Arriving to Where you Love (Freedom vs. Agency)

A friend was trying to engage me in a political discussion. This hadn’t particularly gone well between us in the past, so I was wading in a bit reluctantly.

I forget exactly what I said that provoked this response in him, maybe discussing some policy currently in consideration by the legislature, and he blurted: “Don’t you see? Less government is better government! Every law they make impinges on my freedom! That’s just how it works! That’s how it always works! The very nature of a law is a kind of restriction, so the fewer we have, the better off we are.”

I said: “I think you and I see freedom very differently. I can see why you say that any law restricts your freedom, but there are times that restricting freedom actually increases our agency. And what I’m committed to is maximizing agency, not freedom.”

He looked at me like I was from another planet, had just spoken in alien gibberish, and started shaking his head like I was some kind of lost cause.

I continued: “Think about the law that says people have to drive on the right side of the road. Should we be angry about those unreasonable restrictions placed on us? Just think of all those left sides, I can’t drive on! And it’s my God-given right to drive where I damn well please!”

I laughed: “Actually, I CAN drive on those sides of the road too; I just have to be headed in the opposite direction. And it turns out restricting our freedom to drive on whatever the hell part of the road we want to actually INCREASES our ability to get to places alive and uninjured.”

He paused a moment… then said: “That’s not the kind of law I’m talking about. I’m talking about unnecessary regulations.”

I asked: “You mean those ridiculous measures that limit people’s freedom to dump toxic waste in rivers, or operate nuclear plants, or beat up people just because they’re in a bad mood, or establish guidelines around false advertising, or stop just any hot-head who just had an argument from buying a gun in the heat of the moment? You don’t see how those kinds of regulations are exactly the same kind of thing? They actually HELP you get where you want to go alive and uninjured.”

He didn’t seem to like the way this conversation was going. What I said was making some sense, but seemed to conflict with some libertarian maxim or formula for determining where to stand on an issue.

My friend was also a software developer, and I saw an opportunity to recontextualize this conversation from politics to technology tools that help us work together more effectively.

“Strangely, this is exactly the kind of problem we’re trying to solve in the software we’re building. We’re going back to the drawing board on fundamental computing architectures and changing some assumptions which at first seem to limit some freedom. And then it turns out if you can build on top of a that new structure, your ability communicate according to your own protocols, on your platforms, in your own languages, on your own machine, to do what you want, when you want, with whom you want is actually INCREASED.”

“Not only that, but it completely alters the relationships between groups and individuals which is currently a domain that a lot of our politics polarizes around. Using these distributed tools, a group can encode their agreements, and every member of the group can take a running copy. They can interact with their own copy, keeping control of their own data, and then their copy synchronizes with everyone else, who can also be in control of their own stuff.”

“It enables a new kind of mutual sovereignty - actually a kind of fractal sovereignty, where the people are still constrained to operating according the agreements of the group, but not with any of the power dynamics of the centralized control of resources or information that most group-individual conflict emerges from.”

My attempt to change the subject didn’t quite work and unfortunately the conversation kind of unraveled from there, returning to some reason that all laws fundamentally compromise his freedom. But the whole thing stuck with me as a really important distinction that I knew I’d need to get better at communicating about.

So… this is my opening up that conversation for exploration. And I need to write in greater detail, how this all works in Ceptr in the Apocalypse document.

One interesting connected tidbit is the Greek word for freedom: Eleutheria. It seems to derive from the word roots “arriving” (eleu), “to where one loves” (eran).

I wish we had a better word for that in English.