into a freedom equation: The Law, independence, information (including education) and the ability to organise efficiently. It is easy to see that countries where freedom is thwarted, these components are being withheld, suppressed, obscured or distorted.

This happens in one and two-party states, states where the right to organise is frowned upon, held in low esteem or outlawed, states where the substance and spread of information is controlled by the few, or the right of free expression is stifled in some other way, and states at war and states under threat. Such states tend to reduce civil liberties in order to counter the perceived threat.

I list two-party states because a party fighting for position in a two-party environment needs to compete for a narrow band of voters in the middle range of opinion in order to attain power. This middle group is the one that tips the scale in favour of one party or the other. Thus competitors have to develop similar platforms in order to cater to this group, leaving very little width of choice for the remaining electorate. Choice is absent when there is no substantial difference in the stance of the parties. Consensus is statistically less likely when parties number three or more.

Unfortunately the major states, USA, China, Russia and even India suffer from one or more of these limitations. I note that powerful institutions engaged in depriving people of their freedoms mask their work in some way, indicating they realise there is some shame connected with their methods. I find the freedom most commonly withheld is the freedom of movement, especially across borders, but also domestically. This may be based on the thinking that citizens are in some way the possessions of the state. The European Union has listed freedom of movement among its four major freedoms, guaranteed by EU statutes.

Though I am trying to define the word freedom and use it freely here, I still do not know what freedom is, only what it is not. It may be that it is always in need of a specific context. It is also elusive because a state (of affairs) does not have to be perfect in order to be considered free. I doubt if there is such a thing as perfect freedom or that such a state is even desirable. It may be that freedom is a fulcrum, and a movable one at that, needing opposing might at either end to lend it purpose. The one suffering the loss of freedom, then recalling it or seeing others enjoying it, knows what freedom is to him. The freed slave has gained the right of choice, but these choices will not always be of his making or his liking.

I am left with the certainty that freedom is a feeling, a feeling of rightness and balance. Though we see the introduction of physical restrictions and paternalistic laws, surveillance, police power, censorship and many other impositions, we often learn to accept that which includes all of the society in which we live. We take note only when there is change afoot. This is also the time when the change is “explained” to us, the citizens. Thus theft of liberties is the art of the possible – possible technically and possible by the use of motivational arguments, propaganda that prevent us from seeing the full consequences of new impositions. So we still go on feeling free, trading our individual freedom for collective security.

Security is an awfully attractive proposition. But, lo, why do I take the train to far distant destinations instead of hopping on a plane? I know the answer: Because trains are still free. I can, if I so desired, take along my collection of knives and noxious gasses, no questions asked. No one asks for my passport, at least not here in the EU, and my trip does not leave any trace in the files of the powers-that-be. I retain the right of privacy, the right of not having to explain my business to anyone. It’s just a feeling I have, it has no basis in practical realities, no threat looms ahead – or so it would seem.

This is what makes the defence of freedom so weak. The threat of aeroplanes dropping from the sky and bombs exploding on commuter trains are horribly more real and evoke instantaneous, strong emotions. Someone in power may be held responsible for letting it happen when he could have… well, you know, passed a law, checked the content of some computers, read some e-mails, listened in to some conversation, tortured some guy for more information, nibbled just a little bit more at the edges of freedom. Remember them saying: “Those that have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear”? Should we let unspeakable disasters happen just so that some individual might feel free? This comparison is false. Consider that my freedom is not the cause of the tragedy. The same can be said of the materials and machinery used in the act. Planes still fly and trains still run. Furthermore, the individual mentioned in this comparison is really one of a hundred million who all suffer the loss of freedom, and that loss will likely persist for generations to come. Also, these horrible events are really miniscule in scope compared to, say, annual road accidents or the threat of dying from lung cancer. Yet every day millions of people are subjected to intimate scrutiny and controls, just for wanting to get on an aeroplane. Some times this wish is inexplicably denied. Shouldn’t we be searching for cancer at airports in stead...?

No one deserves to die without having lived a full life. We could spend some billions and reduce road accidents significantly. We could outlaw tobacco. But that would be depriving people of their freedom, right? So those who die on the road or from the use of tobacco die on the altar of freedom just as much as those that die by the terrorist’s bomb. That this paradox is obvious to me probably means that it is obvious to everyone else, too. Don’t tell me how one kind of death is willed by evil people and the other not. So why do governments act with this lack of symmetry? Seemingly it has to do with economics and its consequences. Societies are dependent on the car and car production, and on tobacco farmers, there is money in it. Airport controls, too, create jobs. And isn’t it nice to be able to tell where everyone is all the time? The really big difference lies in the likelihood that governments being blamed for not preventing an act of terrorism may lose its grip on power, while experience shows that 30 or 40 thousand road fatalities have no such consequence.

Democratic or not, states seem to develop a certain “personality”. We have the paternalistic state that sees to it that we do not hurt ourselves by taxing fattening food and drink, and gives us some extra money to spend for the holidays. We have the pre-emptive state (or the surveillance state) that sees us all as potential criminals, more likely to do wrong that not. No one knows what this “wrong” means, or exactly when right becomes wrong. You may be asked to explain your actions and you better have a good answer. Why do you have quite so many rubber bands? A third type is the corporate state where citizens are regarded as assets, to be viewed as investments or costs. Only in countries where people regard each other as co-owners of the state, is the state no longer a threat to freedom. Sorry, “people’s republics” don’t quite cut it.

Freedom and responsibilities belong together. Centralised power is the opposite of freedom. This power will present itself as the champion of responsibility. Some times this is draped in paternalism or religion or in some great cause, like “the war on terrorism” or “future generations”. The state can do nothing that does not infringe on citizens’ freedom, be it the collection of taxes or fighting crime. That is why we have governments. It’s useless describing such activities as “bad” or ”good”. Also discussing the size of government seems irrelevant. Rather than this, we should measure government by its efficiency, productivity, service level and its ability and willingness to abide by the law. In the end, a government is no better than its individual components: Its institutions and the people inhabiting its offices. Practices that prevail in these offices will reflect practices and values that prevail in society at large.

Another threat to freedom, though not of the same calibre, is the one posed by newcomers to an established society. I am amazed by the fact that people fleeing from poverty and the rotten governments of their home countries often bring with them some of the causes of these conditions. The Mafioso have exported their organised crime syndicates, the Muslims of Europe still kill wives and daughters even though no pressure from the new society require them to do so. Cheating on taxes and exploiting welfare systems are recurrent crimes among immigrants. They also build gangs and fight to death among each other for reasons of honour, in connection with criminal activities or stress. It is as if they simply do not see the connection between the acts of the individual and the corresponding state of society. The stresses created by such acts can seriously undermine the social structures in open, more freedom- oriented societies. New laws are needed to counteract new threats. In turn this creates the need for strengthened law enforcement, under-cover agents and demand for “co-operation” from banks, social workers, health officials and “concerned citizens”. Thus freedom is not only weak for being insubstantial, but also for opening societies to attack by those that exploit freedom for personal gain.

A third threat to freedom is found in regressing societies. Well-organised societies some times collapse for reasons of war, coups-d’êtat, economic meltdown or great natural catastrophes. In the ensuing turmoil we may not necessarily see clear-cut loss of freedom such as that caused by the imposition of marshal law, it may be subtler. People will give a lot to maintain the standard of living they knew before the breakdown. We see increases in crime rates of all kinds, child prostitution and other kinds of exploitation, graft and black-marketeering. Order that seemed ingrained is suddenly gone, and so are many individual freedoms.

Oddly, this may also happen in countries that have been held in bondage for a long time. People have forgotten the responsibilities that go along with freedom and have lost all respect for the legal pathways and public institutions. Old habits die hard. The new, free society may not have the instruments of enforcement at its disposal or be willing to use them as roughly as the old order did. Freedom’s rules need to be understood and accepted by more than just a few. In this kind of situation we move directly from bondage to anarchy, bypassing freedom.

I would be amiss if I did not mention the armed forces as a threat to freedom, though this does not apply to all armies or to all freedom. In this respect an army of conscripts drawn from the people as a whole is less risky than an army of professionals. Using the latter to settle internal strife is dangerous indeed. Drawing recruits from a narrow segment of the population, excluding others, is a recipe for civil war.

Some individuals take it upon themselves to uphold what they perceive as the social or religious order, using the pen or spoken word to incite violence against other individuals or groups that they consider threats. No matter they don’t do any violence themselves, the authors are still responsible for what might ensue. A person, once threatened, will live in fear of that violence. Thus the writer has deprived another person of a basic freedom, the freedom from fear. It is also likely to deprive that person of normal social intercourse and along with this, the freedom of freely expressing his thoughts. Fear of being molested or even killed is a great censor of uninhibited thoughts and actions. Thanks to the internet, inflammatory texts stay fresh for ever. That way it may take a long time, years, from the time the threat is expressed to the act of violence or discrimination it inspires. At the time of publishing we do not know whom it may inspire and whom may hurt – and when the violence takes place later, we can no longer with certainty link it to the cause.

The relationship between employer and employees has evolved through centuries, varying from slavery to today’s work-at-home on-liners. Employees have accepted many odd restrictions that do not relate directly to the work at hand, such as wearing special clothes that profile the company. This is usually no great hardship. Some employers seem to think that their power extend beyond the work-place to off-hours. Employee behaviour is supposed to reflect on the company even then. I find this thinking totally unacceptable. In one extreme case, an American company demanded that even family members of employees should conform to company rules by not smoking – smoking is a legal activity in USA. In times of high unemployment, employers can hope to get away with this kind of extortion. That anyone should imagine they have this right is totally beyond my understanding.

The possible threats to freedom are many, but not innumerable. All though strife, crime and chaos infringe on our freedom, only lawmakers are capable of perpetuating that infringement. Freedom may fade slowly or be lost through a sudden, sweeping act. Like a ticking bomb, a benign, open government may have half-forgotten, never- used emergency laws in its arsenal. New people in government may revitalise and implement these laws in order to secure and expand their positions. Removing power once attained is hard. At every upward step on the ladder of mono-polar power, control and oversight is weakened.

It is best for a nation when parties in position change from time, no matter if you personally prefer one party to another. Extensive time in power breeds complacency, spawns irregular connections between politicians and the bureaucracy, and draws competence and experience in one direction only, stripping the opposition of its ability to oppose in an efficient manner. We must rely on the “fickle” voter to initiate the transfer of power from one group to another, but only adherence to the law can make it come true.

I have come to believe that a pluralistic society governed by law offers me personally the best protection and freedom. The public sector must balance private enterprise economically, in services offered, in the spread of information. Once one or the other gains the upper hand, be it government or business, we are headed for a monopolistic system without alternatives and thus no competition. I mentioned earlier how power is exerted in many ways. Though I appreciate the right to vote, I also vote through my feet, my wallet and through the organisations I support. I have choice. Much thought is given to how government should oversee the activities of the private sector, but in a free society, inspection goes both ways. Among the tools used by the private sector are the media and NGO’s. Some open and free states have discovered the need for rules that can’t be tampered with by anyone. This has given rise to international courts of justice. Countries also need completely independent institutions within broadcasting, statistics and banking. Needless to say, few nations meet all these criteria. In a battle for our hearts and minds contestants all claim to champion the cause of freedom.

So, besides being a feeling, the concept of freedom is also a tool. It is a political tool, a word to be flouted when occasion demands this type of rhetoric. But those who look beyond speeches, to the influence of freedom on society may see freedom’s many advantages. We may 1) study images of “before” and “after” the implementation of changes and see how the changes have impacted various levels of society. The hard part is the transition. The risk is great. Or we may 2) compare two different countries, one dictatorial and the other open, and see how the population of each fares in identical time frames. Freedom may be measured at many levels, from the most basic needs to the more refined. Measuring the influence of freedom solely by economic loss or gain is a raw deal, but at least it’s a start.

Economically the most profitable freedoms must be the freedom of movement and the liberation of women. It’s a wonder that some rulers are willing to forego these freedoms for the sake of control or in order to placate religious beliefs. These two freedoms assure rulers of a flexible workforce and one that will nearly double in size when the need arises. On the other hand, that ruler will also see his people leaving the countryside in droves, and there is no telling what women will do, once they have money of their own. We see freedom creating its own environment, developments evolving naturally once the restrictions are removed. The new, freer society also needs restrictions, but these are more often implemented with the aid of carrots, rather than sticks. For various reasons all nations are in need of restructuring from time to time. I think individuals are much more likely to understand how these restructuring processes affect them personally and find solutions to fit their needs, than any central agency trying to master events possibly could. Rather, that agency’s mission is to alleviate and aid the imbalances caused by transition.

The brave politician standing up for change is almost certain to be swept away by the changes he himself initiated. It is the nation as a whole that prospers by upholding freedom and openness, not any one group. No wonder then, that power elites prefer to err on the side of caution. Choosing the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights does not bring immediate gratification. Transition from a totalitarian state may take several generations. It takes time to educate and re-educate. Right now we are seeing Russia seemingly regressing. Spain and Portugal were notable exceptions for their speed of adaptation.

Accepting a viable and empowered opposition is the most radical measure any nation can entertain, and it is also the true trademark of free states and free people. By this measure the ruling class or clan is suddenly held accountable, it will need to explain and argue, not just act. It should mean increased efficiency, less graft, less nepotism, the rise of talent, and no political prisoners. It also entails the whole paraphernalia of opposition: a free media, the right to congregate, political parties, public access to the government’s documents, files and statistics… Naturally these things can be feigned, and so they are, but no one is really taken in. Finally it means that no one is above the law, not even the ones who helped shape it, because every person, no matter how different, is of the same worth and has the same rights as everyone else, being equal in all respects.

Other Essays by Erik Koht

Ye twenty-seventh letter of ye alphabet
Taxes: The Tool
How to speak Norwegian? Nobody really knows
They said it couldn't be done: Making a profit while caring for human rights
A Soldier Died Today
The Fable of Anti-Americanism
Propaganda and Censorship: My Head Belongs to Daddy...
How to Keep Your Honour:
Try Killing Your Daughter and Stealing without Getting Caught

Multilateral Treaties and the Bully State

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