Cambridge Prosociality and Well-Being Lab

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The price of freedom: Opportunities and possibilities?

by Alex 12. May 2013 12:24

Today's post has very little to do with psychology and nothing to do with our research. Instead, its more of a musing of mine on society. But this is why we have a blog :-p. 


I did quite a bit of my growing up in the United States, where one of the big cultural tenets is the virtue of freedom and independence. Being able to choose what you do, when you do it, how you do it--and not depending on others (like the government) to live your life. Freedom and independence are often contrasted with tyranny, socialism, communism, etc; these messages ring powerfully and intuitively sensible--after all, who doesn't want to have control and dominion over their own life? Who wants others regulating what we can do and how we can do it? Another very popular idea/expression is that freedom isn't free--see above coffee mug :-p. And this is typically used to encourage Americans to support the military.

Recently, I was inspired to think about these ideas a bit differently, reflecting on who are the most free and independent people in the world. My best answer are hunter-gatherers: People living in very small-scale, loosely organized social groups, where at least in some cases, people are completely self-sufficient (at least as a family unit). They hunt/gather their own food, make their own clothes and shelter, and have few social rules/obligations to constrain how they do this. (Side point: my anthropology friends will be quick to point out that many hunter-gatherer societies have a great deal of interdependence and the tribe is a very important unit of organization, but forgive my simplification for the broader point I'm making.) And this was the predominant organizational structure of our societies up until about 10,000 years ago. Then agriculture hit.

The agricultural revolution transformed societies. Now people could produce far more food than they could consume, allowing others to not worry about food production and go do other things. New jobs appeared: craftsmen, artists, politicians, scientists--just to name a few. And societies have marched on since then, getting exceedingly more complex, offering more and more possibilities to its citizens for the types of work (and play!) people can engage in. But what strikes me here is that these possibilities emerge out of a growing interdependence of people. I can be a scientist, but that is only possible because I can rely on others to raise the crops and animals which I can eat, to build roads on which I travel, to construct the shelter in which I live, etc. People gave up any semblance of self-sufficiency as they moved from a society where they truly provided for their own needs to a society where they must rely on countless others to meet those needs. 

This is a fascinating paradox: From this perspective, losing freedom and independence in favor of greater interdependence (and societies with increasing number of rules and regulations) has allowed people to have many, many more opportunities and possibilities for how they live their lives. At its core, the paradox exists because we can never be free of our biological needs and constraints. We all need to eat and sleep--and to a certain degree, have shelter. So any form of survival has to start with addressing how are these needs met. If we truly want to free and independent, we have made these needs our masters--which pre-agriculture, consumed quite a bit of time and energy from everyone, leaving little time for much else. 

So perhaps its not freedom and independence that we want, but rather the opportunity to pursue our goals and dreams. Interestingly, I'd suggest this is most possible in societies where people aren't very free in terms of their money. I have an education bias being an educator by trade; so its no surprise I believe that education (especially higher education) is a vitally important for many of the more complex jobs in our societies (typically the ones that pay the most money, are most respected, and attract the greatest interest). In a society where people are afforded more freedom in how they choose to spend their money (e.g. lower taxes), paying for education falls on individuals (see the US as an example). But this creates a serious barrier of entry, and now many people who qualify academically to enter university, decide or are forced to decide against it because of the lack of funds. In contrast, societies that give people less freedom over how they spend their money (so higher taxes) can offer free education at the university level, removing a major barrier to many students, and creating greater opportunity. Less freedom with money can allow societies to create more opportunities for its people by creating public goods and services.

I find this opportunity out of interdependence especially true in my own work. At the end of the day, my main job is to do research. And academia provides some of the greatest freedoms to people to manage their own time and the work that they do. I effectively run my own intellectual adventure and don't really have any sort of boss to answer to on a regular basis. At least thats the surface. When you look more deeply, you find that since academic jobs are so scarce, people have virtually no control over WHERE they are going to work--spin the globe and hope you land somewhere nice. I was lucky enough to land in Cambridge; I could have just as easily landed in Montana (my apologies to anyone from Montana). Research is also almost completely dependent on our ability to get grants from the government and private donors. Research costs a lot of money to do. So my lab--and every other lab--is very much dependent on the wisdom, kindness, and vision of governments and private donors to invest in research. While I am quite free to choose what we study, it better be something of worth to society and something that we can publish--and publish a lot. Otherwise, this intellectual adventure will be cut short all too quickly. Furthermore, the ability of my lab to do work would completely disappear without the support we get from every layer of the university--from administrators in and out of the department, to the estates staff, to campus security, on and on and on. I get to do my absolute dream job, but I am far from free and independent--in fact, I find myself extremely interdependent with society as a whole, the university, and my many close colleagues and collaborators.

Elizabeth Warren--now Senator of Massachusetts and previously law professor at Harvard--made a beautiful point along this same sort of thinking. She talked about how people feel extremely successful if they create a company and it does well. And there is an instinct here to say, look at what I've done on my own; I should keep the fruits of my labor. But as Mrs. Warren points out, virtually any business functions because of a reliance on services and infrastructure that the broader society has paid for. You build a factory, great, but you will surely be using the roads, railroads, ports, etc. that were built with the collective goods of society and that now the factory can use to be successful. The factory could not possibly survive on its own; it can only work through interdependence with the broader structure of society. 

So what is the price of freedom? Well, if by freedom, we mean moving our societies towards more individual autonomy, self-sufficiency, and less reliance on the broader social structure, it may very well mean fewer opportunities and possibilities for people. But if by freedom we mean people having fair and multifaceted opportunities and possibilities to pursue their passions, I'd suggest we should strive to maintain--and expand--the interdependence of our societies and the public goods and services that collective, coordinated, NON-autonomous action can bring. 


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