Choices don't Give Liberty—Being Free of them Does


Same joke as last time - I was really angry about the election while drawing the sketchbook page both cartoons appeared on.

Same joke as last time - I was really angry about the election while drawing the sketchbook page both cartoons appeared on.

You've been detained as a political dissident. The secret police have you strapped to a table, hooded and naked. You are in a torture chamber. Heinous abuses too traumatic to contemplate have been threatened you. A single chance to save yourself and restore your previous life has been offered—your tormentor is demanding that you say, “Uncle!”

Freedom has confused us for centuries. While it originally distinguished slaves from their owners the difference was a hazy one even in ancient times. Some slaves, of imperial households, say, enjoyed wealth and privilege far exceeding most freemen—eunuchs in imperial China castrated themselves to be so lucky. Some freedmen continued to serve their masters after formal manumission—some became slave owners themselves. Some slaves worked as overseers to others. So, what makes any of us free?

The Stoics believed in the sage. You could torture him the rest of his life without his agony ever compelling him to act against his own virtuous will—how could pain trouble one who ascertained the divine order of the cosmos? He would remain free even shackled to the instruments of his torment. And, as freedom was both necessary and sufficient for happiness, he would of course be happy. The philosophers that risked being thrown in the emperor's dungeon depending on how arbitrarily mad at them he was took great solace in such notions—the average reader is less convinced.

In reality, it'd be the easiest thing in the world to make the Stoic say, “uncle.” Torture attacks its victim's willpower because it's physiologically determined and easy to undermine. Our ability to resist—whether by enlightened reason, or blind, passionate obstinacy—ceases to function when deprived of sleep for 72-hours, or when injected with a cocktail of mind-bending drugs. Victim's are scarcely aware of what they're being compelled to by the time they finally crack. To suppose one's dignity and integrity can go untrammeled by concrete violence is wishful thinking.

The justice offered by modern Liberalism is essentially the same thing abstracted. Just as the Stoic claims we are made free by deciding how we meet our fate—including torture—the Liberal believes we are made free by deciding how we meet impersonal market forces—like poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

Suppose you make a pittance. What happens to what little you manage to scrimp? Do you gamble on needing health insurance knowing the policy's lawyers might fuck you? Or do you invest in a pension knowing free-market shenanigans might wipe it out? Moot points: you are probably deciding which of your debts is most alarming. Liberalism insists that we are free because we make such choices—this, despite that they are usually interrogations of our own hopelessness.

Let's compare two scenarios. In the first, I'm compelled to dine for free at Fraser Cafe, every night, where I shall be served chef's choice with my sommelier's wine pairings. In the second scenario, I must choose between having my hands broken by a hammer, or a vice. Does the second scenario afford me more freedom because it includes a choice? No, the first does, because my hands remain unbroken.

The apparent lack of choice is compensated by the more abstract freedom of having hands. Moreover, I have always preferred chef's choice not merely because I trust my gastronomic artisan's good judgment, but because remaining untroubled by the menu frees me to enjoy myself.

The appearance of choice usually entails abstract coercion. Who is it that gets to decide that my hands are to be broken? Liberalism neglects that there is a balance of forces outside ourselves deciding the ultimatums we are faced with.

Were I genuinely free—say, had I a hundred billion dollars—I would remain untroubled by the decisions poor people have forced on them. Instead of decisions, I'd have whims—bored by my pink personal jet? How about a black monster truck!? Weary of my Hawaiian island? How about my private brothel!?

A rich person can refuse to make up their mind how to paint their home and their interior designer will have to decide for them—and then, if they choose wrong, the rich person has the right to excoriate them for professional incompetence. This is how choice functions. Choice implies having to navigate a maze of anxieties. It's a mental representation of how we apprehend danger and violence.

Deciding between the hammer and the vice is actually worse than having your hands broken because it makes you complicit in the crimes against you. As long as you are encouraged to punish your own choices with a false sense of responsibility, you will not hold accountable those who forced them on you.

Take Veganism and fair-trade coffee. Multinational corporations have the power to dictate modes of production to helpless workers across the globe—to build international supply chains and to fabricate market demand—yet, it's the struggling, indebted artists who have to take responsibility for keeping animal products and child slavery out of their cappuccinos. The boardroom executives paid to make these decisions go scot-free.

Rather than forcing the impoverished to spend their nights researching commodities to assuage their conscience—as if they reliable information of trade secrets could be obtained in the era of covert advertising—how about we force corporations to obey just laws and respect our rights?

Why should people who might be thrown out of work and onto the street themselves at any moment have to take responsibility for charity when those who decide to turf entire workforces could easily foot the bill for everyone's basic needs? The product offered by charities is that the class of people empowered to give to them, on a whim, may assuage their guilt for not accepting a general, mandatory redistribution that would make charity unnecessary. Owning whether or not others starve, that's freedom.

Liberalism is a nightmare at it's most benign: Be yourself! Express your identity! Do what you believe in! Try new things! Redefine yourself!—all bullshit. Were any of this valid, we wouldn't need it shouted at us in the imperative—we would behave according to our own agency absent-minded and untroubled. These slogans exist to reinforce our anxieties over whether our choices have betrayed us. Unless you have a hundred billion dollars—yes. That's what they were designed to do.