Bob Dylan never spoke or sang truer than when he sang that you’ve gotta serve somebody in his perhaps most notable track as a born-again mainstream Christian. Try as humanity might, it is impossible to be fully free. Indeed, some forms of freedom, to the extent that we pursue them, lead to more and more absolute levels of slavery in other facets. Since this is a fact that is not well understood, it is worthwhile to spend at least a bit of time on this matter before we progress to the implications of this inability to achieve absolute freedom and how this influences our actions accordingly. It is easy to see that people want to be free and at least so far as we have it recorded, have always wanted to be free, but the implications of this have seldom been examined. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was wrong about very many things, stated that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” He was only right about the second part.
After all, the most obvious thing about mankind is that we are not born free at all. If you look at babies and toddlers and small children, the most obvious facts of their existence are their helpelessness and dependence and vulnerability. A great many of us find children to be adorable in large part because of these qualities, but properly speaking babies and small children are not free in any meaningful sense of the word. They begin life unable to communicate except by crying out in pain and frustration in the hope that someone, anyone, will listen and attend to their needs. They cannot bathe themselves or feed or clothe themselves, much less reason properly. In most advanced societies it can be two or three decades before young people are expected to provide for themselves in terms of earning enough money to pay for their expenses. A great many people never learn enough or are skeptical enough of the frequently mistaken information they get from the outside world to be mentally free or develop enough impulse control to be emotionally free of unhealthy and unproductive behaviors. Nor are men born free in any collective sense as well, as the creation of new towns and cities and colonies and nations and religious movements and institutions all involve various sorts of debts to the past that we draw upon to create something ourselves. We cannot escape influence, nor can we escape some sort of gratitude to others for having helped us to succeed if in fact we manage to do so.
There are many facets to being free, and these facets are often at odds with each other. To the extent that we wish to be free of fear and insecurity and poverty and need, we tend to band together with other people of like mind in whom we can have some confidence that our interests and well-being will be respected and regarded by others. But in doing so we enslave ourselves to obedience to some sort of common code of behavior that allows others to have confidence in our own behavior with others. To the extent that we desire to be free of external constraint, be it religious or familial or societal, we become enslaved to fear and the negative externalities of both our own lusts and evil desires and that of other people who then find in us a more vulnerable and attractive target than we would be as part of a larger whole. If we desire a certain degree of well-being and security in the world, any decrease in external coercion that limits our freedom must be replaced by the same degree of internal self-restraint and self-government unless we or others are to suffer harm as a result of the greater freedom to do evil. Likewise, if we cannot rely upon self-government as an effective check to bad behavior for ourselves and others, we will be less free to the extent that we desire to be less vulnerable and more safe. Frequently we may find that governments may wish to curtail freedoms in the name of safety without being able to provide what they promise to those whose freedom they wish to curtail.
The repercussions of our lack of total freedom are clear and obvious and offer humanity various choices. Different people, based on their own commitments and priorities prioritize different facets of freedom. Likewise, different stages of life and different gifts and abilities and different perspectives and situations tend to lead us to make different choices as to which aspects of freedom we prioritize. Other people, of course, will make different choices and have different preferences, and we can expect that there will be conflicts between them that must be negotiated, hopefully with a high degree of good humor and goodwill, although that cannot always be guaranteed. To the extent that we are able to understand and communicate and put ourselves in the place of others we can seek to balance the desires for freedom that we and others have and deal with them in a fair and just fashion, but doing so also tends to reduce the freedom of everyone as the needs and concerns of others have to be addressed. It is easier to be free if one is relatively young and healthy while alone, but increased age and fragility and decreased health tend to make it more difficult to take care of ourselves and thus increase our dependence to a point increasingly similar to that at the beginning of life. And to be sure, our attitudes and opinions are likely to change throughout our life as we have more or different things to lose by different sorts of freedom or different sources of vulnerability to the negative externalities of the freedom of others. And so we have always had difficulties in defining and achieving the ideal sort of liberty we desire.