The Wealth of Nations — Part 2: Freedom

 

Very little freedom
Very little freedom

If you ask me what are the necessary causes of the wealth of nations, I will answer — having spent decades learning about and pondering that question — in just one word: Freedom!

Freedom is the sweetest word I know in English.

The advancement of civilization is essentially the expansion of individual freedom — the release from constraints imposed by nature, by other humans or by one’s mental and physical limitations. The notion of the freedom of a group has content only when individuals of that group are free. If the individuals are not free, the group cannot be considered to be free in any sense.

Freedom means you have the right to do whatever you please, provided you respect the corresponding right of others to do as they please. In short, mind your own business. A free society is one in which everyone minds only his own business. Free societies are prosperous societies.

The greater the collectivization of society, the greater the size of the government, the greater the constraints on individual liberty, the less free the society, and consequently the less prosperous the society. Unconstrained democracy is inconsistent with individual freedom, and therefore group freedom, and consequently leads to impoverishment.

Below I outline briefly why the universal application of the notion of minding one’s own business leads to the possibility of universal prosperity through individual freedom. And conversely, when people poke their noses into other people’s businesses, it leads to needless misery.

Freedom, Mukti, Moksha

Freedom’s emotional appeal to me preceded its intellectual appeal by many decades. But now that I understand intellectually why freedom is the most important necessary precondition for not just material but also spiritual advancement, it only intensifies that viscerally felt emotional response to the concept of freedom.

I am certain that my Indian upbringing has something to do with why the concept of freedom is so emotionally charged for me. The highest spiritual goal in our Hindu-Jain-Buddhist tradition is the attainment of liberation, freedom, or emancipation from all bondage. The word for that in Sanskrit is mukti or moksha. The Indian concept of moksha compasses and transcends the ordinary meaning of freedom. The ultimate goal of our human existence is to attain freedom in every conceivable way.

You have to materially exist first before you can hope to achieve moksha. Therefore, living in this material world demands freedom from material wants as a necessary precondition of attaining spiritual freedom. Economic freedom is therefore not just consistent with spiritual freedom but is indeed an unavoidable precursor to it.

I don’t want to get all metaphysical in this piece but those are important considerations worth a ponder on our way to the mundane matter of economic freedom.

Individualism

I am convinced that the views I hold, both material and spiritual, are informed by my childhood exposure to the Indian traditions. For instance, I have a deep suspicion of all collectives, and my world view is highly individualistic. That comes from the fact that in our tradition, only individuals — not collectives — attain moksha, and that too only through individual actions. One does need the help of others but only peripherally as guides. The guru may point the way but the individual has to walk the path to liberation.

Nobody else, not some anointed redeemer, and nothing, not even  a cosmic human sacrifice as is required by Christianity, can liberate you. There is no vicarious redemption, no vicarious liberation. Only you, the individual, can attain freedom. The law of karma — that actions have consequences — demands that liberation depends only on the actions of the individual. It is the individual’s responsibility and it cannot be avoided.

Thus have I heard that the last words of Gautam the Buddha included the instruction to “work diligently towards your own liberation.” He didn’t say pray to some divine dictator. or believe in some doctrine, or love everyone or some such nonsense. No siree. He said work diligently for your own release from bondage.

Compassion, not Love

One thing that signals to me that the Buddha was enlightened is that he did not go into the puerile nonsense about love, like the Christ is reported to have stressed. The Buddha stressed compassion, not love.

The admonition to be compassionate towards all sentient beings is practical and universally beneficial. The Christian admonition to love thy neighbor is clearly impractical because it is contrary to human nature, and it also leads to mountains of avoidable misery. (This I will explore in a different piece.)

Mind Your Business

As Alice timidly told the Duchess in part 1 of this series, it isn’t love that makes the world go round but rather everybody minding their own business. That, I submit, is the operationalization of the concept of freedom.

I am convinced that the guiding principle of a truly civilized people should be to respect the individual’s autonomy. Indeed, that respect for the individual lies at the core of what  known as “methodological individualism.” [See footnote 1.]

There can be no justification for harming others, or initiating force against others, or even trying to do “good” to them. The moment one feels the urge to do good to others, one should sit on one’s hands and take a deep breath.

Leave People Alone

The only obligation we have to our fellow beings it that we leave them alone. It is a negative obligation, not a positive on. You have a right to be left alone by others, not a right to anything from others.

But what if someone needs help. Then he is free to request help from others. And the others may have a moral obligation to assist but cannot be forced to help. If someone asks you for help, sure, go ahead and do what you can to help. But the help you extend to others should not be unsolicited.

Here’s a challenge. Think of any human-created problem that the world faces. You’d see that invariably, one of the primary causes is that someone is not minding his own business; someone is meddling in some other persons’ business, most often to harm and often enough to help.

Think of all the conflicts, large and small, around the world. There’s one group that wants others to be socialist. Or the other group that wants others to be democratic or capitalistic. Or the third group that wants others to follow their brand of religious delusions. Or that group that wants others to have live according to some particular set of rules.

Governments

The big problem with governments is that invariably there are people in government whose only business appears to be to interfere in other people’s business. Someone wants to smoke some stuff in the privacy of his own home. Nope. Some government busybody wants to prohibit that — and that too for the smoker’s own good. Someone wants to marry someone but no! There’s another government busybody telling who should marry whom.

That’s insanity even though most people think that it is somehow justified because the government was democratically elected and therefore represents the “will of the people.” The notion that the people have a will is patently absurd. Individuals have wills, not groups or collectives.

Collectives

This does not mean that collectives are not a good idea. It all depends on you, the individual. As long as the individual freely chooses to belong to some collective and to adhere to some set of rules that the collective determines, that is totally fine.

If you want to become a Trappist monk and join a monastery, do that by all means available to you. If you want to become a Buddhist bhikkhu and join a sangha, more power to you. If you want lead a communal life in a kibbutz that would have you as a member, that’s nobody else’s business but yours.

What is not OK is forcing others to do whatever against their will, desires, tastes, preferences, etc. One can attempt to persuade others to one’s point of view but again not against their will. Teach or share your viewpoint with others provided you are requested to do so.

The Indian Ethos

Here again, I value the traditional Indian ethos of not forcing one’s beliefs on others. Never teach someone who has not requested to be taught. In the old tradition, you have to request earnestly — not once but thrice — that the teacher teach you. Only then it is permissible for the teaching to be transmitted. That is why Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are not proselytizing faiths.

Judaism is the only monotheistic religion that does not proselytize. Christianity and Islam do, and that characteristic has poisoned human well-being for centuries. Christianity wants to save you, regardless of whether you need saving or wish to be saved. It will force you — even kill you — to follow their creed so that your soul is saved from the eternal damnation that their Divine Being has in store for you.

Islam wants you to submit to the will of their Divine Dictator. There’s an extreme version of not letting others get on with their own business. No wonder that much of the world’s conflicts have involved Islam’s faithful imposing their views on others through force and violence.

Democracy as a Religion

Then there’s the modern religion of Majoritarian Democracy. Notice that the people in the West used to thrust (and still do) their religion on the rest of the world. That practice became somewhat politically incorrect in recent times. That’s been replaced by forcing down unwilling throats the religion of majoritarian democracy.

Middle East Islamic regimes have to be bombed into submission till they all hail the Democratic God — even if it costs millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Never mind that the people of the Islamic countries don’t want to worship the God of Democracy. It’s for their own good that they have to be killed. It’s an old habit derived from Christian and Islamic doctrine.

But you may say, what’s the alternative to alternative to Majoritarian Democracy? Dictatorship? Totalitarianism? Monarch? Anarchy?

Yes, there is. A constitutional republic with the constitution only empowering the government to enforce the only rule worthy of a civilized society: that people mind their own business.

In the next part, I will go into what a constitution consistent with a collective of free individuals would look like.

Footnotes:

1. Methodological Individualism

The concept of methodological individualism, as detailed by James M. Buchanan Jr, resonates elegantly with my overall philosophical makeup. It’s a method of economic analysis that considers the individual as the proper unit of interest, not some collective. It is the individual who evaluates, chooses and acts. What the collective “does” arises out of, or emerges through, some processes that are determined by the institutional structures within which individuals act.

For example in the marketplace, individuals maximize their utility functions (which is just a specification of their preferences) and what emerges from this process of individuals separately maximizing their own utility is the market outcome. This aggregate outcome — the market outcome — is not chosen by any individual or the collective in any meaningful sense. No supra-individual entity chooses the outcome that emerges. The outcome cannot be planned or consciously directed toward some goal. It is non-teleological. What emerges is indeed “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” as the Scottish enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723 – 1816) noted.

It is like in a game of tennis, each player is playing to maximize his points but the outcome of the game is not some function that is being jointly maximized by the players.

I should also note that Buchanan is brilliant in his exposition but the content of his writing is certainly not for the uninitiated. I read him very slowly and several times before I get the point. To get a flavor of what I mean, take a peek at the text of his 1996 acceptance speech of the (so-called) Nobel prize in economics. [Back.]

{This is part of a work in progress called “The Wealth of Nations.”}

 

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