Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Monday, 30 November 2009

The history of freedom

This post is under construction

I apologise for the lack of progress on this post. I started off thinking I understood the issues and it would be a fairly simple thing. However, it has become clear that I do not really understand 'freedom' nor how it has evolved over the millennia. As far as I can see, no one has ever really discussed the history of freedom per se before. The issues are more complex than I realised, and the information I need is not presented in any kind of easily digestible form. As an exercise, I checked the indices of about ten books on 'world history', and only one of them (David Christian's Maps of Time) even mentioned 'freedom' at all. Although you do not see much activity on this blog, I am beavering away behind the scenes, toying with theoretical ideas, and reading or re-reading anything that could help.

As the last glaciation was coming to an end, around G 1500-1550 (13,000 to 11,000 years ago), hunting peoples followed reindeer and other herds into the spaces left by the retreating ice sheets. Some of them camped in the caves of Creswell Crags, in the heart of Britain. Here they made engravings on bone and on the rock walls. The engravings included an ibex, a species not known to have lived in Britain but present further south, which suggests that these ice-age humans wandered freely over the 750 miles between Britain and Spain or southern France. This was especially feasible because sea levels were low and Britain was still joined to the rest of Europe by dry land.

The humans of G 1500 were incredibly free. They lived in a world without governments or police, without national boundaries or customs posts. They could make their camp-sites wherever they liked. Their journeys north and south would have been quite seamless, since the modern countries of Britain, France or Spain of course did not exist in any shape or form. The hunting/foraging lifestyle, living off the land, made it natural to roam far and wide, and there was absolutely nothing to stop them. They had little reason to get attached to any particular place, for their way of life could be practised as easily in one place as another--the only constraint was their knowledge of local plants and animals, and of where to find the vital resources of water and stone.

How things have changed. People in G 2081 (today) are tied to the places where their jobs, homes and possessions are to be found. Planning rules and immigration controls restrict where they can build and make their homes. Their efforts are taxed, and their behaviour is constrained by countless laws, for example obliging them to send their children to school and shutting off most of the countryside as other people's private property. This is not to mention the wholesale deprivation of their liberty if they harm others or offend against the moral code. And the level of restraint seems to be intensifying, as laws multiply and people are subject to ever more comprehensive forms of surveillance.

How and why did we get from the total freedom of the first humans to the many controls and restrictions on freedom of modern times? Has freedom steadily diminished between then and now, or was it, say in the form of serfdom and slavery, even more restricted at certain times and places than it is for us today?

First, we need the definition of freedom. Here it is:

The freedom of a sociological actor is the fraction of the actor's behaviour and experience that is subject to the actor's own choice and decision-making.
Notice in this definition the reference to 'experience' as well as 'behaviour'. This captures the notion that people who are exposed to things (such as cold or hunger) they would not choose for themselves are not completely free. The stoic philosophers spoke of the sphere of choice. The thing that is within everybody's sphere of choice is their own mental life. Pretty much everything else, including your own body, is outside the sphere of choice because you are generally powerless to prevent it, say, catching disease, growing tired, or being imprisoned. Nevertheless, some people--the extremely rich, mainly--have more control over at least some of these issues than other people do (e.g. money can buy better doctors and better lawyers). They enjoy a wider sphere of choice with respect to what they experience, and are therefore more free--both intuitively, and as implied by the above definition.

Nevertheless, the 'experience' element of this definition of freedom is really only needed for advanced treatments. In the introductory discussion of the present post, we can focus on the primary component of freedom, which is behavioural choice.

There are three ways in which choice can be restricted: socially, economically and politically.
  • Socially, we are constrained by our affection and respect for those with whom we share a sense of identity--our family, our friends, our neighbours, our compatriots. We modify our behaviour in order to fit in and be considerate.
  • Economically, we are constrained by the need to reciprocate for the benefits we receive from exchange partners;for example, as employees we need to attend work between certain hours and take direction from our employers in order to receive our wages.
  • Politically, we are constrained by the laws and commands of those in authority and their representatives--police, military, officials.

We can say that we are constrained socially by what we ought to do, economically by what we are obliged to do, and politically by what we have to do.

Of these, social constraints are the most limited in that they only work with those we care for, i.e. with friends, in the technical sense, who are quite few in number. Political constraints are potentially unlimited in that they are imposed by strangers on strangers, and everyone is at least a stranger.

A certain amount of freedom has to be given up when people live together because there are bound to be disputes. One person's goals will clash with another person's goals, and the result will be conflict. To maintain society intact, people must be prevented from choosing their behaviour in a completely self-interested manner. Otherwise, society will rupture, as people get away from those with whom they are in conflict.

The effect of constraints on freedom is to ensure that a certain proportion of people's goals are externally imposed, by society in general, and so cannot give rise to conflict. If people have no choice over their goals, they cannot come into conflict. That is, there can be no conflicts of goals when people either completely care for each other (social constraints), are completely beholden to each other for their material welfare (economic constraints), and/or are completely under the control of an external authority (political constraints). Conversely, conflicts will be at a maximum when people do not care for each other, do not depend on each other for their livelihoods, and are subject to no external control.

Let us define the following:

(p) = probability of conflict between a random pair of sociological actors

n = scale (i.e. number of distinct actors encountered per unit time)

z = span of choice restriction (i.e. number of people one cares for, number of people with whom one has economic dependencies or number of people under control of the external authority)

λ = fraction of choices that are not free (=1-freedom, where freedom is defined as above)

d = disputes per actor per unit time

A given actor encounters n other actors per unit time. Of these z will be under a shared constraint of restricted choice, and (n-z) will be under no such constraint. (We are assuming n<z. We will discuss what happens if this is not the case shortly.)

With those actors who are under no shared constraint on choice, the probability of a dispute is simply p. Therefore, the number of disputes is (n-z)p.

With those actors who are under a shared constraint on choice, only a fraction (1-λ) of possible choices are capable of generating a dispute. We might guess that the probability of a dispute is therefore not p but (1-λ)p. In fact, this is not exactly true, but it is a good approximation provided the chances of a dispute with any other particular actor are quite small--something we will assume to be the case (people get on fairly reasonably with each other most of the time). (The following paragraph, which can be skipped, shows why p(1-λ) is a reasonable approximation if p is small.)
Suppose that each actor has goals with respect to n different issues. Let b be the probability that the goals of a given pair of actors, with respect to a given issue, do not clash. Then the probability of a dispute between two actors, i.e. the probability that they clash over at least one issue, is


Now suppose that a proportion λ of goals are shared, i.e. a proportion κ = 1-λ of goals are not shared. Only the κn unshared goals can result in a clash, so the probability of a dispute is changed to


Disputes are relatively rare, so we can assume that the probability of a pair of goals clashing is quite small. Hence, b, the probability of a pair of goals not clashing is quite close to 1. Therefore, let us write b as

b=1-ε, where ε is some small number

Then we can rewrite p and p' above as

p=1-(1-ε)n ≈ 1-(1-nε) = nε
p'=1-(1-ε)κn ≈ 1-(1-κnε) = κnε = κp = (1-λ)p

Thus, provided the probability of a dispute is small, then it is true that, if a fraction λ of choices are unfree, the probability of a dispute is reduced to a fraction (1-λ) of its baseline value.

Therefore, the total disputes per person per unit time is

d = (n-z)p + zp(1-λ)

  = (n-zλ)p

Now, a society can only support a certain level of disputes per person per unit time. Above this level, the society will break up and fly apart as people find that it is impossible to live together. We may therefore define:

d0 = maximum level of d, above which society cannot exist

(This can be regarded as a constant of human nature.)

We thus have

d0 ≥ (nz)p

nd0/p + λz

Each society therefore has a maximum scale that depends on the values of λ and z in that society. If we indicate this maximum scale by n*, we have

n* = d0/p + λz

We can write this as

n* = n0 + λz

where n0 = d0/p is the maximum scale of a society whose members are completely free, i.e. where λ or z (or both) equals 0.

What is the value of n0? It is certainly not very large as, even in family-level societies, people sometimes have to suppress their personal wishes, at least to a small extent, in order to get along. If people's choices were not restricted at all, a society could not be any larger than the family level and might have to be much smaller. Could even a pair of people stick together, in a minimal society, if each person did as they pleased? If not, it suggests that n0 might be as low as zero. That is, in the case of complete freedom, the only society possible would be a society of one. (In a society of one, scale would be zero because the lone member of the society would never encounter any other actor.)


Human freedom is the subject of a perpetual battle between opposing trends.
  • On the one hand, freedom is steadily diminished by ever-expanding governmental surveillance and control.
  • On the other hand, freedom grows in the form of new possibilities and opportunities created by ever-expanding human capabilities.

Technology is crucial to this paradoxical evolution. New technologies extend the reach of governments at exactly the same time as they extend the ease of movement of their subjects. The internet allows people to communicate with each other directly, thus breaking the information monopoly of governments and media corporations, yet on-line activity is readily monitored and leaves almost un-erasable traces for law enforcement to collect.

The post is on hold because I am stuck - on trying to work out mathematically what I mean by freedom in its various guises, and why freedom should vary.

Human freedom diminishes with time, in the sense that people are increasingly subject to surveillance and control by a political apparatus. Twenty first century people, especially in the more developed countries, are the least free that humans have ever been. However, they still have more freedoms than will be enjoyed by the people of the future.

Fortunately, this diminishing freedom in the political sphere is offset by technological growth, which offers possibilities and opportunities, such as long-distance travel, that people perceive as new freedoms. In this sense, twenty first century people enjoy vast freedoms unknown to their ancestors, but they are still very limited and circumscribed in comparison to how humans will be in time to come.

There is an equilibration process, or arms race.