Friday, May 9, 2008

Definition of freedom.

This is an attempt to provide a formal definition of the concept of Freedom and to draw some conclusions from it. The lack of definition of such a basic concept for our civilization leads us to false and injurious theories and beliefs.

One of the most surprising discoveries of my life was that the modern civilization still has no formal definition of Freedom. Perhaps it only demonstrates, once again, that our civilization is not as old and developed as we want to think. In fact, most people confuse the concept of Freedom with that of happiness. However, my subject here will be neither happiness nor wealth.

Instead, I am going to concentrate exclusively on the concept of freedom. Many people speak about Freedom, but when you ask them what it means, most of them are likely to say very strange things. In general, people tend to confuse Freedom with the absence of responsibility for one's actions.

In the seminal book on this subject (F.Hayek, 1959/1991) we can find the following definitions:

" freedom as the absence of coercion: Independence of the will of a third person"

"political Freedom: Process of active participation in a public power and public elaboration of the laws."

"inner Freedom: free will."

"Freedom as being able to make what one wants or the absence of obstacles for accomplishment of one's desires."

Essentially it is all that F.Hayek proposes. To be more exact, he approaches all these alternatives in the chapter on "immeasurable concepts". I will not attempt to repeat the details of Hayek's reasoning that can be found in his splendid work, but to my mind what is misleading in the previous formulations is the fact that they all are descriptions of different kinds of human behavior related to freedom but not of freedom itself.


Therefore I propose the following definition of Freedom:

The Freedom is the existence of a set of alternatives.

The alternatives of life, taken in all its aspects (where to live, what to eat, work, education, possibility of traveling, etc.) I even dare say that the number of types of detergents or chips on the supermarket shelves represents the everyday alternatives of ordinary people and one of the indicators of the society's freedom. In fact, the freedom of choice is a result of several alternatives in the production.

I am going to give an example where there is no coercion nor any contact between people and still there can be observed a difference in the degree of freedom. Imagine an archipelago where two Robinson Crusoes live on two separate islands. The smarter one builds a boat and begins to sail in the archipelago. It is obvious that the less smart Robinson has less freedom than the smart one. Neither coercion nor interaction between people is involved here, but the difference is in the number of alternatives a single person has! Here is my idea: Freedom is a set of existing alternatives, and in the modern civilization people themselves are creating most of them.

Of course, alternatives go through the individual's perception filter before being recognized by him. For example a farmer may be overwhelmed by the life of a town. The houses have no gardens, the streets cannot be crossed where you want, and there are masses of people who don't greet him. In other words, for a farmer the town lacks alternatives. Therefore, I want to formulate a corollary to the previous thesis:

The individual freedom is measured by a number of alternatives as perceived from the individual's point of view.

The problem of sharing alternatives.

In general, people tend to confuse freedom with its administration or distribution of alternatives, which will be discussed below, and which is manifested as coercion. Of course, the society can apply coercion to an individual and reduce his freedom (alternatives) to zero (in case of capital punishment) but first of all this freedom (alternatives) has to exist. So the alternatives as they are must exist before you apply the coercion.

The origin of the widespread confusion between freedom (alternatives) and an access to them by the people lies in the fact that many alternatives are not infinite. That is to say, some alternatives, e.g. the possibility of breathing or eating are almost infinite, in the sense that the use of these alternatives is normally not limited for any person at any one time. But many alternatives are limited. For example, everybody can live in the down town or at a beautiful bay but not at the same time. Everybody can cultivate the land but not the same field at the same time. Another example of alternatives created by man: the invention of radio has offered new alternatives: everybody could broadcast any information (music, voice, television, telegraph) at the same time at any frequency. There are no technical limitations, but if we do not introduce some system of regulation (administration) of the alternatives we will not be able to take advantage of them. The signals emitted chaotically in all the frequencies at the same time would cause mutual interference of such a scale that it would be impossible to receive any desired information, and the entire range of potential alternatives would be lost. The solution of this problem is in administration of the alternatives (a regulation of their use: space separation, frequencies separation, limitation of the emission power, and in the end the individual awarding of emission licenses).

Thus traditions, habits, and laws constitute a way to share the existing limited alternatives.


Ironically, this definition of freedom includes all the abovementioned definitions by F.Hayek, and in addition leads to surprising conclusions, like the following:

coercion reduces the number of alternatives;

a lack of political freedom reduces the number of the self-governing alternatives;

the person who is a slave of his/her passions, or weak character or weak intellect will not have many alternatives of behavior;

this definition means absence of responsibility for one's actions that in other circumstances would limit the number of alternatives (just like the moral coercion of the society).

Cars increase the freedom of personal movement, just like other modern means of transport (airplanes, trains). The developed society creates a high degree of security for any traveler. Credit cards and the banking system also increase the level of freedom of movement. At the same time, restrictions on free commerce, like limitation of opening hours, volumes, and locations, or like norms imposed by trade unions or by local bureaucrats are the examples of reduced freedom.

Here are perhaps the most surprising conclusions following from my definition:

Freedom is mostly a product of our activity and to a lesser extent a part of the nature (it is World 3 in terms of K.Popper (K.Popper(1974))).

Freedom is measurable, which can allow us to create a Freedom Index (FI) similar to any other indicator, like the stock-exchange index, Retail Price Index (RPI) or Gross National Product (GNP) of a country, region or individual.

The idea of the absolute freedom is absurd term.

It now becomes obvious that socialism and freedom are totally incompatible, because socialism always declares, as its immediate goal, a reduction of the available alternatives (monopolization, nationalization, regulation of the market, etc.)

I am sure that the Freedom Index is going to be proportional to the development level, stability and speed of growth of respective countries (the Asian crisis of 1998 confirms this idea because, except for Hong Kong, all the countries there are either extensively regulated (Korea) or quite simply authoritarian (Indonesia)).

The educational level increases one's capacity to assimilate and to recognise the number of possible alternatives. I mean here not only the training level, as created by modern education, but also the moral and political education of society. For example, the American Constitution reflects a very high level of social development of the American population some 200 years ago, so they have created a society with many political alternatives.

We can see the history of mankind as a history of creating new alternatives (liberties), coping with the problem of their sharing and continuously readjusting the mechanism of their administration (our customs, traditions, habits, and religion). The progress of civilization expands the number of alternatives, and at same time the society creates what we called customs and traditions, to be able to orderly use these alternatives. For example, the American Indians were not able to change their customs sufficiently fast in order to assimilate the avalanche of new alternatives brought by the Europeans, and were exterminated. But the same thing happened to the Europeans: the customs and laws of England resisted to assimilation of the new alternatives that the American society had in the New World, and this led to a rupture and readjustment of the customs and laws to fit the new alternatives (American revolution), etc.

An increasing amount of money and wealth in general create new alternatives. One day instead of just keeping money or investing it in their own business, people began to lend it to other people for an interest. This was so revolutionary for the contemporaries that during many centuries some religions (verbal expression of the regulating laws) had prohibited their use (usury). Nowadays most common people frown upon stock-exchange operations under the pretext that they are "speculative", but essentially because the new alternatives upset the status quo of the habitual business regulations and allow to make money by a different way.

The administration of existing alternatives is a basic problem of modern life. This problem ranges from the frictions between generations to the permanent ferocious resistance to a deregulation of economy. Here lies the origin of a group of people that may be called “conservationists of the past” (which was supposedly purer, either ideologically or physically) who resist to readjustments of the life in order to accommodate new alternatives.


Hayek, Friederich A. (1959)"The Constitution of Liberty", translation into Spanish "Los Fundamentos de Libertad", Union Editorial, Madrid, 1991

Karl R. Popper (1974)"Unended Quest. Intellectual An Autobiography ". Spanish translation "Búsqueda sin término.". Editorial Tecnos, Madrid, 1994