How Free is Free?
If you’re looking for the pulse of a society, spend some time in a taxi. I spend a lot of time in Chinese taxis. Taxi drivers are interested in me mostly for the simple fact that I can talk to them—something most people that look like me cannot do. After establishing this base, the conversation generally moves toward subjects they know they may never have another opportunity to get a crack at. Trump comes up. I say mean things about Trump. Then I say that’s just my opinion, you know. And then something along the lines of, it is what it is, and it’s ok, because we chose him. Or we chose to have the right to choose him. And they get to talking about freedom—how regular people have all this power in the US. How we can say whatever we want etc. They’re interested in that. We talk about guns. And I tell how China is seriously fucking safe. And I have this schtick where I say, “The US isn’t as dangerous as you see in the news, though. At least 60% of the people I grew up with are still alive.” And they consider this, nod knowingly, recoil in fear, and laugh cautiously.
But they like to ask about freedom—the keen ones at least. They always bring it up. Freedom, after all, is so goddamn American. Americans are addicted to it—can’t get enough. Talk about it like a parent talks about their honor roll kid. Love it unconditionally. Love it so much they forget what it is, just know that it’s the best and they invented it and have the copyright. Die without it. Die for it. Put their conviction in it on bumper stickers and license plates. Pray about it in the morning and before sporting events. Carry the gospel to all corners of the globe. The unofficial official American religion. Our raison d’être.
Only natural, really, that people on the outside, when confronted with this level of fanaticism, would be curious.
Having lived in China for almost four years—and in the USA for almost 24, I’ve watched my hardwired American views on freedom shift. This viewshift, I suppose, is the value of a transient life. Persistent conviction recalibration, learning from different teachers.
Americans tend to perceive freedom constitutionally, equating the concept with our first amendment. Most people raised between Canada and Mexico reflexively define freedom in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of protest, freedom of religion—essentially boiling down to a panoply that falls under freedom of expression—the freedom, the power, to be yourself. In the USA, freedom and freedom of expression are, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.
What are the extremes of being free?
On one end, you are tied up and gagged in a serial killer’s basement. You cannot move your arms or legs. You have no idea when you can leave. And when and if you get to leave is completely out of your control. You have, at this point, your thoughts and nothing else.
On the other extreme—the serial killer. He has complete and utter power to do whatever he wants.
So, pure un-freedom is utter lack of power. Pure freedom is total power. So, then the freest people in history were kings, pharaohs, rocket men.
Of course a “free society,” then, is a place where there is some kind of distribution of the most freedom for the most people. That, at the very least, each member has the opportunity to become freer. You see the impossible balance of American freedom at the Masterpiece Cakeshop. Who is it, exactly, that gets to be “free?” Who is it that gets to express themselves when a contradiction arises? Is freedom a zero sum game?
Maybe anarchy is pure freedom—you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, that would be extremely oppressive and unfree—never knowing when someone was coming up behind you to tap your shoulder or chop your head off or steal your piggy bank. The opposite of freedom, really, is fear.
Too much control and there is no freedom, not enough control and there is no freedom.
On balance, the average Westerner thinks of China as relatively unfree. Homogenous. Everyone has black hair. Everyone wears glasses. The government is pretty oppressive. Not, like North Korea oppressive, but a few clicks down. There is some truth here. But, this opinion is only true if we approach freedom from the relatively advanced starting point of freedom of expression.
Governments ought to be created in man’s ideal image. So, our systems of human organization—our governments—should probably follow something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 1). Make sure people can eat/drink enough to survive. 2). Make sure people are safe. 3). Allow for strong social outlets/communities to develop. 4). American dream stuff—give everybody the opportunity to be successful. Freedom of expression begins to creep in around here—maybe somewhere between levels three and four. And, 5)—no system of government has really been able to pull this off on any meaningful long-term scale—societal self-actualization.
The truth is, you really can’t skip steps. You have to go in order. It’s no coincidence that the most developed and wealthiest countries are also the most progressive and free—with the notable exception of countries that are rich simply because they happen to be located in close proximity to large amounts of oil.
Many Iraqis, many Libyans—to name a few—now lament the deposition of their brutal, freedom-repressing dictators. Why? Because, in their revolutionary desire to jump from society level 3 to society level 4, they ended up somewhere between levels 1 and 2. They tried (or were forced into) leveling up and ended up having to restart the game.
Though many, many people (many who know better, many who don’t) might disagree, I believe freedom of expression is near-useless without having first mastered the preliminary levels. Safety first. If you can’t find food but you can protest, if you are sick and there is no hospital but you can speak your mind, if you are sick and there is no road to the hospital but you can practice your religion, if someone is shooting up your school but you can pray, if you are tied up in a serial killer’s basement but you can still tell him to go fuck himself, how free are you? There is no right answer, but it’s more complex than it is simple. It is easy to be idealistic about the value of freedom of expression, but idealists are very rarely sick, hungry, and tied up in a serial killer’s basement.
Idealists are people who don’t understand that you can’t really skip steps. They want the future to be here today. Admirable, ideal, but rarely realistic.
Laws—something there are many of in the land of the free—are, by definition, limitations on freedom. What good laws actually do is delineate how much freedom a society can tolerate at a given time. Bankers are regulated because they can’t handle themselves if they aren’t.
In a totally actualized society—Nirvana, moksha, heaven—there would be no need for laws, because we would always do the harmonious thing. But how can one be expected to do what is in the best interest of the most people and treat everyone perfectly when one’s kids are starving? Or when there are seven-figure bonuses at stake? Normal people fucking eat other normal people when they get really hungry.
The key question is, what is the inflection point? When can a society successfully go one step forward without falling two steps back? What conditions must be present for idealism to become reality?
The Western criticisms of China—and the Western criticisms of much of the rest of the world—are usually made by people who simply don’t get this concept. Aside from the obvious paradox of forcing freedom, it is just not possible to exchange shoes with someone who is hungry or threatened or hungry and threatened unless you have been those things. Attempting to do so has been done (often with good intention) time and again throughout history—particularly modern history—and it so often ends in backfiring disaster.
I am a liberal American living in a developing country—the developing country. It has taken me a very long time to reconcile my assumptions about the world with this new, unfamiliar reality.
The planned economy, the—let’s call it, strongly recommended—urbanization, the undesirable human rights, the lack of elections. The harsh bottom line is: the society has been levelling up. For the last forty years China has been transforming itself into the kind of place that can sustain the next level of freedom. It takes a while. You don’t storm the gates, topple a statue, and wake up with free and fair elections.
This brings me back to taxi drivers.
I’m not going to predict the future, per se. But, their curiosity is no accident. China is essentially at that sweet spot between levels 3 and 4. It’s the truth and it can’t help but be felt—a quiet tension lingering comfortably below the surface, but lingering nonetheless. The next ten years in China will be… compelling, unpredictable, will be many things. How do they hit the next level? Who gets to be free? How much freedom can they handle and how quick?
But the fact remains, it’s hard to argue that China would be in a better position if they’d listened to idealistic criticism. Would China be better off if, say, the events of 1989 had played out differently? It’s not black and white. Even if people here aren’t yet free in the classical, next-level sense, they are freer now than they’ve ever been.