The Freedom Manifesto
What is freedom?
What is freedom? Many people will have many answers to that question. Yet, for a society to pursue freedom, there must be a united vision of what freedom is. Without a united understanding of what actually makes a person or a society free, progress would be impossible as different groups pursue different ideas of freedom. Even so, there are different “freedoms”, which is why it is important to have a broad enough understanding of freedom to encompass what could be called “particular freedoms.” For example, one group might see the ability to pursue a chosen career path as vital to freedom, while another group sees freedom as the ability to practice their faith or have no faith at all, without state coercion. These would be particular freedoms, but they cannot be the totality of what freedom is. So, what is freedom?
Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of freedom in its various forms for thousands of years. There is the philosophy of political freedom, the very different concept of the freedom of the human will, the idea of divine or perfect freedom, and many other types of freedom that have been discussed over the course of millennia. However, in regards to human freedom, one basic idea has persisted, and that is what some would call the “classical” understanding of freedom. “Classical” in this case is a reference to classical philosophy, which is mainly the philosophy of Plato to Aristotle, but continues mostly with Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy as the foundation that future philosophers would build upon. The concept of freedom developed in this period was largely a moral freedom; and can be summed up as “the ability to be what you are.” Freedom meant the absence of corrupting influences in one’s choices. The ability to “choose” itself was not considered to be freedom, since choices could be constrained by outside forces or even internal conflicts, inhibiting a person from choosing as they would if those forces were not there. To be free was to choose in accordance with the reality of who one truly is, and to not be free is to be forced to choose out of accordance with who one is. Of course a person’s individual moral freedom is up to them, as it is possible to remain true to one’s self regardless of outside circumstances. Yet, what does this model of freedom look like when applied to a society? What would it mean for a society to arrange itself in such a way as to collectively embody the sort of freedom that allows for individuals to flourish as who they are?
What is a free society?
An example of classical freedom at the level of society can be gathered from the debate over capitalism vs. democratic socialism. Under capitalism, one cannot simply choose to live each day in accordance with what they love, pursuing only those things which align most with who they are. Most have to get jobs that they don’t like very much if at all; and they don’t really have a true choice, since they need to generate enough income to cover at least their basic needs. There are certainly employment options to various extents for various people, but the ultimate choice may simply be choosing from what is available, not necessarily in-line with who one is. So, if we were to ask if capitalism fits well with the classical understanding of freedom, the answer is unequivocally “no.” Under capitalism, it is the market that in large part determines the course of people’s lives, not the people.
It is no wonder that in societies where capitalism has created the greatest levels of wealth inequality, there are also the highest rates of drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide. In the United States, where the wealth gap is among the largest in the world, there is mass incarceration, mass shootings at rates seen in no other developed country, soaring levels of depression and other mental pathologies, and a continuing decline in overall quality of life. Why is this happening? Why does the “make money or die trying” ethos of capitalism destroy so many lives and families?
Humanity is full of stories of people seeking their freedom; of overcoming oppressors; of defeating any force that keeps us from being who we are. No system has so exhausted and defeated this human drive for freedom as capitalism has. People are tied up in work and pursuing the capitalist ideal, they don’t have the time to reflect on what it is they actually care about, who it is they really are, and how they might live in accordance with that identity. Capitalism holds out a false hope of prosperity for all, and this has proved to be sufficient for keeping countless of the impoverished from questioning the system, let alone organizing a resistance. Capitalism has convinced large portions of society that they are to blame if they aren’t wealthy. It isn’t that the system is rigged against the lower classes and in favor of the wealthy; it isn’t that wages have stagnated while cost of living has risen, or that the cost of education has and is destroying entire generations of buying power; it isn’t that disenfranchised minority groups have never actually had anything close to equal opportunity. If you are not giving your life away as a good employee, or in pursuit of some venture to generate massive amounts of wealth; if you aren’t “making it,” then you are too lazy, ignorant or unmotivated to deserve the freedom that comes with the economic security of being rich.
Yet is this necessary? Must we all give up the one life we have to the machine of production and finance, in hopes that we will someday reach the necessary status deemed worthy of real freedom? Do the wealthy even have this freedom, or are they slaves to the machine too? Is there a way to have a more free society? According to Democratic Socialism, there is a way.
Is wealth freedom?
Before getting into how Democratic Socialism proposes to create a more free society, it is important to address the issue of wealth, and whether or not wealth and freedom really do go together. What has been said so far can give the impression that being wealthy is the same as being free; that is not true at all. Just as freedom and the endless pursuit of wealth are incompatible for non-wealthy persons, so is freedom and an over abundance of wealth. The rich are enslaved to the machine of production and finance as well. Their slavery is not one of being subject to an employer, but of being enslaved to the system itself. Wealthy capitalists must concern themselves with maintaining the capitalist system, to protecting their wealth and finding ways to accumulate more wealth. This doesn’t exactly lineup with freedom. To be enslaved to wealth; to accumulating and protecting wealth, is not the ideal for discovering who you are and choosing the course of your life in light of that discovery. Many wealthy persons go towards corruption, seeking any means necessary for accumulating and protecting their wealth. Many wealthy persons convince themselves that there is somehow a division between what is morally good and what is good for capitalism. While many might envy the wealthy, it would be good to know that we are merely envying another kind of slavery; even a worse kind of slavery.
The statistics for the wealthy are just as grim as the statistics for the poor. Drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide are up among the wealthy too. So clearly, wealth is not the principal that creates the freedom humanity has desired for thousands of years. The true principal for creating a free society is equality. An egalitarian society would be the freest society. A society where all truly have equal opportunity to pursue those things they care about most, whether it be in the arts or sciences, teachers or engineers, or simply raising one’s own children. A free society would mean that if a person chooses a path towards something truly good, then they will not be punished for that choice; they will not suffer poverty for choosing to have more time with their children, or pursuing a valuable career path that doesn’t pay well; they will not suffer incredible debt for choosing to get an education and training in a field they are passionate about. In a free society, people would not suffer bankruptcy for having a home for their family, only to find out they have cancer and must now decide between the mortgage and their treatment. A truly equal and free society would be one where who a person is, and all that they have worked for, does not stand or fall on whether they are rich or poor.
How to achieve an egalitarian free society
Step 1. We must close the massive chasm of inequality. A free society is not one of owners and non-owners. A free society is one where no class of people needs to toil their life away for basic necessities, being forced to deny a just and rightful pursuit of becoming who they are to the fullest possible extent. Closing the gap of inequality would require a number of steps, but without it, there will always remain masses of people subject to the slavery of mere survival.
Step 2. We create a society where no one falls through the cracks; where there are safety nets that catch people should they come on hard times, so that no person is debased to spending all of their time and energy on just making sure they have enough to eat, and a place to call home. We must also make sure that education is equally available to all, which means that education must be funded by the society as a whole. A society where education is funded by the money of those who can afford it, and the debt of those who can’t, where one student pays the costs of their education without issue, and another has to take into consideration the burden of debt they will carry with them into their future, is not a society with equality of opportunity in any sense of the term.
Step 3. We democratize the economy. Divide ownership of businesses among all who in some way contribute to production, whether it be a production manager, or a production laborer. When entire classes of people are forced to participate in a system where they have no ownership over the product of their labor, we have created a hybrid form of slavery. Masses of people serve at the will of their employers, with their employer holding full ownership over what they produce, thus giving the employer incredible leverage over the lives of their employees. If all workers were owners, no single person could ever hold the economic stability of another person in their hands, to do with as they please.
These basic, yet incredible steps would erode at the tyrannies at the societal level that inhibit true human freedom. If we took these steps, we may find ourselves in a society where human development can come into focus, rather than merely development of products and schemes for generating more and more profits. Individuals can choose what work to pursue based on who they are rather than what will generate the greatest income or cover their basic needs. People will be freer to discover themselves, and to live the one life they have in accordance with who they are, rather than in accordance with what the market dictates they must do to survive.