The Illusion of Freedom

With recent events going on across the world regarding sovereignty, the nature of freedom, free markets and the threat of far right movements, it felt relevant to offer some thoughts about the nature of freedom itself.

I want to discuss this because there’s a growing resentment across western societies (the US and the UK in particular) in regard to sovereignty – in particular, the role of the EU and their supposed rule over our land. So when we want to take back control, as it were, was that as individuals, or as a nation? And what the hell does that mean anyway?

Freedom for an individual and freedom for a nation are two separate entities – and unfortunately, face each other in a way that requires a compromise. The two are opposed.

Freedom for you, me and anyone else is the ability, or potential rather, to go out into the world and do as your heart desires. It is the ability to wake up in the morning and decide “You know, I’m gonna say something absurd about the political ruler of the world and have a cup of tea.”

Freedom is the capacity to do things without repercussion purely for doing that thing.

Within reason.

Because unfortunately this ties into the need for freedom in society. Freedom for an individual is the ability to act as you see fit. However, if what you decide to do impacts the freedom of someone else, this is robbing someone else’s right to do what they please.

So therefore, freedom between more than one person is a compromise. The trouble with society is trying to determine the extent of the compromise between individuals and the people around them.

While I won’t want to extend this beyond personal freedoms, this paradox is at the heart of many arguments regarding economics, business, the role of foreign policy…basically, when we decide to do something, it needs to consider the impact on other people’s lives.

And that’s what freedom is in reality – a balancing act between what we want to do vs what will potentially fuck up someone else’s day. And while it would be nice to say “I can do whatever I want as I have infinite freedom!”, you don’t. Because if you impact someone else’s capacity to do what they want, then freedom is a lie – it becomes a one way level of dominance and a struggle over power.

And that’s the issue with the nature of freedom. It’s also the issue with many debates and discussions we have about sovereignty, the purpose of the state, the apparent issues with regulation, business freedoms etc.

Society attempts to find balance – justice and the legal system exist to find that balance, to move the scales to represent the interests of society. The nature of what is important though is what we debate and what evolves over time.

Total freedom for an individual invites an unfair society. If every single person was given full reign to act on whatever impulse, the world would be defined by the strong over the weak. And it would further be skewed towards the strong. As the strong acquire power in a landscape defined only by human desire, their desire will be to preserve their strength – an act that would remove the freedoms and liberties of those around them.

That’s not to say of the more….debauched things acted by more messed up people, if given infinite freedom in a world with no restraint.

Freedom is an illusion then – one with limits around us to prevent some of us taking advantage and ruining it for the rest of us. Freedom is a ring we design for ourselves as a whole, because two people in a room cannot exist and act wholly in their desires without needing to either consult the other or override their views.

The modern world does not consent to this at the moment. At the moment, the world and the nature of things tell us we can be whatever we want, get whatever we want, and that we should offer no compromise.

Yet, even though many things in that statement are admirable, compromise is absolutely needed. We cannot simply create a world or future for ourselves, or exist in this limited space on this planet with others without regard for either our fellow man or our planet.

Total freedom is not even possible – because freedom is a potential, a possibility space for someone to enact their will and their dreams onto the world. A playground, if you will, for the soul’s desire. There’s only so much many of us will do with this potential. But it’s important that we have this potential, and do not feel railroaded into certain acts because we see little choice.

People cannot live like that – we need to have the space to think and dream, and imagine. We need to space to exist without fear of reprisal or interruption of our plans.

And this extends so that someone else cannot do this to you. And that’s the tricky bit to understand – if I desire the freedom to build an enterprise revolving around water, and become the only enterprise to be able to provide water (a valuable commodity), suddenly my acts have impact on the lives of others, compromising their freedoms. Suddenly I have control over the very substance others need to live.

Having that capacity to create a monopoly that can hover over other people’s lives is dangerous for everyone – including myself. If I had that, I would fear for my life, and build walls between me and the rest of the world – ironically reducing my freedoms to preserve power.

And that’s what total freedom ends up doing. The less we compromise with each other, the more free reign we offer, the more likely we create an inversion where people can end up reducing overall freedoms for everyone in the name of power and control for a minority.

Were we a perfect species this wouldn’t happen, but unfortunately, greed, apathy and sociopaths exist. If we allow control of particular industry and particular parts of our world to fall under the unsupervised control of individuals rather than society or societies, we risk losing our freedoms.

The point I’m getting at is that we shouldn’t blindly assume a call for ultimate freedom is a good thing. We all desire that space and capacity to exist without fear of interruption or fear of being monitored. We all want to have the potential to act out our desires – within reason.

Freedom is not just the ability to act within a space without prejudice, but to accept responsibility for the actions we undertake in that space. It has to invite criticism for it to work, because otherwise it’s a dictatorship. Every action has a consequence, and freedom has to represent acceptance of a consequence.

to give a real world example, look at what’s happening in universities. The idea of safe spaces is abhorrent, a twisted take on freedom of speech by restricting it. Look at discussion boards that are too moderated, or the shouting out of people who voice their concerns over a recent referendum, told to suck it up and accept it. As if they would do so if the tables were turned.

Freedom has to have an element of responsibility in it. Everyone who lives in a free society has to be able to stand up and say “I fucked up” if they did, and likewise a free society should have the capacity to allow bogus or nonsensical ideas to be shot down with impunity. Not doing so is a disservice to people as a whole – because it starts to mess with the spaces we create to allow us to live free and meaningful lives.

Every action has a consequence we can seldom imagine when we decide to do it. 

The concept of freedom overlaps into everything we do. Every day we wake up we make decisions, enact thoughts that could, given the opportunity, blossom into art, or discovery, or fun, joy and love. It is important we preserve that, to allow our society, to allow people to be what they want to be, and become something greater.

Even if few ever fully take advantage of that capacity, it’s important for it to exist. Not just for the few to fully explore their options, but to allow people to dream, and to hope. Without hope for a better future, for a future where we could act on our dreams and desires, then there would be little point in our lives. Even if we only act in a moment for ourselves and truly take advantage of our freedoms, we should be allowed to do so with impunity, and within reason.

That final part, the “within reason” part, is a decision to be made by society as a whole. That’s one of the ongoing things we deal with on a legal and political level – how much freedom should we have? And what should we do to protect it? These are not questions we can answer easily.

In fact these are ongoing, evolving and changing as people and societies evolve and adapt to technology, changing social beliefs and a changing world.

It’s important we preserve the freedoms we value. The freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of thought, of criticism and thinking. These should be universal. It’s important we recognise what freedom is, especially in these times of uncertainty.

Because there are people out there who only desire their interests, and dress it up in a manner that makes it look like it is in yours to believe in them. They do this by promising the freedom that apparently we have lacked. They do this by promising a new era of prosperity, or security, either by claiming new potential or by preserving your lot as it is. Worse is if they try to play at as a return to glory days of a golden age that was probably less shiny than it seems in hindsight.

The use of the word freedom here is to evoke an emotion, that either your potential is threatened or that it has been taken from you, so you should take it back. The likes of Trump, Farage, people on the Alt Right, libertarians….all these people use the word but it means something else to them. It is their freedom to reign they pursue, they just leave out the part where they take yours and replace it with theirs.

Freedom from oppression was fought for, and is fought for, time and again. No one wishes to be taken advantage of, no one wishes to be under someone else’s shadow.


Because total freedom, if given no oversight and no one claims responsibility to call out those who would deny it, will devolve into a dictatorship. Total freedom allows sociopaths and the power hungry the means to claim dominance over others.

A measure of our freedom then needs to be used to restrain these people, throughout all of society. While that seems to many as a sacrifice too far for some, society needs to determine what balance it needs to achieve to allow the ambitious room to grow, as well as what limit should be in place to prevent power from hanging over all of us.

It sounds like a paradox, to purposely limit ourselves. In a way it is, and were we islands unperturbed by each other it would be unnecessary. But each of us leaves behind our lives a wake, and if we aren’t careful, that wake can disrupt and disturb the lives of those around us.

To the individual, value the freedoms you have, and desire those you feel can be done without harm. But most importantly, remember that you are not alone on this planet – you have to share the world, its resources and its beauty. You don’t have to like it, but consider that everyone should have an attempt at happiness and a life that they want to live.

A final point: I write this as a westerner, lucky enough to be able to have been educated to degree level, and live in comfort. I don’t starve, nor is a source of clean water ever a problem. I enjoy a level of comfort and freedom very rare to the majority of people on this planet. Currently, we do not live a free world, as unfortunately, the freedoms I take for granted come at the expense of the freedom of others, through forces outside of my control. This is a deeply disconcerting level of inequality that we face.

I don’t believe everyone can have an equal level of comfort to pursue their happiness even if we can solve fundamental problems such as these. But I do believe everyone should have the means to change this part of their lives if they so wish.  Not everyone can live as an executive, but everyone should be able to pursue the position if they so wish.

We all have the ability to live a life that is free and beautiful. Don’t give that to those who would rob you of your chance for life.

At least, we all should have the freedom to dream, and to pursue those dreams. Don’t forget though, we all wake up in the same world – try not to tread on the waking dreams of others in pursuit of yours.

And don’t let the words of those who would take it away, convince you that they’re bringing it back. It never left; they just wish to pursue more power.

I’ll leave you with a speech from The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin.



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