State of Mankind

A New Way Of Thinking

How Free Are We?

It may seem a little silly at first, but this is an honest question of mine.  I feel pretty free.  I can pretty much do whatever I want to, but what if I decide I want to do something a little different?  Start a small business?  Run a biodiesel cooperative?  What if I want to smoke, or smoke dope, or sell alcohol?  Suddenly we hit some gray areas where government, local and federal, have a very heavy hand.  I, or someone I know has had first-hand experience with each of these.  So let’s explore this a little.  First we’ll look at two competing concepts of freedom, then we’ll look at how other societies treated these concepts, and finally how we, here in the U. S. are currently doing.  The following is from

Imagine you are driving a car through town, and you come to a fork in the road.  You turn left, but no one was forcing you to go one way or the other.  Next you come to a crossroads.  You turn right, but no one was preventing you from going left or straight on.  There is no traffic to speak of and there are no diversions or police roadblocks.  So you seem, as a driver, to be completely free.  But this picture of your situation might change quite dramatically if we consider that the reason you went left and then right is that you’re addicted to cigarettes and you’re desparate to get to the tobacconists before it closes.  Rather than driving, you feel you are being driven, as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right.  Moreover, you’ll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much.  You long to be free of this irrational desire that is not only threatening your longevity but is also stopping you right now from doing what you think you ought to be doing.

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty.  On the one hand, one can  think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent.  You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do.  In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free.  On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent.  To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests.  In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree:  you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests.  One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

 To fully understand the implications of this parable, it is important to understand the symbolism.  You driving the car is compared to you and your life.  The fork(s) in the road are decisions you must make.  The roads are your civil liberties (all the paths you could choose).  Your desire to smoke represents personal, or situational disadvantages that prevent you from getting where you want to be. 

The question at hand is how far should government go toward leading you to the right place?  In the story, a government might be a guide and detour you to the train station instead of the smoke shop.  In this way, it has freed you from your addiction and gotten you where you wanted to go.  Collectivist societies tend to view freedom in this way.  If we can guide the people to do the right thing for the whole, then everyone will be free from the effects of the poor decisions and vices that people generally have.  Individualist societies would quickly ask, what is the right thing? Government in their view is to focus on keeping the roads open.   They tend to focus on civil liberties and may suggest that the driver in our story became addicted to tobacco of his own free will. They may suggest that freedom includes the right to self-destructive behavior.

I have to interject here, that in my belief, we can have the best of both worlds, if the state focuses on civil liberties and the “Community of Interests” focuses on personal behaviors.  The government gives me the right to do whatever I want so long as it picks no one’s pocket or breaks anyone’s leg.  The church can suggest to me that smoking is bad and will cause me to lose freedom.

So where are we in the United States?  Our founding was based on the civil liberties view of freedom.  Government was to only prevent people from hurting or stealing from each other and keep all other roads open.  Now, we have many laws, regulations, and a huge system of sticks and carrots called the tax code. (16,845 pages of tax code according to an entertaining study at  As for laws and regulations, we have 160,000 pages of them from the federal government alone, according to John Stossel  If we go back to our story of driving a car, I would have to say that we haven’t directly closed a lot of roads in the United States, but we have created a lot of toll roads, and some roads we’ll pay you to get on.  We definitely aren’t the Soviet Union where an armed guard will shoot you for a wrong turn, but we also are very committed to guiding your actions.  Want to smoke?  There’s a sin tax.  Will you buy a hybrid?  There’s an incentive.  Would you like to start a business or run a biodiesel cooperative?  It’s often very difficult and expensive to know you are within the law.

How free are we?  It’s difficult to know.  Is the soft tyranny of financial incentives any different than the hard tyranny of the barrel of a gun?  What if I want to go somewhere the planners have forbidden?  I guess we all have to decide this individually.  If you choose wrong, I’ll charge you $5.00.

“If you have 10,000 regulations, you destroy all respect for law.” -Winston Churchill


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  1. Troy B.

     /  April 8, 2012

    A government that ‘encourages’ me to make the right choice through the force of authority is no government for me. I voted against such a government before and I will continue to vote against such governments now. However, at what point is it proper for a government to step in when self-destructive behavior is concerned? For example, drinking alcohol to excess is an action I personally believe is self-destructive. Doing such an act though is permissible to the government so long as the person doing so does not get behind the wheel or does not allow his or her drinking to facilitate other crimes. It is perfectly legal to get ‘blitzed’ in the privacy of your home and on a regular basis.

    However, can such an action undertaken in the privacy of your home actually infringe upon the life, liberty, and property of others? What if the person doing so needs a new liver or other medical care many years from now. This care is likely to be paid through a government program (i.e., my taxes) or through private insurance (i.e., higher premiums for me). But the person would be denied a liver if he or she were an alcoholic you say? Ok, fair enough, what if the person stumbles while drunk through a sliding glass door? Again intensive medical care is needed that he or she is most likely unable to pay for and again we come back to a government program or insurance.

    What if this person becomes unemployed through his or her drinking and becomes divorced or estranged from their spouse and children. These people in many cases may rely on government assistance to help them cover the cost of living that the drunk formerly provided. These are just a couple examples.

    Back to the analogy. My first response is make sure ALL roads are open and in good repair. If the woman wants to smoke, then by all means make sure she can get there. However, if we can demonstrate the woman’s actions infringe on the rights of others, then that road should be closed forthwith. Which I think we can prove or demonstrate, but is the proof enough?

    I am all over the place!! Sorry about that.

    • Brinton

       /  April 11, 2012


      This is great! If I understand your questions correctly, I believe we are on roughly the same page. Reading your comment as a whole, I believe you are seeing the inherent conflict between collective programs and individual liberties. If we follow the logic to its natural ends, we either have to control people’s personal choices, or go back to a system of free market consequences (each pays for his own medical help when he either needs a liver or falls through the door). Perhaps this is why our leaders (mainly from Pres. Grant through Hunter) consistently asked church members to stand up for free market principles.


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