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Freedom and Systems
It's all Interconnected
The “F Word” is on a continuum so please know wtf you mean when you invoke it.
Freedom is a funny thing.
It means something unique to anyone who hears it, but it’s a concept invoked in essentially every argument about the value systems in the United States.
It’s worth stating that every country in the world has brilliant people passionately debating about cultural values, what it truly means to be a citizen, and how best to govern, but (for better or worse) - I’ll assert that nobody cares about the “F word” like Americans.
Not about the concept, mind you - there’s plenty of people out there dealing with the pursuit of Freedom who care about it in a much more existential way than the median US citizen (although we’re definitely flirting with the loss of Freedom now).
Not sure what I mean?
It’s not exactly wrong, but it is a conveniently disingenuous take on the extremely complex subject of how the world came to be what it is today. There’s a lot of extremely dark parts of U.S. history that uh…don’t really fit Reagan’s shining city on a hill narrative. With just a little bit of digging, it’s pretty clear that throughout most of American history (including today) every sociological, political, ideological, religious (or non-), and well pretty much every type of minority group in the U.S. has straight up not had a good time at some point.
It’s also tough for clear-eyed folks to say the U.S. is the greatest country in the world (at least right now) with a straight face when you look at the data. This dramatic monologue went viral 10 years ago and most of the points are still salient (if a bit America redpilled). The U.S. doesn’t break the top 10 on quality of life indices (though these are admittedly the best bad solution for measuring something so nebulous), wealth disparities among the population are still pretty wild, and the only place you’re more likely to die by a gun (outside a warzone) than you are in the U.S. is Brazil.
Also, and perhaps even most importantly, the greatest potential vessel for lifting us all out of this mess:
Not super great distinctions to have.
So anyway with that contextual grounding, I’ve been thinking about this stuff since I watched the haze from the fireworks fade and felt the Coors Light in my bloodstream finally metabolize into its prime components on the 4th of July.
I’ve been wrapped up in the question of how to explore the concept of freedom in a way that respects the thorny (but very real) issue that its definition(s) and connotation(s) are very much up for debate.
So I started intellectualizing.
Freedom (when used as a political cudgel in the US) usually means one of two ideas.
There’s a version of freedom that’s the fever dream of every anarcho-libertarian wannabe poster child of living off the grid, self sufficient in a mountain cabin somewhere in the not quite Pacific Northwest existing alone af (but also with an internet connection probably). Web3 is filled with this type of vision. It’s clearly the worldview du jour of our technocapitalist overlords. It’s sort of the platform of the modern Republican party when they’re not distracted by hating something.
Full disclosure - I like parts of this idea.
This freedom evokes economic concepts of lower/no taxes, less regulation, and “smaller” government (unfortunately often vaguely defined - do they still want roads and stuff?), while mostly pretending there isn’t a social component of Freedom (again I guess because you’re living so far away from other people you can punt the decisions around how to interactions equitable while acknowledging all the baggage of history).
This is a very real vision many people have of what I call Freedom from Other People.
The default implementation of this freedom is existing outside of a system.
Why? Because the purpose of societal systems (even in the “best” case) is to shift resources and impose policies defined in some way by ostensibly you, but in reality mostly defined by the other people that are part of that system.
There’s potentially a lot of benefit to existing within a society (laws, customs, niceties, parks, roads, and government services, etc), but these matter to you much less when you refuse to participate in their reward. Advocating for this state of the world implies a basic amount of freedom of choice as a result of resource accrual (ie. you can’t move to a cabin in the woods if you can’t afford a cabin…or to learn how to be self-sufficient). That’s why strong protection of property rights tend to be pretty important among this crowd (of which I am also a fan), yet the discussion often conveniently ignores that the legal history of the evolution of property rights is also the legal history of how we treated humans as property as well as used race and conquest as the core justification for a lot of important judicial decisions that we still refer to now as precedent. There’s a fuck ton of baggage there.
What’s my point? Go ahead - proselytize this ideal (I certainly do), but do it in the no shit context of how we’ve gotten to today’s version of it.
Maybe a healthy chunk of that “precedent” is from an era that we want to take less guidance from, yeah?
It shouldn’t hurt egos to acknowledge that while people like Teddy Roosevelt have ended up as pop culture and political symbols, we might not want to embrace their perspective on every issue today. Even if he’s just “a man of his time”, few reasonable debaters want to defend the actual positions he held.
Take this 1901 message from the president on the “stewardship” of the Philippines as a US territory.
“History may safely be challenged to show a single instance in which a masterful race such as ours, having been forced by the exigencies of war to take possession of an alien land, has behaved to its inhabitants with the disinterested zeal for their progress that our people have shown in the Philippines. To leave the islands at this time would mean that they would fall into a welter of murderous anarchy.”
If you didn’t catch it, the “masterful race such as ours” means the massive room full of the white dudes allowed to make decisions for society and the “murderous anarchy” was what would happen if those white dudes stopped owning and governing the Philippines (until they were “ready” of course).
Of course we should acknowledge that presidencies are complex campaigns with multiple distinct demands on the time, energy, and resources of the Federal government, but we can also decide that we would (and should) take a different approach to “nation-building” if we could go back and edit history using the ideas we know now.
Same with the rest of Teddy’s legacy. We eventually made it through that period of history, but without a doubt we could do better if we gave it another shot.
So anyway Freedom from Other People is one pretty important way people think about the F word.
The other side of the FreedomCoin is the freedom to live how you want to, typically with a baseline level of support to sustain some standard of living.
Implicitly, this is freedom while existing within a system. When you can’t meaningfully “escape” a system, the next best thing is to improve your quality of life inside of it. It’s a compromise (like all societies have made throughout the course of history) between individual freedoms and shared costs and the reflexivity between the two. .
Minimum wages, SNAP benefits, labor unions, universal basic incomes…these are the types of economic tools that this kind of freedom leverages to implement its goals.
Interestingly, it’s the implementation of the support that people generally criticize when offended by this version of Freedom. Naturally, when extended beyond establishing a “baseline” quality of life you rightfully will get dogpiled on like the caricature of “adult day cares” like this TikTok about working at LinkedIn explores or how tech has been subsidizing “necessities” like food delivery. There’s also plenty of arguing about the establishing what “baseline” means.
There’s also probably a thoughtful discussion to be had around the tipping point between how hard it is to change an existing system vs building a new one and bringing everyone else over to it. We’re not gonna have that discussion (yet!).
So obviously this has a social aspect too. Arguably, it’s the more important half of this type of Freedom because if voting in the U.S. was isolated to laws about economic support structures - the white working class [who we all thought of reflexively when I mentioned quasi-libertarian economic philosophy] would in reality usually vote for policies focused on this getting more and more of this Freedom like they used to do.
Now there’s plenty of terrible content about the social and cultural wars that this type of freedom inspires. If you’re pre-cringing at another rant about screaming pussy liberal blue haired podcast hosts or Punisher symbol bedazzled Joe Roganites, then we’re on the same page about what I’m not going to explore.
I’m linking to a very high quality exploration of the internet culture wars.
If you can spare 20 minutes, check this out and you’ll have a data driven handle on what the hell has happened with online culture since 2010.
The fascinating state of the world is one where a lot of people really like Freedom to Live how you want populist economic policies, while also strongly identifying with a Freedom from other People social persona.
Or said even more generally a lot of people love anti-identifying with the “cancel culture” aspects often associated with Freedom to Live How You Want ideas around race, feminism, sexuality, and the pejorative quasi-fictional boogeyman of SJW’s.
Systems as the Dominant Variable
Freedom for most people in most times of history in most places of the world is functionally a question of degrees of movement within a System.
I can already hear the jaw-gnashing ferocity bubbling up against this functionally “evil” state of the world where a lazy and ill-equipped governing body is ruthlessly extracting from John Galt titan’s of technology and industry to capture a permanent seat of power to subvert the populace and I want you to take a deep breath and choke back the reflexive accusation of “Communism” that might be tickling the back of your throat.
We’re also going to step away from our decentralization maximalism.
We both know it’s just a conveniently anti-System ideology wrapped in some technical jargon spewing out of a pseudo-anon Twitter account trying to rationalize their tax avoidance via shitposting from Puerto Rico.
We’re just going to look at why the systems (and the State) maybe should exist sometimes.
Building a society is a balance between the disparate and varied administrative needs of the state and the singular desires of an individual.
Most things don’t happen fast.
They definitely don’t happen spontaneously.
This isn’t revelatory.
Constructive activities need some sort of activation energy, some sort of planning function, some sort of execution process, some sort of funding to finance it all, and some sort of review mechanism to sustain the thing.
Sometimes, those pieces come into existence as the bureaucratic organs of the Uncle Sam State groan and heave and exhale and are funded by taxes on those living within a Society.
(Also funded by taxes on those living within a Society except these are a flavor of taxes called fees and market prices and they exist somewhere on a spectrum of voluntary depending on ecosystem wide supplier dynamics and the necessity to life of any individual thing or service or existence within the Society)
Systems are societies in and of themselves and generally have the same incentive structures as Society with a big “S” (aka the State).
This incentive structure basically amounts to “not die” (or grow).
Why does this matter?
Nor do they care about much other than retaining the right to exercise violence within the legal adminostructures for which they enforce.
Of course, we gotta restrain that shooty “Put Everyone Else Into Jail Free” card somehow.
The history of authority and its sources of legitimacy is fascinating, but not why we’re here. It’s just important to realize that the presence of the looming threat (or the Constitutionally Imbued Responsibility depending on how brownshirty you feel that day) of force is an important factor in the degree of follow through and conviction a system can muster when trying to accomplish goals and activities.
Society (Big “S”) is just a regular system where decision-makers have an expanded decision set compared to those operating within the system.
Societies (Little “S”) are the cumulative sum of all the interconnections, actions, and perspectives between actors operating under a set of generally shared assumptions - some strong form and some weak form - over a period of time in the pursuit of some class of goals aka the cultural barnacles that attach and remix on top of each other often within a system.
Sometimes Society has systems within it.
Sometimes systems have societies within them.
Sometimes Society has systems with societies within them that socialize how Society has bad systems that are destroying Society, but those societies sometimes socialize with sympathetic societies solely so it’s a struggle to supervise and source these sociocultural sojourns soberly.
The logic of systems also applies to societies and to Society and the State too.
It’s systems all the way down, except you can go really far down with the capital letter ones.
So Now We Can Argue About Muh Freedoms
There are some truths about systems (and now societies and Society) that we can tease out.
Systems matter because we exist within them whether we want to or not unless we explicitly extricate ourselves from them both geographically and administratively which requires time, resource, and effort expenditures as well as sacrifice, motivation, and a sense of agency (Balaji’s The Network State explores this well).
Systems exist because as a group we sometimes value group benefits over individual costs.
Systems are born all the time.
Systems are much harder to kill than they are to create.
Systems persist in a stagnant form for a long time (potentially forever) before death.
System Bureaucracy is a self-motive force that is driven by system preservation and that’s a feature not a bug (stability over progress is an effective local maximization strategy).
It is probable (and even likely) that most parts of a well designed complex system provide zero utility to most of the people existing within said system.
This setup is actually potentially the optimal one when you have a disparate and varied population set with disparate and varied needs and values (hint hint USA). (It’s only wasteful when you have a homogenous population set with with similar needs and values that would be better served by a mono- or narrow solution).
Clearly Freedom from Other People is only approximate-able while within a system since other people exist (and probably regularly infringe on your personal liberties in various ways in day to day life).
But also, by understanding a little bit about systems, we can see that efforts towards establishing Freedom to Live How You Want with Baseline Support can totally unravel into unsustainable chaos as wealth transfers totally undercut productivity through free-riders and moral hazards and other $5 words.
So how do we create systems that support freedom within them?
I, a congenitally self-centered essay man, think it comes down to nailing a few things.
Establishing explicit and clear costs and rewards of actions.
Equality of opportunity (especially via education and contextualization) to incur those costs and retain those rewards.
Equality of outcome per unit of quality effort.
We have to live in systems if we work with people.
The solutions to doing this better than we do today require actions, feedback loops, and deliberately quick iteration.
Without a system design that starts with the three small, but mighty ideas most of the effort results in value capture by incumbents instead of value creation by the next billion bright minds.
If more value is captured than is created, then over time both kinds of Freedom are constrained.
I hope this added value to your day.
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