Jared Dillian wrote an article simply titled, Frrrreeeeeddoommmm. I think we are supposed to imagine the title being screamed by Mel Gibson as his Braveheart character, William Wallace, is tortured to death. The author compares two states, concluding that he prefers ‘freedom’:

“If you want someone from Connecticut to get all riled up, drive extra slow in the passing lane. Connecticutians are very particular about that. The right lane is for traveling, the left lane is for passing. If you’re in the left lane for any other reason than passing, you are a jerk.

“So if you really want to ruin someone’s day, drive in the left lane at about 50 miles per hour. They will be grumpy for three days straight, I assure you.

“I was telling this story to one of my South Carolina friends—how upset people from Connecticut get about this, and how people from South Carolina basically drive however the hell they want—and he said ruefully, “Freedom…”

“He’s a guy who perhaps likes lots of rules to organize society, and perhaps he’d rather live in a world where some law governs how you conduct yourself in every aspect of your life, including how you drive. I tell you what, after growing up in Connecticut and then spending the last six years in the South, I’m enjoying the freedom, even if it means I occasionally get stuck behind some idiot.”

Here is my response. Mine isn’t exactly a contrarian view. Rather, it’s more of a complexifying view.

I take seriously the freedom to act, even when others think it’s wrong, depending of course on other factors. But there is no such thing as absolute freedom, just trade-offs made between benefits and costs. There are always constraints upon our choices and, as social animals, most constraints involve a social element, whether or not laws are involved.

Freedom is complex. Freedom from what and/or toward what?

The driving example is perfect. Connecticut has one of the lowest rates of car accidents and fatalities in the country. And South Carolina has one of the highest. Comparing the most dangerous driving state to the safest, a driver is 10 times more likely to die in an accident.

Freedom from death is no small freedom. Yet there is more to life than just freedom from death. Authoritarian countries like Singapore probably have low car accident rates and fatalities, but I’d rather not live in an authoritarian country.

There needs to be a balance of freedoms. There is an individual’s freedom to act. And then there is the freedom to not suffer the consequences of the actions of others. There is nothing free in externalized costs or, to put it another way, all costs must be paid by someone. It’s related to the free rider problem and moral hazard.

That is supposed to be the purpose of well designed (i.e., fair and just) political, legal, and economic systems. Freedom doesn’t just happen. A free society is a creation of choices made by many people over many generations. Every law passed does have unintended consequences. But, then again, every law repealed or never passed in the first place also has unintended consequences. There is no escaping unintended consequences.

There is also a cultural component to this. Southern states like South Carolina have a different kind of culture than Northern states like Connecticut. Comparing the two regions, the South is accident prone in general with higher rates of not just car accidents but also such things as gun accidents. In the North, even in states with high gun ownership, there tends to be lower rates of gun accidents.

In Connecticut or Iowa, it’s not just lower rate of dying in accidents (car, gun, etc). These kinds of states have lower mortality rates in general and hence on average longer lifespans. Maybe it isn’t the different kinds of laws that are the significant causal factor. Instead, maybe it’s the cultural attitude that leads both to particular laws and particular behaviors. The laws don’t make Connecticut drivers more safe. It’s simply that safety-conscious Connecticut drivers want such laws, but they’d likely drive safer even without such laws.

I’m not sure ‘freedom’ is a central issue in examples like this. I doubt Connecticutians feel less free for having safer roads and more orderly driving behavior. It’s probably what they want. They are probably just valuing and emphasizing different freedoms than South Carolinians.

There is the popular saying that your freedom ends at my nose. Even that leaves much room for interpretation. If your factory is polluting the air I breathe, your freedom to pollute has fully entered not only my nose but also my lungs and bloodstream.

It’s no mere coincidence that states with high accident rates also tend to have high pollution rates. And no mere coinicidence that states with low accident rates tend to have low pollution rates. These are the kinds of factors that contribute to the disparity of mortality rates.

It also has to do with attitudes toward human life. The South, with its history of slavery, seems to view life as being cheap. Worker accident rates are also higher in the South. All of this does have to do with laws, regulations, and unionization (and laws that make union organization easier or harder). But that leaves the question of why life is perceived differently in some places. Why are Southerners more cavalier about life and death? And why do they explain this cavalier attitude as being an expression of liberty?

To many Northerners, this cavalier attitude would be perceived quite differently. It wouldn’t be placed in the frame of ‘liberty’. This relates to the North literally not being part of the Cavalier culture that became the mythos of the South. The Cavaliers fought on the losing side of the English Civil War and many of them escaped to Virginia where they helped establish a particular culture that was later embraced by many Southerners who never descended from Cavaliers*.

Cavalier culture was based on honor culture. It included, for example, dueling and violent fighting. Men had to prove themselves. Recent research shows that Southerners are still more aggressive today, compared to Northerners. This probably relates to higher rates of road rage and, of course, car accidents.

Our culture doesn’t just encourage or discourage freedom. It more importantly shapes our view of freedom.

(*The apparent origin of Dillian’s article is a bit ironic. William Wallace fought against England which was still ruled by a Norman king, which is to say ruled by those whose descendants would later be called Cavaliers in their defense of the king against the Roundheads. The French Normans had introduced such fine traditions as monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism. But they also introduced a particular variety of honor culture that was based on class and caste, the very same tradition that became the partly fictionalized origin story of Southern culture.)

13 thoughts on “Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????

  1. No but against this, you have to consider, what about the “freedom” of the workers in such a company? Especially without any real power back, the worker will be ruthlessly exploited, as the history of labor rather grimly shows.

    • It is always a matter of who has the power to define what ‘freedom’ means and who owns the media to frame the public discussion about ‘freedom’. The workers don’t have much power and they for damn sure don’t own the media. Back when labor was better organized and weren’t under constant attack, they had more power in society and they were heard more often in the media. As newspapers still have business sections, newspapers used to also have labor sections.

      Much of this change was beyond the control of workers. Labor, no matter how well organized, was fighting a losing battle against neoliberalism, globalization, free trade agreements, outsourcing, offshoring, mechanization, etc. Workers have had so much against them and so little in their favor. If workers and average citizens in general hope to have a chance to win back some power, they will have to do so by organizing internationally. It’s time for global labor unions, other grassroots organizations, and alliances. Corporations seek to escape to other countries and so the people have to take the fight to the corporations, by any means necessary.

      There is essentially a global class war going on. And it’s not a metaphorical war. It involves the force of police and militaries. This is one more reason party politics is bullshit, just another spectacle to distract the masses. In the good ol’ days when organized labor had power, they’d show up as en masse with guns and they would literally fight for their rights. Sometimes they won and sometimes they loss, but they made sure that the powers that be took them seriously and understood that a price would be paid. The ruling elite allowed reform because they were scared of what would happen if they thwarted it.

  2. Apparently freedom is only for rich people and corporations.

    The rest of us are screwed. Minorities doubly so it would seem.

    It seems like this great class war has turned society into a feudal aristocracy.

    • I try to talk to people. Most people either already get it or don’t. But there have been some people who have woken up in recent years. It will take some major events to force more people to open their eyes and take reality seriously.

      It does seem that the most rabid partisans are decreasing in number. Many of the diehard partisans remaining seem to be either cynics or authoritarians. Few people are left who still take as genuine the rhetoric of either party.

    • Yes there are some rabid partisans. They control the mainstream media though.

      In the context of this election, I think that it is especially disappointing in the Northeastern US. Perhaps wealth has acted as an insulator for the realities that most Americans face.I had actually expected Bernie to win those states – instead it seems to be the Midwest and West Coast that is going Bernie – apart from a few states. Closed primaries played a huge role too.

      It’s sad because the Democratic Party often attacks Republicans for closing polls near African American dominated areas and inventing voter fraud. it seems they are no better towards Progressives and Independents.

      But the point is they seem to be beyond reform.

    • This has become increasingly obvious. Democrat elite have become blatant in their being just another party of the rich. They’ve become so arrogant that they no longer think they have to hide this. They assume Americans are too stupid to care or else too powerless to do anything about it.

    • I assumed many political right ruling elite would support Clinton. It makes sense. After all, Clinton’s politics aren’t particularly all that different than the Koch’s. I’m sure the Kochs are fairly liberal on social issues, as are most of the elite as research shows. What matters is that the Clintons and the Kochs are that dominant mix of neocon and neoliberal.

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