The complexities and limitations of freedom

We value “freedom”  so much that people have lost their “freedom” by fighting to death for it.  But it is a complex concept with lots of limitations.

This post was inspired by an article on economic freedom with a nice graph showing we now have more economic freedom than we have ever had..  I was too lazy to try to figure it out but it did get me thinking.

Definitions are sometimes fuzzy. For for this post there are two aspects to freedom.  There is the freedom to make decisions and to act accordingly and there is the freedom from having to do what others tell us.

The main factor affecting our freedom is the agricultural surplus because that relieves us of the drudgery of producing or gathering or hunting for food.  The less time we use for food the more time we have with which to do what we want or which other people want us to do.  If the agricultural surplus per person were to decrease we may find ourselves with less freedom.

Freedom varies in different parts of our lives.  In British Columbia we have freedom of religion and can attend any church of our choosing – or mostly not.  However, we are required by law to educate our children.  The options are home schooling, a few expensive  private schools (mostly religious) or public schools (in effect a monopoly) over which we have very little say.  So we have freedom of religion but very little freedom as to how we educate our children.

Here are some of the things which limit our ability to make and act on decisions.

Our own values, morals and religion.  If your religion tells you salvation comes from work, then that limits your right to goof off.  The work ethic is part of many people’s belief system but it is also very much in the interests of people who want others to work for them.

The values, morals and religion of other people.  The most evil of all people are those who try to force their values, morals and religion upon others.  Unfortunately my belief in this evil does not stop others from trying and often succeeding.  The greatest evil comes when these people get into government.

Politicians and their bureaucrats sometimes like to tell the rest of us how to live and our commitment to the “rule of law” gives them means to do so.  Try to sell unpasteurized milk in Canada and you will probably have a rule of law learning experience.

At least in the industrial countries many people worry, and probably rightly so, about their pensions and their well-being in retirement.  This could be a natural need for security or it could be a result of marketing by the financial industry.  In any case it limits our freedom to do things that do not contribute to a pension plan such as extended travel or going to live in the forest.  The problem is that our well-being in retirement will depend up on the quantity of goods and services the economy is capable of producing at that time.  Pensions and savings are vulnerable to inflation or bankruptcy.

Economics is about relationships and relationships can  be both supportive of freedom or restrictive.  I believe relationships are most satisfactory when there is a more or less equal exchange but there is no law which states that relationships have to be satisfactory.  Relationships are as complex as the personalities of the participants.  The key to happiness may be in finding a partner whose personality compliments our own.

I have long believed that little girls should not be allowed to play with dolls because they learn that they can have relationships in which they have total control over actions and thoughts.  When they grow up this tends to limit the freedom of their husbands.  Us guys have to learn to be assertive.

It may be that some people can’t cope with a lot of freedom and seek out life situations where their right to make their own decisions is limited.  Erich Fromm was concerned about populations giving up political freedom to dictators and wrote a book in 1941 called Escape From Freedom.

There are people who feel they have the right to tell others how to live their lives and these people limit the freedom of others.  There may have been times and places where these people could use force but at least is some places today force is not easy.  It is much less messy to use psychological tactics.  For example the work ethic,  fears about future security or psychological marketing can be used to encourage people to do what somebody else wants them to do.

It may be the great industrial societies in which some of us live and which we associate with freedom were in fact created because most people have given up a some of the freedom of the agricultural surplus.  Sometimes I think we have overdone the technological development and work for the sake of work although there is a lot I would not want to give up.

Freedom appears to be a complex concept which varies by individual and by the different aspects of our lives. Those of us who value the right to make our own decisions should fare reasonable well and those with a submissive personality should find it easy to meet their needs.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

The pyramids, central planning and capitalism

Three or four millenia before anyone ever thought of the word capitalism the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids using an economic system which was probably closer to the Soviet’s central planning than American “capitalism”.

This blogger has just finished reading A history of Ancient Egypt from the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid (2012) by John Romer and found several points of interest.

It is amazing how much archeologists can tell about ancient Peoples but we also have to realize that we know very little about them.  Romer points out that some good stories have been told about ancients on very little evidence and that often the stories tell more about the authors than the ancients.  My speculation about Soviet style central planning may be an example.

Probably the most significant thing is there is no evidence of money.  The building of the pyramids involved up to forty or fifty thousand people, about ten percent of the working population.  This must have  involved a lot of planning and coordination.

Money and decision-making may be an issue here.  I am wondering if the pyramids could have been built if the ancient Egyptians had money.  Money as we know it represents purchasing power and control over resources.  With money decisions are made by those people who hold the money and they may not always agree.  Who made the decision that the ancient Egyptian  agricultural surplus was going to be used to build pyramids?  Was it one person, was it a small group or did they have a society wide consensus. Unless human nature has changed a lot in four thousand years I doubt if it was the later.  I bet a lot of current national leaders, even  some from democratic countries, would love to have the decision-making power the Pharaohs may have had.

It could be that freedom is in part the right to decide what to do with one’s share of the agricultural surplus and money is an important part of that freedom.  If you have money you have control over some resources. The more people who have money the more spread out is the decision-making and the greater variety of decisions.

Without money there would have been no saving as we think of it.  There was probably some storage of food and maybe some stockpiling of materials for construction but most of the work would have been done with current production and was dependent upon the agricultural surplus which allowed food for the construction workers.  This probably also applies to our own economy where a huge agricultural surplus allows most of us to work on other projects.

While working on the draft of this post I read this article in The Economist about capitalism and inequality.  There appears to be an assumption that capital is something which can be accumulated.  Certainly a large manufacturing or construction project requires resources beyond those available to most individuals but after reading about the ancient Egyptians it is not clear that one can accumulate “capital” .  What is required is control over a quantity of current or very recent production (or agricultural surplus).  The capitalist gets this control by getting money (purchasing power) from others in the form of loans or investments.  Governments sometimes have the ability to get control over large chunks of current production

Economics is about relationships including the relationship between people and their government.  For ancient Egypt the archeological record has two pieces of evidence.  A number of hieroglyphics show tribute being brought to the leaders and there are also the pyramids.

I enjoyed reading about the ancient Egyptians but I probably would not enjoy living in a society where all or most of the agricultural surplus went to another person’s project – except perhaps if I didn.t know anything else.

Low wages and supply and demand for people

One has to have a great deal of sympathy and understanding for those fast food workers demanding a living wage and one also has to fear that the supply and demand for bodies will keep them down.

There are lots of other people, out of sight and/or not counted,  struggling to survive on low incomes.  They too deserve compassion and understanding.

It has been said that the profits of the fast food industry are sufficient to double the wages of all its workers.  This is not the issue.  The issue is that wages are determined by supply and demand.  The reality is that there are more people than there are jobs.  Some firms have demonstrated they can make good profits by paying their employees well but human nature is such that most employers will continue to pay as little as they can.

Technology has reduced the need for workers and reduced transportation costs have increased the supply of workers from other countries.

With the world economy in crash mode the plight of low-income people is likely to continue and even get worse. At the same time a few will continue to get richer.  The one thing which could level the field would be hyperinflation which would hurt everyone.

Another indication of the oversupply of workers is the declining power of private sector unions.  Public sector unions are still doing well because they have monopoly and political power.  I would have more respect for teachers’ unions if they were to go on strike demanding an increase in well fare rates.

I believe subsidies should be given to consumers rather than producers.  Therefore I would like to see some sort of universal income scheme such as a guaranteed annual income or the negative income tax proposed by Milton Friedman.  This probably would not halt the economic decline but would be fairer than the way we now treat people.  It may be that the American dream is just a  dream.

Environmental eating

The 100-mile diet or eating locally is one way people can try to be more environmentally sensitive in their eating habits.  Removing agricultural subsidies would be a more difficult and probably more effective way of doing the same thing.

We live on the edge of a major fruit and vegetable growing area yet when we walk through the major chain supermarkets most of the produce appears to be imported.  It is easy to understand those people who want to eat locally or eat a 100-mile diet (all food produced within 100 miles of ones residence) or “live in place”.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that locally produced food is any healthier or more environmentally friendly than food grown elsewhere.  One does not  have to go far off the major highways to see what appear to be factory farms.  The Conference Board of Canada has said something similar in a recent report according to an article in The Western Producer.

Improved transportation and food supply chain logistics have made long distance transport of fresh and frozen food viable, economical and environmentally sustainable, says the report published in late July.

Local food production can actually consume more energy and leave a larger “environmental footprint” than food produced more efficiently and transported, says the report, Fast and Fresh: A Recipe for Canada’s Food Supply Chains.

(I think of the Conference Board of Canada as representing corporate rather than consumer interests.)

Another way to deal health and environmental issues in food production would be to remove all agricultural subsidies so that consumers would, as much as possible, know the full costs of the foods they eat and could make purchasing decisions according to their values.  Then we could eat locally  or imported depending upon which is cheaper and according to our values.  If the true cost of food is high enough some of us might decide to grow our own.

The problem with this approach is that subsidies, especially for farming,  are entrenched in our economy and removing this would be extremely difficult.  Also for political reasons governments generally practice a cheap food policy.

johnny_automatic_cornThis guy does most of the family grocery shopping at two stores.  One is plant nursery and produce store which carries lots of local items when they are in season as well as imported fruits and vegetables.  Their prices are usually less than the supermarkets and the farmers markets.  The other is a locally owned supermarket which carries some local products.

After writing the draft for this post I drove 10 km (return) to a  neighboring farm  to buy some fresh corn for lunch.  This was well within the 100-mile diet, but how environmental was it?  The corn was very nice.

A road trip

This guy has just returned from a road trip to the eastern side of Saskatchewan ( city of Yorkton) on the Canadian prairies.  Through the mountains the scenery is spectacular but in some ways the prairies are more interesting as there is more human activity and many degrees of flatness. (There are extensive vistas from some of the high spots.)

Once upon a time as a reporter in a British Columbia fruit-growing community I decided I did not want to be a farmer.  When I got to university and studied economics I reaffirmed this decision.   But I do believe agriculture is too important to leave to people who make their living at it.  As we drove there were many questions about what I saw but it is hard to get answer when traveling at 100 km per hour.

1-DSCF5710DSCF5728The most obvious change is in the size of farms.  There are many abandoned farms sites, each one probably representing a broken dream.  With this there has been a change in the style and size of the grain elevators.  The pictures are of the old and new styles.

Coming home we took a secondary road and found that the road less traveled is sometimes less well maintained.  Driving on broken pavement and lots of potholes can be stressful.  When budgets are tight  it’s the major roads that get the money.

Are small-scale economies the answer?

Some people see small, local economies as the answer to current problems.  Currently the catch word is Transition as in the Transition Town network as reported in The Guardian.

Generally speaking, the Transition vision is of a move towards self-sufficiency at the local level, in food, energy and much else, but the specifics of what “getting it right” might look like were never handed down from above, says the article.

 

It could work for a few small groups but as a solution to the world economic problem I have to be skeptical.  This world has had lots of experience with local, small-scale production.  In fact economic theory starts with firms that are too small to influence prices with their purchasing or selling decisions.

lalolalo_Running_pigOne of the problems with this approach is the dynamics of small communities.   Some people think of small communities as being utopia where everybody is friends, cooperates and decisions are made by consensus.  

Those of us who live or have lived in small communities know this a long way from reality.  People have disagreements which never get resolved, even if one party leaves the community.  Us guys lived on a British Columbia coastal Indian reservation for four years.  Here where it was very difficult to leave, lots of people did not speak to each other.  They had a long tradition of feasts and large family dinners but they would have up to three or four hundred people eating  in the recreation center and one could almost hear a pin drop because it so quiet from people not speaking to each other.  Some of their leaders described the reservation as a prison camp.

We now live in a small rural community of mostly white people.  This is not so bad but there are still many people who don’t speak to some others.

I figure economics is about relationship as expressed in the exchange of goods and services.  When you try to go local you are cutting yourself off from lots of people who thanks to modern transportation are within visiting and trading range.  No small community is going to have all the resources it requires to maintain itself.  The local natives in our area needed arrows for hunting.  There was some usable stone in their area, now on a major highway.    Better stone was several days away and the best, obsidian, was found in what is now the United States.  Trying to go local limits your range of consumption.

The important thing to ask with this type proposal is will it solve the overall problem and that depends upon what the problem is.  I think the problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  While there may be lots of resources left it will take a lot of energy to retrieve them.  It may be there are some small deposits of energy or minerals which can easily be mined in which case some small economic communities  could fare reasonably well.  Another question:  would small-scale agriculture provide enough food for seven billion people?

This world has had several millenia of experience with local economics.  Since  the industrial revolution most of us have enjoyed the products and social interaction of dealing with people around the world.   I’m not sure I would want to lose that and I am not worried.

Intelligent machines, neurological disorders and decision making

It is tempting to say computers with artificial intelligence will never replace humans with all their neurological disorders but after reading this article in The Economist a couple of weeks ago, one needs to be careful.  It could be wishful thinking.

For me this raises the issues of how we use agricultural surpluses and what impact smart computers will have on decision-making..  How do we use the human energy and time released by technology?

When I studied European economic history the professor spent a lot of time talking about medieval improvements in agricultural productivity.  In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.  The more productive agriculture became the more people could pray or fight as most of the agriculture surplus went to monks and knights.

This professor went on to write a book about the industrial Revolution in which he pointed out the plague reduced the supply of workers who were then able to claim a better standard of living and keep it.  (This made it efficient to replaced labor with coal which was very cheap in England.)

For most of human history those who prayed and those who fought were able to claim for themselves the surplus.  Since the Industrial Revolution the increased production and the supply and demand for labor have been such that  workers have been able to claim a share of the agricultural surplus and industrial production.  To the fighters and the prayers have been added those who manage.  We also have the work ethic and a religious like belief that the only way to share the surplus to have everyone working regardless of how useless and meaningless the work is.

With the development of machines that can make decisions  and with problems in the resource base the demand for labor is going down quickly and lots of people around the world are unemployed.  I fear we are returning to what has been the norm for several millenia – a few people will live in luxury and the rest will survive at a subsistence level.

computer_rageThis post started with an article about smart machines.  I figure that most, if not all of us, have a neurological disorder in that our brains are wired differently.  We behave differently, develop different values and make different decisions. How will this impact on machines that make decisions?  How will our society be changed if decision-making is by computers that do not have disorders?   Will different machines be able to make different decisions from the same inputs or will all machines make decisions according to the values of the people who programmed them?

However intelligent computers develop I enjoy the reading and thinking that goes into this weblog.  I hope I don’t lose that.

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