This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
Today I’ll walk you through how I define freedom and give you three simple questions to measure how free you are. Afterward, I’ll apply these ideas to a few political issues.
Let’s get started!
My simple definition of freedom
Freedom is not just a bundle of vague concepts, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom is the ability to materially do what you want. With absolute freedom, you can do what you want, where you want, and with whom you want. (This says nothing about how your actions may trample other folks’ freedom. See Boundaries Made Simple and Rules For Respect.)
Now, freedom is not a binary thing, where you’re either free or in bondage. Freedom is a spectrum with no clear line1 separating the unencumbered from the bound. The question isn’t, “Are you free?” but “How free are you?”
3 questions to determine how free you are
- How much free time do you have each day?
(Fewer hours → less freedom.)
- How much time can you spend with loved ones?
(Forcibly separated families → less freedom.)
- How well and safe do you feel?
(Chronic illness → less freedom.)
Also, compare your freedom to the people closest to you. Are they less free than you? Or more?
Personally, I want to be free and consequently push for reforms that give others more freedom. This sounds vague so let’s get concrete and briefly explore three political topics: healthcare access, net worth, and marriage equality.
Access to healthcare is freedom
When you’re sick, you’re less free than when you’re well. And chronic illness severely limits what you can do. But what’s worse is chronic illness and no health insurance.
Folks without health insurance routinely:
- Go without preventable care and get sicker long-term.
- Delay going to the doctor when they’re unwell.
- Forgo necessities to pay exorbitant medical bills.
Access to healthcare is freedom.
So, where does the US rank? Let’s look at life and death:
- Life expectancy: Japan ranks 2nd. The US ranks 43rd.
- Maternal mortality: Norway has 2 deaths per 100,000 live births. The US has 19.
- Infant mortality: Japan has 1.9 deaths per 1,000 births. The US has 5.3.
People in the US are less free than folks in most developed countries. But we could change that with universal healthcare.
High net worth equals freedom
High net worth individuals have more free time than poor folks and, therefore, more freedom. They can take a week off (or a month) from their labors and hire others to do their jobs for them. Wealthy people also hire others to clean their homes, manage their yards, and take care of their children, which frees up even more time.
Furthermore, affluent folks have more options for how they spend their free time. Maybe it’s a day lounging by the pool or a trip to Florida, California, or even Europe. Or perhaps they want to learn how to speak Italian, fly planes, or scuba dive. Whatever they want to do, tutors and trainers await.
Contrast that with poor people who have no savings and work multiple minimum-wage jobs. They get few days off from work and spend their non-work hours doing domestic chores and taking care of children. And they spend their free time doing inexpensive things, like watching tv, visiting parks, and eating out.
Here’s a breakdown of household wealth from the US Census Bureau:
- The 25th percentile has $5,608 in wealth.
- The 50th percentile is 18 times richer than the 25th.
- The 90th percentile is 216 times richer than the 25th.
Net worth strongly correlates with opportunity. And free time. And freedom.
So let’s fix this. Here are a few ideas:
- Make public college tuition-free
- Raise the minimum wage to $20 per hour
- Implement UBI or Yang’s Freedom Dividend and give each adult $1,000/month
(The Alaska Permanent Fund2 is an example of UBI.)
Marriage equality is freedom
Being with the people you love is a matter of freedom. Just imagine someone took your spouse, parents, or children from you. How would you feel? What lengths would you go to to get them back?
Now, back when my wife and I were dating (and discussing marriage), it would’ve been beyond cruel to forbid us to marry. I don’t want unreasonable restrictions3 on whom I spend my life with, limiting my freedom. So how can I dictate whom others marry?
Consequently, every couple—regardless of gender—deserves the option to get married. Marriage equality is freedom.
Freedom is the ability to materially do what you want. And you can quantify your freedom with three simple questions:
- How many hours of free time do you have each day?
- How many hours do you get to spend with loved ones?
- How often do you feel well and safe?
Personally, I’m working toward increasing my freedom by improving my health (no more sweets!) and saving money (so I can work fewer hours in the coming years).
Now, I have some advantages—or privileges—that make this possible. I’ve always had health insurance, which was incredibly beneficial during severe health issues. The demand for computer programmers is high, and therefore I earn a livable wage. And there’s no legal or cultural opposition to my wife and I being together.
These privileges, or freedoms, give me the means to make improvements and secure more freedom in the future.
But not everyone is so fortunate. In the US, there are 552,8304 homeless people and 34 million people living in poverty5. They are materially less free than the rest of us. Furthermore, they have very few means to extricate themselves from their impoverished station.
Consequently, I vote for people and policies that seek to level the playing field. But more importantly, I talk to the people around me—who care a lot about freedom—and show them how freedom is more than just fuzzy concepts, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom is spending time how you wish. Freedom is being with loved ones and having access to healthcare. And in this world, with all of its abundance, no one should be unfree.
There’s no clear line that determines when someone transforms from free to unfree, just as there’s no clear demarcation for when a puppy becomes a dog, a boy becomes a man, or a glass of water becomes full. These are examples of the Sorites paradox. ↩
From wikipedia.org: “As of 2019, the fund was worth approximately $64 billion that has been funded by oil revenues and has paid out an average of approximately $1,600 annually per resident (adjusted to 2019 dollars).” ↩
One reasonable restriction is ensuring that both parties can consent, e.g., they’re of legal age and sound mind. ↩