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A Short Guide to Practical Freedom

December 2012

In political philosophy it is often argued that freedom means having certain rights respected and protected. Of course, there is always going to be disagreement as to what that means in the particulars. If you consider income and food as rights, it is difficult to believe in or protect property rights, since a right to a living implies taking money from someone else. Some think they have resolved this by defining rights only in terms of "negative duties" imposed on others, meaning you have the right to be left alone (in movement, speech, belongings, etc) as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights.

Of course, many of those who argue for this conception of "natural" or "inalienable rights," are ready to alienate them for various purposes. For example, we have the spectacle of whole cultures who think enslaving people in the name of freedom (which is exactly what the military draft does) is a good and proper function of governments.So we may never resolve the question of what freedom is in any sense that we can all agree on.

But we can each see what makes us more free in the ways that matter to us as individuals. That is a very personal matter which is separate from any beliefs about freedom. For example, even if you believe in the freedom to speak your mind, if you never have anything to say that would objectionable to government censors, you would suffer little from losing this largely (for you) theoretical freedom. On the other hand, though you might believe in socialism, if a government treads too far on your right to keep what you earn, you and your family could suffer greatly.

Then there is the whole area of what it means to be free in terms of personal psychology and interpersonal relationships.The line, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" is best known as a Janis Joplin lyric, but it's also a very Buddhist sentiment. When you have let go of everything you are free to just be at peace in the world. It's essentially a spiritual or psychological perspective on what it means to be free.

On a more mundane level, we feel more constrained or more free according to the ways we have arranged our lives and relationships.For example, at a very young age I established myself as a Grinch who cares nothing for Christmas. As a result I feel free to ignore all the usual family expectations, while others, who might secretly hate the holiday more than myself, feel obligated to at least buy a few gifts and show up for family dinners.

Most people also have some concept of freedom that relates to money matters. We speak of "financial freedom," which again can mean a lot of different things to different people. Are you more free when you make more money, or is that only the case when you make it in a way that does not limit your other options? A high-paying job combined with a lifestyle that requires maintaining that income could certainly feel like slavery to some of us.

So what does it mean to you to be free? It is not an easy question to answer, but here are some elements that we can probably agree on in general, even if each will have more or less importance according to our individual circumstances and personalities. In addition to each element there are some ideas about what I like to call "practical freedom," which means ways to choose more liberty in ways that matter most to you as an individual.

Being Politically Free

Most of us will experience greater freedom in the United States or Europe than in North Korea. Generally, if we value our own freedom, we will want to live in a country that leaves most decisions about our lives in our own hands. The right to say what we like and move where we like and choose how we make a living--these things are important.

But the specifics matter also. You might not experience much freedom if you like to smoke a certain plant and you live in a place where you are thrown in prison for doing so. Moving to another country is an option if this kind of freedom matters to you. You also might have a hard time dealing with a multitude of authorities and regulations, and so you could feel freer in a country where you can start a restaurant in your home or where you can resolve any business licensing problems with a simple bribe.

We are who we are, and if was easier for you to build a business and pay bribes to do so rather than deal with reams of paperwork and multiple bureaucracies, you will feel freer where the latter system exists. On the other hand, well regulated places tend to be neater, cleaner and more pleasant to live in, but then that's the price of your freedom if you want less decision making about your life in other people's hands. That also points out that the balance between freedom and other values is a personal one we each have to think of and decide according to who we are.

Some of you will disagree with what I say next, but as a practical matter your vote and your political activity in general will never count as much toward your freedom as the decisions you make about your personal life. You will accomplish more toward practical freedom for yourself by moving where you are freer, making money, spending money wisely, and learning how to live well and at peace.

Being Financially Free

More money means more options. If you have enough and invest it frees you from ever having to work again, and you can go where you like. So in general money is a path to greater freedom.

But to actually experience greater freedom from financial success, it helps to make money in a way that does not limit your liberty in other ways. A 60-hour-per-week job that doesn't allow you time to travel or to play with your children (if these activities are important to you) might buy you greater freedom eventually, but it can have the opposite effect for many years. So if this is a route you choose, love the job or save and invest the money. Otherwise you are accomplishing very little for yourself.

We all have different ideas about what money means to us. Some like the things it buys, while others like the situations it buys. I happen to value the liberty to quit any job (although I haven't had one in ten years now. I might soon be employed once more). That can be accomplished through business and investing, but it is also done by way of keeping our living expenses low so we are never surviving paycheck-to-paycheck.

Think carefully about how the jobs and other ways you make money add or subtract from how free you are to do what you want. Spend less on what doesn't matter so much to you and the money saved buys freedom. Make more money and use it wisely to broaden the range of what's possible. Money buys you more political freedom by allowing you to move if necessary. It buys your mobility for other purposes as well. It also buys food, clothing and everything else in the world.

Personal Freedom

There is a kind of personal freedom that is a result of how you arrange your life. If you have more money, less obligations, and more time, you have more possibilities for the future, for example. Suppose, to get more specific, you are young and you want to be free to travel the world and live in other places for long stretches of time. You need passport and a bit of money to get started, of course, so you can start with that. But you also have to seriously consider avoiding anything that will prevent this kind of freedom. For example, even if you value having a family, it would probably limit you severely in your ability to travel the globe, so it makes sense to put that off for many years.

Now, if you later discovered that you still wanted to be at liberty to live in different countries and you also highly valued having a family, you could consider finding a career that involves travel (a diplomat or embassy official?), and finding a partner who does not have location-specific career goals (a writer?). Moving children would be enough of a challenge in this case, so it might makes sense to avoid having pets in addition.

That may all sound very calculating, and it is. But when you start to involve other people in your plans (and even animals) it isn't really fair to not consider their needs in relation to yours. And freedom may not be the only important value here. You might decide that you value a stable family life enough to give up many of your previous liberties. This is why freedom has to be considered from an individual perspective, and balanced against other individual values. After all, you might theoretically have the most freedom in your life if you never marry, never commit to having pets or even house plants, make as much money in as short a time as possible, and avoid all family ties and meaningful relationships. But that might not meet your other needs.

Education is another way you can become more free. But this is not just about formal education or degrees. Those can help tremendously depending on your goals, but getting educated about how to sell or how to start and run businesses can be equally (if not more) liberating.

Spiritual and Psychological Freedom

Petro Malloni once said, "Your need to be liked by others gives power to everyone around you." Generally when you give power over yourself to others you are less free. Attachment to what others think of you limits your possibilities and constrains your freedom to be who you are (in the sense of being at your healthiest spiritually and/or psychologically).

This is also true of attachment to the whimsical desires of your own mind. When you place too much importance on what are in reality only temporary feelings and thoughts, you essentially become a slave to them. You might tell others that you are free to do what you like, while in reality you only do what your "lower mind" commands. The resolution to both of these kinds of limitations is found in psychological or spiritual practices and understandings. When you learn to acknowledge fear and act without regard to its wishes, for example, you become more free. To put that in a specific context, when you learn that your fear of rejection is nothing more than a feeling that does not serve you, you are then free to approach that stranger, ask for that job, or speak in front of that group.

Practical Freedom

To sum up the basic strategy suggested here, to be more free you can...

Choose to live in the city, state or country where you will have the most personally-important freedoms.

Make more money in ways that do not limit your liberties.

Spend less on what is unimportant, in order to have more money to buy the freedoms that matter to you.

Spend you money wisely in order to increase what you can do.

Arrange you life in ways that allow more of the possibilities that will most likely improve your life.

Get educated in ways that expand your potential possibilities for making a living.

Learn to get past the fear of disapproval from others.

Learn to see and get past the fears and ideas and feelings of your own conditioned mind.

There are other practical considerations that depend on the context of what's happening in your life and the world. You might need to have foreign bank accounts if you see tyranny coming to where you live, for example. You might even benefit from learning how to get away with breaking the law if the laws have become unjust and if they violate your rights. You might have to do battle with addictions to be free to live well and in good health. You might have to move away from those who would try to obligate you to work or live for their wishes against your own self interest. Above all (in case you missed it) if you want freedom you have to think about what that means to you as a practical matter, and act accordingly.

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Practical Freedom