Pattern #51


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Restrained Liberty Card - Version 1


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Restrained Liberty

The flourishing of life—passionate, free, self-organized expression and relationship—is both the point of and a source of wisdom. But trying to maximize our autonomous freedom can undermine healthy aliveness. So seek to optimize liberty in whole communities and systems within life-serving constraints ordained by reality, character and society.

Related: 4 Big Empathy, 7 Checks on Extreme Inequality, 9 Civil Rights, 21 E Pluribus Unum, 34 Life-Enhancing Enoughness, 42 Partnership Culture, 59 Synergy Between Part and Whole

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

This pattern is about the way life can be undermined by unrestrained and too much freedom that breaks out of all barriers. It is also about how tremendous freedom exists within any given set of bounds, which is particularly important because we are finite organic beings and the earth is a finite organic resource.

The effort to have total liberty, total and absolute freedom, is unrealistic and actually damaging, not only to other people’s lives and to the lives of the living organic world we live in, but even to ourselves. Too much of anything can be damaging to our health – our psychological and physical health – and to our relationships.

So this pattern is exploring the realm of restrained liberty. We’re talking about idea of life’s flourishing, so we use phrases like passion, freedom, self-organization, expression and relationship, which are all dimensions of flourishing life. We want these things. We want to have the ability to be passionately engaged, to be free of constraints, to be self-organized, to not have anyone or anything telling us what to do, to be able to express ourselves, to be able to connect to whomever and whatever we want. That’s what quality of life is largely about. We want to have flourishing life in ourselves, with other people and our communities, and in nature. That is one of the definitions of what we want.

Also the passion that people have for things leads them to have a lot of knowledge and experience in that particular realm. In the context of working with other people, that’s a resource for gathering the bigger picture. All of our passions together, all of our life experiences together, add up to something that is bigger than any of us, and that can inform what we do, how we think, what we decide.

Our freedom is necessary to manifest and to bring that out. We don’t want to be boxed in or oppressed because that silences all that juicy diversity that can inform our inquiry into what could be wise. To have people and perspectives and factors be able to move in relationship to each other all the time provides a juicy soup which, if we attend to it and engage with it appropriately, will generate wisdom. So this is both what we want and a large part of how we are able to get it.

Once you start talking about freedom, there is this longing, this impulse and political ideology of maximizing our freedom. But that can get in the way. There’s an old saying that your freedom to swing your arms ends where my nose begins. That is one of the ways to describe the limits of freedom.

My father wrote a popular article about social power in a democracy. In it he offers stoplights as an interesting example of optimized freedom. If you don’t have a stoplight at a busy intersection, then everybody has to stop. If you don’t have a stoplight where a country road meets a major highway, then the person who’s on the country road may have to wait a long time to get enough space to get into the flow of traffic on the big highway. So the stoplight is an example of something that seeks to optimize everyone’s freedom.

But note how the timing of the light is important. If there’s a major highway and a little side road, then maybe every five minutes you have a light briefly change to allow one or two cars on the country road to get across or into the flow of highway traffic, and then the light returns to prioritizing the motion of drivers on the highway, where most of the people are. Thus we put a very small limit on the freedom of the people on the main highway in order to provide a gigantic increase in the freedom of the few people on the country road. That is an example of an attempt to optimize freedom.

The message there is that you actually can’t maximize freedom for everybody, but you can optimize it.

And here’s the other major message:  Although there are constraints that are life-diminishing – that reduce the aliveness of the whole system – there are also constraints that increase the aliveness within a whole system. There’s a way in which sports and games are great examples. The rules of sports and games provide a space within which to express ourselves and manifest our capacities. If we don’t have those rules, the “game” becomes a chaotic mess that doesn’t have any structure to it and we actually could become less free to express ourselves under those conditions.

So in our wise democracy, in any given circumstance, we are trying figure out the most life-serving constraints, or the specific constraints that optimize freedom in the system. But then there’s the question of how we relate to the constraints given to us ecosystems and our society. Certain constraints are a given. Let’s faces it: Reality constrains us.  But we want to figure out how to identify those constraints and set up our relationships with them in ways that actually serve life more than limit it.

And of course that includes giving permission for some people to test the edges and limits presented by those constraints. It’s important even in a well-ordered society to have people who are objecting to any limits, people on the leading-edge fringes that test what might come next. The libertines, the people who are blowing apart the moral, legal and socially conceived boundaries, are important members of a society if we wish to maintain that society’s creativity. Modern abstract art and conceptual art are blowing apart established forms of art. Some of it seems kind of ridiculous – at least to someone like me – but lots of it is kicking a door open to some very wild and interesting creativity.

So that dance between freedom and limits is something that can serve life if it is done well. Sometimes we celebrate brilliant criminals even if we wouldn’t want to be affected by their crimes. The fact that they are stepping so successfully out of the established bounds of society may inspire us to step out of some of the bounds society has placed on us. Ultimately, though, we have to face reality: we have the limits of ecosystems, the reality of gravity, the reality that we are running out of certain resources, etc. But within the fact that we are running out of our fossil fuels and they’re destroying our environment, there is gigantic space for creativity, for entrepreneurship, for reducing unnecessary waste. So that can be a life-serving constraint if we frame it that way.

And the reason “character” is in this pattern description, is because society can say, “Okay, we’re going to make a law here!” and people object to laws. Laws are necessary to the extent that individual and organizational character, moral sensibility and integrity do not handle an area that needs to be constrained. If we can constrain ourselves, we don’t need laws to constrain us. So part of social life is raising children and creating social answerability systems that build and socially shape character development. To the extent this is successful, we won’t need so many laws all the time.

So part of wise democracy is co-creating a society that builds strong responsible character that can relate to reality in sensible ways, and sees opportunities to manifest our lives within constraints that we recognize collectively are necessary for us, such that we create and support such minimal constraints and laws that make sense.

Video Introduction (15 min)

Examples and Resources

One of the obvious restraints on freedom at a societal level is regulations. Again, to the extent people, individuals, companies, organizations, etc., are (for example) environmentally responsible, we don’t need environmental regulations. If everyone is responsible with their guns, we don’t need gun control. But everyone isn’t responsible.  And there’s an odd twist to this: the social system that we have developed supports profit-making above social and environmental responsibility, so we need to have equitable environmental laws that will enable corporations to be more green without losing market share. If every corporation has to be more green to follow the laws, then the regulatory scene can help level the playing field for all players at a higher level of responsibility – which, again, is not necessary to do if everybody is willing to self-manage in responsible ways.  Which can be hard to do if you’re doing it all by yourself and trying to make a profit at the same time…

A carbon tax is an interesting example. Most consumers don’t know how much carbon is used in the production of the products they want. So if there is a sensible carbon tax, it makes the carbon-intensive products more expensive, which shapes consumer behavior with or without them having special knowledge about carbon. The most interesting approach, from my perspective, is where the money that is collected from the carbon tax is returned the population. People like getting money, so although the carbon tax makes many things more expensive, the people get money back and those who bought the cheaper low-carbon products may even make money on the arrangement.

Most modern societies have liability and fraud control systems. Again if people are speaking truthfully all the time they don’t need liability and fraud control systems. People will control their own desire to hide and misrepresent information.

When there are unjust or unfair laws, there are various kinds of nonviolent action that can be used to protest and change those laws. Within nonviolent movements, the fact that they are nonviolent is a constraint. But there are many things to do to change laws and influence people without the use of violence. So the fact that you are constraining yourself to be nonviolent and using maximum creativity and moral pressure within that constraint is another example of freedom within boundaries. Of course it helps that nonviolence is also usually quite effective!

Then we have group processes as examples of freedom within constraints.  Take, for example, the Circle process. People take turns talking and when they have the talking stick they have full freedom to speak without being interrupted. The talking stick is sort of like a traffic light. When people don’t have the talking stick, their responsibility is to listen. The constraints on everyone speaking at once (and mostly not being well heard) means each person has the freedom to say their full piece and be listened to.

In brainstorming, you create wild ideas in response to a question, but you’re not supposed to critique any ideas. The critiquing, evaluation and judgment are left for later. So all we are doing now is creating and that creative dynamic feeds on itself and gets better and better. The people in the group start being more wild and creative in their creativity which would all get shut down if there was judgment going on. So that’s another constraint that supports freedom.

And of course sports and games are the archetypal examples. Here are specific constraints – you behave this way, you do this, this is what the point is, you are not going to go running off the field into the bleachers with your football. You may be able to avoid the other players but you are not going to get your touchdown that way. And within all those constraints remarkable games get played.