Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Too Much Freedom Can Enslave You

"Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites....Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without...Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions are their fetters."  —Edmund Burke—
 I came upon this quote again in an unusual context recently. David Brooks, in a NYT article syndicated in my local paper, was arguing that the reason Americans are steadily coming around to acceptance of gay marriage is that marriage, by its nature, is a voluntary surrender of personal freedom—two people choosing to relinquish individual freedom for the sake of union. Brooks suggests that because modern culture is now so overwhelmed with demands and exhibitions of personal liberty, people are secretly admiring the contrary impulse toward sacrificing liberty, and are quietly applauding the gay community for their willingness to do just that.
"Johnny has two grandmas" 

A slightly odd argument, to be sure. But the underlying observation about personal liberty and freedom is worth exploring.

I acknowledge a bit of irony that I find Burke's sentiment so appealing these days. As Geezer friends will tell you, in my youth I spoke like some kind of borderline anarchist. But I have lived a good stretch of time now, and have come recognize an interesting paradox:  pure, total freedom is exhausting and diminishing, and you actually become freer when you voluntarily surrender some of your liberty. It's similar to the way in with free-verse poetry is generally gibberish, whereas poets who dedicate themselves to the limitations of iambic pentameter or sonnets can produce masterworks: a life that is lived entirely without boundaries quickly becomes life that is pretty much meaningless.

David Brooks, in this fascinating article (titled "Gay Marriage: A group of Folks Willing to Give up Freedom), argues that modern American life has become so mindlessly dedicated to utter and complete personal liberty that we are no longer very free at all. There is, he says, a backlash beginning among us. The demand of gay culture to be granted the right to marry is paradoxically an self-imposed offer to curtail freedom in order to achieve something more meaningful.

I couldn't agree more with the underlying premise. Here are a handful of observations regarding "libertarian" trends that turn out to be enslaving.

Not Mecurious' wedding. But pretty close. 
 Bypassing marriage. It was once nearly a social must that young adults would eventually settle into married life. In 1979, this was so much the expectation that my partner and I, when we tied the knot at age 23, felt like we were a little late to the party. 34 years later, things could be no more different.

It was also generally expected that children would be conceived and raised within the context of marriage. Young couples did conceive kids, obviously, but in most of these cases the couples quietly got married if a child was conceived. And these marriages were not disastrous, generally, as is sometimes believed today.  Some shot-gun marriages were problematic, sure, but quite a lot of these accidentally necessary marriage went on to be perfectly good lifelong unions. 

Flashforward 34 years and we’re now at a point that among young adults under the age of 30, more live together as non-married couples than as married. There’s nothing wrong with kids testing the waters before tying the knot—Mrs. Mercurious and I did it too, and our own kids are living that way right now to perfectly fine results.

Looking around, though, and you’ll notice that a good many adults are bypassing the committed married life forever. And in most cases they will tell you it’s a matter of “wanting their freedom.” And it has also become perfectly acceptable to conceive kids in these circumstances—I’ve heard teachers tell me that at least 25% of their students have parents who aren’t married.

And if you are married, the freedom to easily leave that marriage if you don't like it is now taken as a given. Easily more than half of all unions end in divorce, and folks with three or four marriages  are no longer uncommon at all. It is, of course, true that we once were too rigid in maintaining marriages where abuse or fatal incompatibility were inherent. But almost everyone who has stuck through the normal good and bad times of a marriage for decades will tell you what a blessing it can be. In a marriage where there is commitment and voluntary surrender of some personal liberty, the reward is the freedom to be yourself without the fear that a partner will flee at the least sign of discomfort. And there is actually considerable freedom in surrendering the narcissism of single life. 

Aren't you glad for the freedom to be a single parent?
A related trend is that of having and raising kids in one-parent households. Sometimes this is the result of flightly partnerships or marriages breaking up, but it’s also quite common for young women to simply choose to have kids alone. This sounds like freedom to choose, of course, on the part of those parents. But how free is a parent who must struggle both to make a living and to nurture and raise kids all alone?  The folks I know who parent this way are pretty much exhausted all the time, with virtually no freedom of relaxation or socialization. Whether straight or gay, making the personal sacrifice to raise kids with a partner surely must increase your genuine freedom in the long run.

Relaxation of drug prohibition.  This is a tricky one, as the insane paranoia of Reagan-era punishment for simple drug use was not something I'd advise returning to. But I seriously question whether it's really wise to make drug use, even for marijuana, broadly legal as seems to be the growing trend.  Society needs to voluntarily set some limits on itself, and I think my youth would have been much impaired without the secret thrill of breaking the law by sneaking an occasional joint. What juvenile thrill is available, if every behavior is judged acceptable and legal and you can choose among dozens of cannabis brands at the medicinal marijuana shop on the corner?

In the words of BB King: "The thrill is gone."
Real freedom, it seems to me, lies in clear consciousness. Did you ever know a drug addict who appeared free? I'm certainly freer now in self-imposed prohibition than I was in the youthful days when occasional chemical abuse was present in my life. 

Even the trend locally toward making liquor available for sale 24 hours a day and seven days a week seems like a bad idea to me. Though no teetotaler, I think occasional self-imposed restraint on this front is a helpful thing.

The collapse of 40-hour work weeks and 5 day work weeks. Time was when it was pretty much a social rule that the workweek ended at 5:00 on Friday afternoon, resumed at 8:00 Monday morning, with the individual work days in between following those same time boundaries. As anybody in the modern workplace knows, though, to get ahead now requires considerably more than that. I actually work a fairly relaxed workweek myself, yet it's entirely common to put in 50 or 55 hours each week, and 60 or 70 occasionally happens. I have friends who routinely work 80 hours a week. We do this, basically, to outperform our peers and thereby make enough money to buy the very nice things available to us.

And yet, the freedom to earn as much money as our energy allows means we've lost the
Today's "starter home."
freedom of unscheduled time in which to enjoy them. Rereading Bill Bryson's "Thunderbolt Kid" memoir recently, I observed his wry comment on just this—two wage earner homes really became a necessity in the late 60s simply because the post-war industrial society converted from war manufacture was offering so many tantalizing toys and products and appliances that you needed two careers in order to afford them.  To our grandparents, the notion that two automobiles are a family necessity would be laughable. Now, for many of us, two cars doesn't seem likely nearly enough.

When geezers like the Professor and I were kids in a small Midwestern town with a predominately Scandinavian culture, it was regarded as an embarrassment and affront to display too many conspicuously expensive things around your home. These days, perfectly good, habitable homes are routinely torn down to make way for monstrous mini-mansions that serve little purpose other than to make the neighbors feel subservient. Yet it’s the owners of these new Taj Mahals who must work like absolute slaves in order to afford the feeling of lordliness.

Lax traffic law enforcement. Generally speaking, getting a traffic ticket these days is pretty hard, compared to my young adult years. On Minnesota freeways, you have to be moving at about 80 mph in a 55 mph zone to even be mildly worried about getting stopped. And basic pedestrian protection is such a joke that the small city of Minneapolis sees, on average, one pedestrian a week killed or gravely injured. (This cuts two ways; walking back from lunch the other day, I observed so many pedestrians ignoring "don't walk" signs while drivers ignored the "walk" permissions, that the entire landscape was one chaotic mess.) 

Drivers ticketed for speeding will now react with righteous indignation, arguing cases in court. "It's my right to drive as I see fit," goes the argument. But traffic laws is one of those prime examples of the benefit of voluntarily giving up freedom to gain the freedom of peace of mind. Without traffic laws (or laws in general) can you imagine how exhausted you'd be, just from the free-for-all of driving a shopping mall on Saturday? I can't see that a highway system dominated by road rage is somehow more free than ones where traffic laws are fully enforced.

Softening of ethical/moral training.  Now, I'm very much for separation of church and state. I really cannot stand the idea of public schools mandating Christian prayer; it's not exactly a religious underpinning that I'm advocating.  But some form of ethical and moral training seems quite necessary in society. The tide began to turn, I think, when it became acceptable for the government to sponsor and encourage state-sponsored gambling. To do so seems exactly opposite to the role government should be taking—which is encourage citizens to be diligent, responsible, and fiscally careful. 

I recently heard an editor propose investment on a book of advice for people who want
Not as much fun as you think.
to "swing" in their romantic/sexual relationships. The idea that such practice is now seen as standard and acceptable is quite strange to anyone who has lived a little while on the planet.  The appeal of this kind of life can only be held by immature young adults holding a deluded sense that they are entitled to utter liberty to do what they want, and who haven't recognized the consequences. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I've certainly known people who thought this kind of life would be enjoyable and interesting. Without exception, these same people in their geezer years acknowledge that it was a horrible mistake, and they are profoundly remorseful for those times. 

(Oddly, the decline of a moral/ethical framework in society on the one hand seems to explain the shrill presence of an ultra-conservative religious right on the other. I strongly suspect that if society at large still had a solid moral underpinning, these wackos would cease to have an audience.)

So my takeaway is this: complete and full personal liberty is frankly a huge pain in the ass. If you have freedom to make each and every choice in life, no matter how trivial the issue, you then are forced to make each and every decision and live with the consequences. It would be exhausting, especially as we get older and simply haven’t the energy for anarchy any longer. Adults (and cultures) who mature from childhood into reasonable adults seem to eventually recognize the merit of surrendering some personal liberty in order to genuinely pursue happiness. Happiness requires carefully selected freedom, not universal liberty. 

But by and large, modern culture today seems to be having trouble maturing.  We seem to labor under the delusion that absolute personal liberty is something that is good for us, and which we deserve from our society. 

Silly us. We deserve better than that.


  1. Very interesting. Over my career i made a living building ever larger and fancier homes for increasingly smaller and smaller families. Now two-income families regularly want 5,000 square feet for a family of 3. That's insane!

    For me personally, wifey and I decided 4 years ago that we had too much "stuff" and that it was in essence owning us. We sold or gave away much of it and downsized and have never regreted it for a second. In fact we're looking to soon build ourselves a small (1,200 sq ft?) "forever home". And to tie this in with your post, this gives us a tremendous feeling of freedom! I suppose you have to blow out more than a few candles on the cake to recognize this, though.


  2. What a great post. Very thought-provoking actually. Yes people leave marriages WAY too early these days. I know people who have left their marriages simply out of "boredom" - isn't that sad?

  3. A terrific full on ethical and philosophical engagement you launched here. I too thought Brooks' premise was curious.

    I'm not sure how much personal liberty is available now, not only because of commonweal restrictions and limits, but because we have moved down the track as consumers. Your point about two incomes needed to afford all that we can buy is spot on. We have relinquished our lives and the freedoms in those lives, in a variety of ways so that we may consume. Work, property, entertainment, the needed stuff of life all are built on a sense of value, cost or worth. Once we measure an hour, or a breath by a standard of worth, well then we've already bought and sold the farm. I have no idea how we back away from such a dependence on monetary exchange, but once you are in a little, you are in for good. Your thoughts about relationships are also superb. It seems to be the ethos we should train in is one that respects diversity, planetary health and well being, true intellectual pursuit, and a search for the Holy or an understanding of such as one is led. The foundational view could/should be that each life has an unlimited potential and it should be our common objective to see that all people get a chance to define their place in the world. Well, enough. Your post really tourqued the gears.

    1. Thanks for the extremely thoughtful response, Tom. It certainly does seem to me sometimes that American culture isn't about liberty so much as it is about carefully disguised consumer slavery. So it's greatly encouraging at those times when you see older adults finally seeing the light and pursuing a simplified, down-sized life that focuses on genuine meaning. I do know a number of folks who head back to basics in their later years.

      And occasionally you do see younger adults practicing a a bit of the counter-culture ridicule for the life of unrestrained consumerism, similar to what we toyed with in the 60s and 70s. A few people actually continued that lifelong fight. (I do not count myself among the noble; though not on grossly excessive scale, I got just as seduced by world traveling and big-screen TVs as anybody).

      The courageous few seem to be exceptions that prove the rule, however—the rule being that our system is one of consumer capitalism, carefully disguised as libertarian ideals.

      To a Buddhist friend, I was once railing about the how littered the streets of American were becoming. She smiled with that maddening calmness of people who are spiritually at peace, and said the answer was quite simple. "When you come across a bit of litter, pick it up if it offends you." It was good advice. What is meant by this is that meaningful change becomes both instant and far-reaching through small individual acts of choice. Rather than railing and moaning about situations, just make the helpful decisions whenever the small choices present themselves.

      Damn, I wish I was a better Buddhist.

  4. What was it that Satre said, or was it Janis Joplin, "Freedom is just another thing for nothing left to lose..." Good post!

  5. Actually, I believe it was Kris Krisopherson, in the song then famously covered by Janis.

    Sarte undoubtedly said something similar. But because it was in French, the poetry was lost in the translation.

  6. Excellent and engaging essay! I suppose the risk of giving people freedom is the same as giving monkeys explosives. Chances are they will not use it wisely. Still, it's an experiment in absurdity that appeals to me and might eventually educate me. I'm for it.

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