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.