Practical freedom

May 7, 2015

People like to talk about freedom. Especially when they get into politics. (We’re not getting into politics here; stay with me.) The idea of freedom is bandied about with nary a thought as to what it actually means.

The truth is that most people in developed, first world, democratic countries are able to do pretty much anything a reasonable person might want to do. Yes, their freedom to murder and pillage is curtailed, but I think most of us find that a reasonable trade-off for a more civilized (i.e. less murdery) society.

But in other areas of life, it’s all up to you. Let’s take the most common example: Jobs. If you want to quit your job, you’re free to do so, within the bounds of any employment contracts you’ve willingly signed.

You’re also free to accept the consequences.

The problem comes when a person’s alternatives aren’t tenable. They may have absolute freedom of choice, but they don’t have practical freedom. They don’t have the actionable freedom to choose when all but one of their choices are catastrophic.

Imagine if you have a mortgage, and two kids, and two cars you owe money on, and student loans, and a little consumer debt from that vacation you and your spouse took overseas. Also, imagine you’re the one earning most of the money for the family.

For some of you, this might not take much imagination.

You have a job. You’re pulling in enough to make ends meet, but not by much. Now imagine your boss asks you to do something that comes into conflict with your deeply held moral beliefs.

You have two choices: compromise your morals, or plunge your family into a stressful financial crisis.

The choice is yours. You can absolutely choose either option. But neither is great, and I know which one most end up choosing.

(Spoiler alert: They compromise their morals. You might say you wouldn’t, and you may be right, but in the working trenches, it’s not always so clear cut. Morals get compromised by inches, so you never even realize you’re miles away from where you began.)

But there’s another option. If you have low overhead, if you’re living in a small house, if you’re driving a used (and paid for) car, if you don’t have debt from that vacation (but you still took it, and you still have two kids, because that’s important to you) … what if you come to that crossroads, where your boss asks you to compromise your morals, when you have money in the bank?

Suddenly, you can make that choice. Both options are tenable. You can chose either without being instantly ruined. Now you can make the choice not based on fear, but based on what’s right inside.

Absolute freedom is absolutely necessary for the choice to exist at all. But without actionable freedom, too often one choice will be all but cut off, and people will choose what’s best in the short term, even if it drives us all down a dark road in the future.

This isn’t a scary story. It’s a hopeful one. Work toward actionable freedom, so if you’re ever asked to cross a line you don’t want to cross, you can afford to tell the world to fuck off, rather than bow your head and submit like a slave.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.