This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Best Definition of Freedom I've Heard

I saw Ralph Nader speak at Google yesterday, and he had the best definition of freedom I've ever heard. An excerpt from Nader's 2004 commencement address:

"Cicero, while we are quoting the ancients, once defined freedom as participation in power [bold added]. I think it is the best definition of freedom that I have heard. Freedom is participating in power such as a deliberative democracy, such as government, such as corporations, such as trade unions. People have to participate in those areas of power that affect their lives so intimately."

It sets a high-bar and makes me ask how the open systems I'm engaged in live up to it. I'm also not sure yet how to integrate meritocracy into this, which I think is important, especially for open source. Any ideas?

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Comments:
Power means having a voice. I believe there is some matter that each of us knows better than anyone else. In areas concerning that matter, it is important that we can speak for ourselves and be heard by all interested in that matter without being silenced.

With power there is responsibility. That responsibility includes holding interest in the things that matter most for the benefit of all.
 
I think where all of these definitions of freedom hit problems is when you consider them in extremes.

For example, if I take freedom of association as an absolute, then your freedom to participate in my association (be it company, lobby group, etc) becomes a limitation on my freedom of association, since I nor my group no longer have the freedom to choose who participates.

If I take freedom as a negative right, the libertarian conception of non-initiation of force, the right to be left alone, to do as a please as long as I don't initiate force against anyone else, then Nader's definition of freedom implies, ultimately, a measure of force against others.

Of course, the reason why we don't live in purely libertarian, anarchist, or communist societies, is because there are system-level meta-effects, where independent actors, applying force to no one, can create global externalities which end up affecting others.

Thus, we compromise and allow large groups of individuals working together to violate negative rights principles, when externalities become too large a burden.

A typical example I like to use is having children. Ideally, I'd have no say in how other people have kids or raise their children. However, there is an externality from additional mouths to feed, from additional under educated children, from additional crime, etc that does impact me in many ways. Thus, even as a libertarian, I'd choose to build schools instead of prisons, because I'd rather live in a world where I am "taxed" to educate and maintain civilizaton, rather than "taxed" to build prison fortresses to prevent my property being stolen.

For me, the key is where the line is drawn. We see both bad and good effects from different types of participation, and each much be evaluated non-dogmatically and from a non-partisan perspective, IMHO.
 
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