The Freedom Universal

The Problem

Every day the mountain of challenges threatening us grows bigger—terrorist attacks, religious and ethnic conflict, genocide, disease pandemics, climate change, government corruption, spiralling health costs, bankrupt pension systems, failing educational systems, crushing taxes, mushrooming regulatory burdens, eroding civil liberties, stagnant economies, self-serving politicians, the energy crisis, natural disasters, moral decay, violence, crime, the overwhelming pace of accelerating change, . . .

Many people feel an increasing sense of impending doom, helpless in the face of forces beyond their control.

What is going on in the world? Why is this happening? Is there anything we can do about it?

Some feel that human nature is to blame, that our troubles are the inescapable result of our primitive aggressive impulses, short-sightedness, and moral decay. There is some truth to this. On the other hand, the history of every culture throughout the world also provides many counterexamples: reasonable people getting together and cooperating to produce healthy, flourishing communities that benefit all their members; societies that overcome a history of hatred and discrimination, building tolerance and integration; violent aggressors being stopped and vanquished by strong, peace-loving societies; governments that reverse course and implement much-needed reforms; economies that rebound from recession or the destruction of war; technological breakthroughs that give hope and a new lease on life to those crippled by disease or injury; private citizens reaching out to help each other in times of crisis; great works of art and scientific achievements that showcase the greatness the human spirit is capable of.

Choice versus Force

What can we conclude from this? History teaches us that humans are capable of both inspiring greatness, and shocking depravity. And each of us knows from personal experience that we sometimes act in ways that we admire and feel proud of, and at other times we are ashamed of our choices. That is the key: our ability to choose—our free will. That is the root of morality. The human capacity for free choice and action can be either a blessing, or a curse—depending on how we exercise our freedom—for good, or for evil. When we choose to live mindfully and consciously, we tend to create good lives and a good world for ourselves and our communities. When we live unmindfully, unconsciously, our lives, our communities, and our world tend to fall apart.

Living mindfully is not easy. It requires ongoing conscious effort, intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, and strength. No one can do this for us. This battle between the forces of order and chaos, between good and evil, between life and death, is one each of us faces—and must win—alone. Those around us can, however, make things easier or more difficult for us. They can support our freedom to choose, or they can oppose it—or even force us to act against our judgment. When others use force to prevent us from exercising our free will, our ability to act morally is impaired. Our freedom to choose between good and evil is paralyzed when someone uses physical force to override our choice. For us to be able to act morally, we need to be free of the coercion of others. This insight lies at the root of understanding history and the rises and falls of societies. Force is the antithesis of civilization. Right through history, again and again, we see how societies where freedom of choice is respected, flourish, and how societies where freedom of choice is violated, perish. Because when given a choice, most people choose good over evil. That is why violence is universally condemned, and freedom is universally acclaimed. Violence lies at the root of our social problems. When violence is allowed to override our voluntary choices, we are not free to act in accordance with our moral judgment. We are not free to choose good over evil and rise to our highest potentials as human beings—both individually and as a community. Where violence rules, we sink to the lowest common denominator—that of ruthless savages. The communities we admire, those we regard as civilized and humane, are the ones that have succeeded—to a greater or lesser degree—to banish violence from social intercourse. The single most important choice the members of a society make, their fundamental choice, is whether violence will be allowed—or prohibited.

If violence is universally deplored, why then does it continue to haunt us? Because knowing the problem does not mean one knows the solution. Stating desirable ends is not enough. Stating the ends does not automatically provide the means. We have to discover, and create, the necessary means to achieve the ends. Solutions have to be discovered through an arduous, exacting process of applying our best reasoning abilities to our ongoing experience, and revising the solutions in the light of new evidence. And indeed we have discovered and learned a great deal in our experimentation with various social models and political systems over the thousands of years since the beginnings of the earliest human communities. A careful reading of history shows that we have made enormous progress in reducing the extent and intensity of violence in our societies. But much remains to be done.

Incentive Systems

Key to making further progress in reducing violence and moving closer to a voluntary society is to recognize the central importance of incentive systems in the results we generate. Incentive systems include cultural values and social institutions (political, legal, and economic systems). In considering potential solutions to the problem of violence, we need to very carefully take into account the complex dynamic of incentives operating on the various actors in the system. This also helps us understand some of the reasons why so many of the efforts to reform our governments and societies keep failing:

  1. Most reform efforts fail to adequately address the central issue of incentive effects. Thus, groups with a vested interest in the status quo oppose or sabotage the reforms, or the reforms create new special interests that compound the problem and make it worse. The result is a messier, more entrenched version of the status quo, or even the opposite of what was intended—a situation made worse, rather than better.
  2. Reform attempts seldom consider the entire social system as a whole, and in the long term. Instead of addressing the needs of all members of society, all interest groups, "the wheel that squeaks gets the grease". This quickly degenerates into a competition for political favors—everyone trying to get their hands in the cookie jar first. This may benefit a few favored groups in the short run, but everyone loses in the long run.
  3. Proposals for reform typically do not go far or deep enough. There is a powerful temptation to avoid "rocking the boat", but to nevertheless be seen to be "doing something"—even if this doesn't produce any real improvement. Superficial "quick fixes" are proposed that essentially preserve (and further entrench) the status quo—when what is really needed is the willingness to think outside the box and come up with thoughtful, deep, courageous solutions that truly, effectively address the issue. Piecemeal, short-term, short-sighted "fixes" that cater only to specific situations or special interests only make things worse. We need comprehensive, long-term, far-sighted solutions that address the general interest of all members of our society. We don't need "management by crisis". We need a real, permanent solution based on timeless principles.
  4. But most importantly, what makes so many proposals stillborn, is their lack of consistency, their internal contradictions. These contradictions are what turns the proposals against themselves, sabotaging their effectiveness, subverting their stated goals, and disappointing the hopes of those who had held high expectations for them. Precision and consistency are absolutely essential if one wants a solution to work in the real world. The devil is in the details. Big secrets lie hidden in small differences.


Conflicts of Values

Any true solution needs to effectively address the needs of all members of society. This poses a very challenging problem, since each person is unique, and people display such a huge range of profoundly different needs and wants that are, in many cases, worlds apart. How can one reconcile the values of a Hindu, a Jew, a Christian, a Moslem, a Buddhist, an atheist? Or the aspirations of the rich and the poor? Or the requirements of a healthy economy and a healthy environment? Or developed and undeveloped countries? Or liberal and conservative politics? Or technological progress and traditional values? Or people of different race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, age, ability, socio-economic class, language, nationality?

What is more, these differences are not just a matter of superficial personal preferences, of differing tastes—they are deeply-held values that are experienced by people as core to their identity, as a matter of life and death. Vicious feuds have erupted, bitter, bloody wars have been fought, terrible acts of terrorism have been committed over these differences of values. In the face of such violent, fundamental disagreement, how could one possibly hope to achieve reconciliation, peace, and harmony? Isn't the situation utterly hopeless?

When confronted by what appears to be an insoluble problem, we need to step back, question our assumptions, go deeper, and allow for possibilities we had not considered before. The key to resolving differences lies in finding underlying common interests. But what if huge gulfs separate us? Then we need to go even deeper.

In the discussion of the meta-problem, we identified several foundational insights:

We also noted the common confusion of ends and means: we often assume that our disagreements are about ends, when in fact they usually are about the means to achieve our ends. Most people do not disagree about fundamental values. On the contrary, there is a remarkable degree of agreement about fundamental human values. Those who seek death and destruction are a small minority in any culture. The overwhelming majority of people want to create joyous lives and flourishing communities.

Thus we do in fact share a common interest: the fundamental value of life. What stands in our way? Violence. Violence is inherently destructive of life. It destroys both directly through physical destruction, and indirectly through coercion: forcing people to act against their moral judgment. This is why violence is universally condemned, and freedom from violence is universally acclaimed. Whatever else we may disagree about, there is widespread agreement that violence is our number one social problem. In other words, the recognition that violence is the fundamental social evil is a cultural invariant. Let us now follow this clue and examine the nature of violence and the conditions of freedom more closely.

Fundamentally, there are only two ways people can deal with each other: voluntarily—or by force. Respecting each other's free will—or forcing our will on others (or others forcing their will on us).

That is what changes everything: the presence or absence of coercion. Freedom is the absence of coercion.

Let us define our terms more precisely. In the context of the Freedom Universal, the terms "force", "coercion", and "violence" are used interchangeably. Their meaning, in this context, is: the initiation of force by some persons against other persons. This definition distinguishes two fundamentally different uses of force: offense, and defense. The use of force in self-defense against the initiation of force, is perfectly legitimate. It is the initiation of force against innocents that is immoral. This definition also specifically limits the term "force" to only those kinds of force that are exercised by humans against other humans—it excludes accidents and forces of nature, such as natural disasters. Why are these excluded? Because they are not a matter of choice: humans have free will, nature does not. We have to accept the facts of nature, but we do not have to accept some people's choice to initiate violence against other people—precisely because they do have a choice about it. It is the responsibility of each of us to choose peaceful rather than violent means.

Violence is our fundamental social problem. The challenge is how to reduce or eliminate it. Our societies are in desperate need of a solution that effectively addresses the problems raised in The Meta-Problem and The Problem. We need a solution that solves the problem of violence once and for all, and thus clears the way for freedom.

Next: The Solution

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