What is a Free Society?

This essay is deeply influenced by my research over the past three years focusing on the articles, lectures, and books authored by Roberto Mangabeira Unger.  It is necessary to pay an intellectual debt to his theories and vision of the future as over the years they have been one of the primary drivers of my understanding of the possible.  While the conception of a free society below draws from his works, it is intertwined with my perspective as an activist, independent researcher, and civic entrepreneur.

What is freedom?  It depends who you ask.   It seems like every political party has their interpretation of the freedom that they believe is best for them.    That’s not a critique; it’s hard to put your finger on the concept.  Freedom is a lot like fear, anger, happiness, and love. We know them when we feel them, and they’re meaningful parts of the human experience, but we can never accurately give them form.  Despite that, we yearn for more.

If we’re ever going to have a chance of deepening our freedom we better start by understanding what we want.

Are you feeling free yet?

For many of us, things feel bad now.  It doesn’t matter which political team you root for; our combined anxiety is palpable.   Climate change, mass extinctions, government shutdowns, systemic racism, a healthcare system designed to extract wealth, an opioid epidemic fueled by desolation of purpose, and so many elected representatives who act as corporate agents.  Its a system supported by massive wealth inequality empowered through legislative policy by every administration since Nixon. It makes me anxious just writing it. Where did the practice of democracy go wrong?

The idea of freedom that produced our present institutions is drawn from classical liberalism.  It combined the belief of empowerment of the individual with the institutional arrangements of society.   The laws surrounding property and contract being central to this historical framework. We know now that this organization of economy and state has failed to increase agency in every individual as promised because much of America’s population exists within a state of economic oppression.   

Our version of a market economy has evolved over the years with mixed results.  It has produced incredible innovations in many different directions while simultaneously disenfranchising entire classes of people via debt-fueled serfdom.    We know that three families hold wealth that is four million times larger than the median wealth of American families and three men (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet) own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined. [1]  Entire books have been written about the damage that wealth inequality is causing in societies today.  

We should not reduce the argument to just wealth.  The most important indicator of the need for alternatives is that our institutions deny the vast majority of our population the opportunity to develop their potential within the world.   Our mistake has not been choosing capitalism as our system; our mistake is the dogmatic worship of its present form.

So how do we address this error?  We can start by taking a lesson from history.  The liberals and socialists had insightful ideas about future structures of social order.  They understood that social structures should be used for the good of the majority. We differ from the past through our commitment to rejecting absolute devotion to any single institutional arrangement   We can learn from history without being ruled by it.

Deeper freedom is both possible and achievable, but it requires an alternative vision of the future from anything offered presently.  If we can develop a genuine alternative for good then we will ignite our collective hope for the future.

Freedom to be

Reimagining a structure for a free society begins with identifying the values we want to codify into our institutions.  Structures impose a certain way of living and thinking upon us and by existing within institutions our understanding of the world is formed.  Just as the liberals of the past intertwined property ownership into the definition of freedom and institutional arrangement so must we establish a core set of values that we will use to measure the success of our structure.  

To start, we should agree to avoid any attempt to be neutral. This translates into the abandonment of policy that is considered a central compromise between the artificial construct of right and left political ideals.  People and experiences can never be successfully classified by efforts that attempt to shrink alternative visions of the future into a handful of fringe issues. No law impacting our political, economic, or social institutions can ever be neutral.  Every arrangement that we might choose encourages some forms of experience while discouraging others. Claiming to be neutral, or claiming a potential direction to be neutral, will almost certainly serve to entrench ideals that favor present power structures further.   Neutrality is a false goal and denies us the possibility of realizing genuine transformation.

We want to create a set of value-driven structures that respect each individual while empowering them to explore their limitless potential.  It is in this belief that we form the foundation of a profoundly free society. Entering into this political effort, we understand and embrace that no concept of a free society is definitive or all inclusive.  Everything is subject to change and over time our vision of the good will be replaced by a bigger version drawing from experiences we have yet to perceive. Each new structural innovation represents a limit to be surpassed, a snapshot of history.  Through this culture of perpetual change, we continuously expand our understanding of ourselves alongside our institutional arrangements.

Embarking on reimagination of our most fundamental rights requires embracing an absolute truth; we do not know what we do not know.  Existence is a series of moments experienced in an identifiable section of space-time, an infinite present. Today we can only learn from the past, therefore we have a limited view of what the future of society and humanity can be.  If we constrain our ability to transform the economic, social, and political structures of society then we choose to limit our self-understanding.

Embarking on reimagination of our most fundamental rights requires embracing an absolute truth; we do not know what we do not know.  Existence is a series of moments experienced in an identifiable section of space-time, an infinite present. Today we can only learn from the past, therefore we have a limited view of what the future of society and humanity can be.  If we limit our ability to transform the economic, social, and political structures of society then we choose to limit our self-understanding.

Freedom to create

We’ve established the relationship between the structure of society and the self while laying a core foundational principle of deep freedom.  Now we give the ideals of a free society meaning by exploring the institutional change necessary to manifest it.

We define structure as the institutional and ideological truths that define our routine practices, transactions, and conflicts, many of which we take for granted.  Creating pathways to transform structure will always weaken present arrangements in favor of the new. This is the ideal outcome, perpetually decreasing the power of the past over the present.

We design society to maximize access and agency for every individual. Our intent is to ensure that everyone has the educational, economic, and political tools necessary to move between actions within existing frameworks and new ones that challenge it.  Every person can freely choose to labor in an established methodology or challenge that path in search for something greater. We encourage imagination in all directions, marrying passion and labor together.

Education becomes primary and allows each of us to have the depth needed to transcend the way things are. Access to continuous education at all stages of life is a requirement of any free society moving forward.  The exponential growth rate technology [2] guarantees massive disruption in our present routines and will continue to generate situations where we will be forced out of our comfort zones and into new pathways of exploring the world.  Armed with this knowledge we imbue the primacy of education into our economic, social, and political institutions. Any person who wants to change the direction of their efforts within the world is provided access to the most advanced educational resources available.  There is no restriction or requirement.

Freedom of Opportunity and Equality

A genuinely free society shapes the concepts of opportunity and equality in the form of a series of personal and social protections that are completely secure.   Each person has access to a type of education that is continuous, allowing for the redirecting of their efforts to continuously grow and innovate in whatever direction they desire. Deep freedom breaks from our present structure in that we remove the constraint of our identity and security being tied to a specific form of living.   We choose a future that allows us to adapt to become greater versions of ourselves continuously.

You can imagine this suite of vital protections as an updated bill of rights, beginning from the present and written in a way that is open to continuous revision as progress reveals new needs.   Keeping in mind our intention of the maximization of access and agency of the individual we can begin with suggesting a framework of focus. We can refer to them as the Seven Dignities. Food/water, shelter, healthcare, education, information, transportation, and communication.  By ensuring every individual access to these resources as a fundamental right, we remove the power of being born into an advantaged class. To embrace these dignities is to deem the equality of respect and opportunity as sacred within humanity.

No free society can ever have a class structure.  The division of peoples into factions defined by material wealth becomes illegal.  Inequalities created through entrenched power structures in our political, economic, and cultural are also banned.  It is because of class structures that the present order denies freedom as we have outlined above.    A society that prioritizes material wealth as the primary indicator of success will always deny people equal access to opportunity as the very structure generates inequity by design.  The fact is millions of Americans [3] are subject to a level absolute poverty that denies them any agency of transformation within the world. Present structure prevents these people any opportunity of self-improvement, failing the proclaimed objective of democracy as it exists today.   No person or groups of people retain the right to refuse the other of their power of transformation.

A free society discourages the worship of power.  Power today is typically translated in control of an industry or political region but can also be classified as cultural.  The problem with worshiping power as we do now is that it inhibits the talents of the powerful while simultaneously disenfranchising those without.  We know from countless biographies that in many cases people with remarkable talent or natural advantage are motivated by the very process of doing. Concentrating their cultural and material power above others does nothing for their ability to create and poses a genuine risk to the philosophy of inclusive cooperation required by a free society. We reject the myth that people need material incentive to innovate that pervades society — recognizing that if given access to the necessary resources to dive deeply into passion the individual works for the very purpose of the work.

Equality and opportunity impact our relation to one another as well.  No person has the right to coerce another. No state or organization can act as an instrument of oppression of an individual.  As our ability to transcend circumstances of the present defines our humanity so then do we structure our legal arrangements as always to honor this commitment to one another.  We meet attempts to establish thought and structure regimes based on coercion with total opposition.

In guaranteeing the freedom of equality and opportunity, we do not accept the disenfranchisement of the many for the benefit of the few.   It requires us to be aware of new inequalities that arise and to proactively correct them. To be clear, this is not an argument for equality of outcomes which is not feasible and detrimental to the human potential.  A free society promises no success in results while simultaneously maximizing the opportunity to attempt innovation.

Labor in a Free Society

One of the biggest tragedies of the present liberal order is the abandonment of what some of history’s most admired leaders believed of wage labor.  Abraham Lincoln was one of many who thought that wage labor was an inadequate labor arrangement drawing comparisons to slavery. [4] Free labor defined as an economic model where people have access to the resources necessary to pursue work in any vertical they would choose.   A free society rejects the notion that economically dependent wage labor is a natural occurrence choosing instead to embrace the link between work and personal transcendence.

No person should ever have to do a job a machine can do.  Any repetition we observe can translate into a formula that we program into machines and software.  As soon as advancements allow we implement innovations across all industries. In doing so, we give every person the ability to spend their time focusing on creating and innovating.  Reflecting on the present day, the looming crisis of automation becomes our most significant opportunity. Automation spreads throughout all industries through the extension of access of the most advanced technologies and practices to all organizations.  By challenging our perceptions of how we organize labor on a macro scale, we can create a structure to radically deepen every person’s ability to work how they desire.    

This definition of labor is both feasible and necessary.  Automation has already transformed industries that historically relied on low-skilled factory labor and has already begun to advance into what would presently be defined as high-skilled labor. [5]  Everything we know about the nature of work is changing, and we must structure our institutions and society in a way that embraces this change for our benefit.

Cooperative competition becomes the standard practice for labor.     Firms are structured in a way that they compete on the value of the services and goods they offer.  Systems are built to deepen cooperative efforts such as collaborative purchasing, dissemination of best practices, and access to the most advanced technologies and tools to all organizations a sector.   Every person seeking to innovate has access to our collective knowledge about the best methods existing in the present which in turn allow them to begin work on creating the new. Redefining how we view competition in our markets enable us to empower our citizenry to deeper levels of freedom in their labor and direction within the world.

A free society embraces the most advanced form of production and rejects the notion that any single organization, or group of organizations, have the exclusive right to create using the most advanced methodologies.  The Knowledge Economy requires highly skilled and highly transferable labor. It is the responsibility of a free society to ensure that every person has access to the resources necessary to improve themselves and participate in the form of labor of their choice.

Cooperative competition turns disagreements into opportunities to grow in different directions.  Each person, protected from belittlement through their rights to equality and opportunity, is now given a chance to experiment.  Reinforced by the understanding that failure to innovate is a lesson in what did not work, we remove the decimation of a person’s livelihood as a potential risk of an unsuccessful attempt to innovate.  This philosophy extends beyond just markets, allowing us to encourage greater competition among competing ideas of the good economically, culturally, and politically.   

Change as Structure

The framework of a free society outlined in this essay is not a direct translation into a specific set of institutions.  Our shared goal is the deepening of freedom and what that means will evolve. This evolution develops our ideas of what is possible perpetually, further inspiring innovations and improvements in our structural arrangements.  No institution is sacred in a free society; all are subject to revision. Change in structural arrangements is implemented in all directions. Locally upwards or nationally downwards we seek to advance without bias. We empower ourselves to explore our ideas and discover the gaps in our understanding.  Over time we will continue to discover what we want.

Everything suggested here will be analyzed for replacement in the future.  A free society embraces change as an integral part of the structure. Humans are context driven beings – we draw understanding and inspiration from the world around us.  Free societies continuously push the human potential beyond understood limitations. They develop our ability to express love and imagination for the world.

Shifting our efforts and focus may not manifest our personal goals of social transformation within our lifetimes.  We accept this fate in our commitment, knowing that our efforts towards the recognition of this good expand us all.

The future learns nothing from the past.  A free society can only be created now, at this moment.  Together we can reject the rule of the past on the present.  Uniting under the purpose of redefining what it means to be free we rekindle the shared spirit of the American people.  It’s a vision of shared greatness, an inclusive and pluralistic arrangement that expands our ability to grow and learn well beyond the limitations of the present.  A free society is one that evolves alongside its people in a state of intertwined expansion of the possible.

[1] Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties in the 21st-Century U.S. by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie Inequality.org https://inequality.org/great-divide/billionaire-bonanza-2018-inherited-wealth-dynasties-in-the-21st-century-u-s/

[2] Technology Feels Like It’s Accelerating — Because It Actually Is by Alison E. Berman and Jason Dorrier Singularity Hub https://singularityhub.com/2016/03/22/technology-feels-like-its-accelerating-because-it-actually-is/

[3] What is the current poverty rate in the United States?  Semega, J; Fontenot, KR; Kollar, MA. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017. Census Bureau, September 2018  https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-current-poverty-rate-united-states

[4] Anarchism and Power Interview with Noam Chomsky by Harry Kreisler 2002 Berkely http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people2/Chomsky/chomsky-con2.html

[5] AI Starts Taking White-Collar Jobs by David Cassel The New Stack https://thenewstack.io/ai-starts-taking-white-collar-jobs/

Ron is the Founder and Executive Director of the OurSociety Experiment.  He’s passionate about shifting our social, political, and economic institutions towards a system that maximizes agency and access for every individual.