A Short Guide to Practical Freedom
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
To sum up the basic strategy suggested here, to be more free
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.