Personal Freedom

Reading about how neoliberalism is a strategy of protecting capitalism from those of us who want a collectivist government made me start thinking about the concept of personal freedom. People who are against communism and “big government” see it as a threat to individual liberty. They think they should be allowed to live their lives as they please and the government should stay out of it. They see the free market as the proper economic system and believe that the government is stealing from them by taking taxes and inappropriately controlling them by setting laws. Personal freedom for them means seeing themselves as an individual who only cares about their own needs and perhaps their immediate family’s needs, but who has no reason to care about strangers.

During the McCarthy era there was a lot of propaganda against Communism so that Americans would think it was an evil system. This cold-war era cartoon available on YouTube presents Communism as a devious man trying to trick Americans into signing away their freedom and the freedom of their children and grandchildren.

In Transgender Warriors, Leslie Feinberg writes:

“Being different in the 1950s was no small matter. McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts were in full frenzy. Like most children, I caught snippets of adult conversations. So I was terrified that communists were hiding under my bed and might grab my ankles at night. I heard that people who were labeled “reds” would discover their names and addresses listed in local newspapers, be fired from their jobs, and be forced to pack up their families and move away. What was their crime? I couldn’t make out the adults’ whispers. But the lesson seeped down: keep your mouth shut; don’t rock the boat.”(p4-5)

Feinberg later became a communist herself, once she found out what communism actually was. Her last words were “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” But when she was a kid, she learned to think that communists were scary monsters under her bed.

I don’t have the same idea of what personal freedom is as the anti-communist types. Because I see human beings as interdependent, not only with each other but with nature, I don’t see us as needing freedom from responsibility toward each other. We do, in fact, need each other. We need each other’s company because we are social animals, and we need each other’s expertise since we each are skilled at different things the community needs. It’s a very rare human who can truly be a hermit and not depend on anyone. Being a hermit is a great risk. If you are hurt, there is no one around to help you. If you broke your leg while hunting for food, for example, you’d have to walk back home on it and mend your own broken leg. What a misery! Most of us prefer to be in a society surrounded by other people.

I don’t think that being responsible for the people around us is an undue burden. It brings us joy to be responsible for others, because it makes us feel useful and gives us a purpose. I would expect that most parents get a sense of purpose and a feeling of joy from their kids needing them. Why then do people hate so much when their community needs them? Someone who can’t get any joy from helping others is someone I would describe as an asshole. Sure, there’s always assholes, but we shouldn’t design our economic system around their vices, we should design it to encourage positive values.

Personal freedom to me doesn’t mean freedom from the constraints of living in a society, it means freedom to be yourself within society. People should have the freedom to control how they use their own bodies, who they associate with, what they believe, and what they do with their free time. People should not be subject to being arbitrarily imprisoned or to cruel and unusual punishment. I agree with the basic freedoms given to citizens of a democracy.

Some people who hate socialism get really nutty about what they believe it is. I remember a guy years ago arguing on a comment thread that socialists wanted to steal his toothbrush and use it whenever they wanted. I don’t know where he got this idea from and I think he was a looney tune. No, I don’t think people are required to share their toothbrushes, or any of their personal belongings. I also agree that people have the right to own a small plot of land on which to build their house. The things that people should not be allowed to personally own are entire empires. A person should not be permitted to be the exclusive owner of the fruits of their whole community’s labor.

The limits to human freedom come partially from the fact that we are living animals, and therefore we have obligations we must take care of in order to survive. We must prepare food, clothing and shelter, no matter what else we may decide to do. If we have children, we must take care of them. We must educate the young and we must take care of the sick and dying. This means that no matter what economic system is in place, humans have to work. Under capitalism, I have to get up every day and work for capitalism, and in return I get a wage, and I spend it buying products from other capitalists (paying rent, buying food, etc.) Under communism, I’d have to get up every day and work for the state in return for a set amount of either wages or “stuff.” As a worker, my life wouldn’t honestly change that much either way. In neither of these systems do I have the opportunity to just fart around all day—the obligation to work would still be there.

However, there are many benefits to workers that come from communism. Fair wages and work conditions, equality among citizens, less exploitation and domination, and a guaranteed income. Under capitalism, workers can be subject to exploitation and poverty, and may experience prolonged unemployment during which they can’t meet their basic needs. When people can’t meet their basic needs, they do NOT have personal freedom. Communism gives us freedom from poverty.

The people who lose what they see as their “personal freedom” under communism are the rich. Under communism, the rich no longer have the means to exploit others and can no longer hoard tons of extra money and belongings while other people go without. They can no longer spend their days in leisure and indulgence while others do the work for them, because they become ordinary citizens who must do work. They believe that this robs them of their personal freedom.

I don’t think the “right” to hoard material things or the “right” to exploit others are rights that people need. These are anti-social behaviors that represent a moral failing on the part of that person, and constitute an attack on the personal freedom of others. Equality among people is what gives us personal freedom. Without equality, some people aren’t free.

Some anti-communists argue that the only human motivation is greed, and that without the possibility of getting rich, people would have no motivation to do any work. I think this is a load of bullshit. Humans are motivated to provide for their basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, and will always be willing to do the work required to meet these needs. As living animals, we can’t not provide for ourselves. Humans are also motivated to care for the young and the sick, because as social animals we care for our communities. We are also motivated to design and innovate so that we can have better lives. The desire for science, tools, and culture will never cease. Further, when humans use money as a form of motivation that creates a fetishization of money where people want money just for the sake of money. Although this does lead to superficial gratification for the rich it doesn’t lead to true happiness, and it certainly doesn’t lead to happiness for the poor who have been robbed of their share. Money as a source of motivation should be either reduced or eliminated altogether, and this will certainly not turn people into layabouts who refuse to get out of bed. Just for the record, if anyone does want to just sit around and let everyone do the work for them, I think they deserve a kick in the ass and they shouldn’t be allowed to continue that way.

When people are allowed to do just anything they want, some people decide to exploit others. We therefore have to design a society that discourages this tendency. When men are allowed to do whatever they want, some of them decide to abuse women. Women don’t benefit from complete libertarianism. If there is no law and order whatsoever, then it’s open season on women.

Because we are physically limited while pregnant and breastfeeding, we are dependent on our communities for some of our needs. Men have already demonstrated for hundreds of years that when they find themselves with a woman dependent on them they abuse their power. They’ve also demonstrated that they’re not above raping women and girls, either women they know or women who are strangers to them, or capturing them and using them as sexual slaves. When men have complete freedom to do whatever they want, women lose our own freedom. For women to have personal freedom, we must have the freedom from being raped, enslaved, dominated, beaten, and forcibly impregnated.

Personal freedom sounds good, but it’s not as simple as “anybody do what they want.” Freedom comes with responsibility, and freedom for one cannot mean oppression for another. I believe that an economic system that ensures equality would provide freedom, not take it away.

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