I’ve written about the vastly incomplete political definitions used in debate. Perhaps the most common view of freedom, the Libertarian, voluntaryist, neo-liberal view, states that freedom is the absence of coercion. This connects to the concept of freedom1: a sort of fractured, incomplete freedom which assumes that coercive force is the only form of power that matters, that has any effect on society. If you start from that premise, then a person who is not subjected to any coercion is “free.”
I’ve given the example of a mafia going around breaking everyone’s legs, and then some merchants come and sell crutches at extortion prices. Obviously the breaking of the legs was coercive, but the extortion prices are not. The victims are now free1, in the sense that they are no longer under coercion, but they are not free in any complete sense because of the pre-existing conditions. They are no longer free to walk around without crutches, and the money required to buy the crutches.
The leg-breaking is, of course, an analogy to modern capitalism: a world which came about because most of the land of this world was stolen from its occupants and sold to the highest bidders. This modern pattern of property rights is now considered the default, the state of “freedom,” and any ideology which seeks to reshuffle the deck is called “an enemy of freedom.” Like all political concepts which reduce power to coercion, this freedom1 serves the main purpose of obscuring the role of conditioning and compensation as the prominent form of power in our modern societies. It’s a misdirection: look at the guns so you don’t look at the role of money flows or the media in shaping what we do, what we eat, what we think.
An alternative conception of freedom consists of saying that freedom is the ability to do what we want (some associate this with agency or choice: as I’ve pointed out many times before, agency and choice are nonsense, so not worth arguing against here). But there are problems with this view. Suppose that humans reproduce solely artificially, and that a geneticist manages to take control of the DNA of all future children. This geneticist decides to program all future humans to, for example, make it so that they can only desire things from a limited set of achievable things (like having a good meal, kicking a ball, or humming a tune). In this way, they intend to make everyone happy and fulfilled.
Then the question becomes, are these engineered humans free? After all, they can do whatever they want, because “what they want” is now a small set of achievable things. Clearly there is something incongruous about saying that these humans are free. On the other hand, we, as humans, are limited in the things we want, in a natural way. Just to take one amongst innumerable examples, we desire to eat a limited range of living organisms, because those taste good to us and it is customary for us to eat them in our societies. And yet we see nothing wrong with saying that we are no less free even if we do not desire to eat all living organisms.
Likewise, if someone cripples us and makes us unable to jump, we would say that we are unfree to that extent, but we do not commonly say that we are unfree because we are physically incapable of jumping 20 times our body length, like grasshoppers.
The difference, I think, is obvious: we accept biological necessity as the background of human action, but the actions of other people can make us unfree, even if they have the same general effect. This is because freedom is not only a personal concept but also a social concept, something which is missing in both the voluntaryist account and the desire-based account. The voluntaryist account equates rights with self-ownership and personal property, while the desire-based account equates rights with the fulfillment of personal desires. But it’s impossible to give an adequate account of freedom without taking into account the relation between the individual and the rest of society, as I believe my previous examples demonstrate.
The power differential between individuals is of great importance, most importantly the differential in conditioned power, that is to say, the ability to dictate what people desire. After all, what is the geneticist in my example doing but using an extremely direct and efficient form of indoctrination? The new humans born after the genetic change are not free because the geneticist has much more power in determining what they want than they themselves have over each other.
A voluntaryist might argue that what the geneticist is doing is a form of coercion, but it’s not clear at all why we should believe that. If a corporation molding our desires is not a form of coercion, then why would the geneticist’s actions? Furthermore, natalists are fond of reminding us that future people are irrelevant to ethical issues, and if one accepts this principle then the geneticist’s actions are completely unobjectionable.
We can say the same things about a similar situation, that of cult followers. Cult followers have been brainwashed so that their values are aligned with those of the cult. They desire what they’ve been brainwashed to desire. So does that mean cult followers are free? That seems to be hardly true. And a good hint is to ask this question: is the cult leader free? It is not the fact that the desires have been changed that is the issue, but the fact that one person (or a group of people) has the power to dictate what other people’s desires are. This is why power inequality is so important in order to answer these questions.
Only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels