The Limits of Freedom

When I was a young boy, my parents bought us two parakeets. We kept them in their cage, well fed and taken care of, in the bedroom I shared with David. One day I felt sad for them because they didn’t have the opportunity to fly. So, I opened the cage door, gently took one out, and set it free. The bird was unsure what to do, but soon enough started flying around the room and then… flew straight into the window, cracked open its head, and died on the spot. 

At the time, it was a “tragedy” for a young kid like me. Looking back, though, I realize that there were a few lessons to be learned from this incident.

First, don’t do something “different” unless you consider possible unintended consequences. Of course, the world is too complex to be able to foresee everything that might happen, but we can certainly think through several, relatively likely possibilities and perhaps a couple of unlikely ones as well.

Second, and more difficult to absorb, is that unfettered freedom is actually counterproductive. Indeed, there’s a word for that: anarchy. We intuitively understand the problem in a few areas of life. Take sports: imagine a game where there are no rules, and every player can do whatever s/he wants in order to “score”. Not only wouldn’t that be very interesting for the participants, but it’s doubtful many spectators would find such a sport compelling. Or take music: what do most people want to hear – Mozart or some hyper-modern, “anything goes” composition? It is precisely the “limiting” structure of pre-20th century classical music that renders the music of Mozart (or any of his composer compatriots) so compelling.

This holds true not only for culture and entertainment. Even in general social life, complete freedom does not exist. One can’t walk anywhere, anytime; down the middle of the street or crossing at a red light is not acceptable. One can’t even say whatever one wants, the First Amendment notwithstanding: yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire) has no Constitutional protection. We even accept restrictions with no danger or harm in sight: even if all parties are willing, no more than two people can marry each other.

Why would this paradox hold true? That true freedom is only found within some structured or even “restrictive” framework? One way of looking at this is that society emulates Nature. The universe has “laws” of physics – there is no “cosmic chaos”, even if black holes and other outer space phenomena might seem that way. Given that human beings are part of that same natural world, why wouldn’t homo sapiens behave along the same principle? Indeed, we don’t think twice about the fact that gravity stops us from flying – it’s just one of the numerous “limitations” on our freedom that we accept because… well, because that’s the way world works.

Another approach is to consider what drives humans after their basic needs are met. In a word: challenge. By our very psychological nature we are problem-solvers. At first, to stay alive; later, to keep us mentally stimulated or having a “better” life. But a problem, task, or challenge to be solved, completed or overcome can only be stimulating if it is circumscribed in some way: a frame around a painting; rules to complete a puzzle; laws allowing and forbidding certain advertising practices; professional licenses for those completing a specific course of study and passing an exam; and so on. The fun is in difficulty overcome, not in taking the easy way home.

In retrospect, as that young child I had two other choices: open my bedroom windows before releasing the parakeet – or lowering the shades.

The first option would have provided my bird with complete freedom – and then it would most probably have starved to death, not being trained to find food by itself. The second option would have restricted the parakeet’s freedom of movement even more by darkening the room – but that in itself would have forced it to be more careful, and thus survive the experience!

At the risk of sounding “pedantic”, there’s a much larger lesson here. I’ll take the latest “political” brouhaha as my example: during Covid-19, every country has had to deal with the following dilemma: to prohibit certain activities from those who refuse to wear a mask and get vaccinated – or enable “complete freedom” as a function of individual rights? At least for me, my parakeet episode provides the correct answer.

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