Freedom, Constrained

Laws and culture constrain our freedoms; at the heart of most political issues is the question of just how constraining they should be. Those on the left generally argue for more constraints – higher taxes, tighter laws and punitive social disapproval for violations of “PC” norms and expectations – all in the name of the common good. Those on the right favor fewer such constraints, seeing a freer society as both more creative and more individually just than ones that are less so.


George W. Bush famously said that “The desire for freedom resides in every human heart.” Well, … sorta.

Bush’s statement was undoubtedly true in the narrow sense that everybody wants freedom of action for him or her –self; but not everybody is happy for others to be similarly free. Indeed, some see their own freedoms as coming from others’ constraints – e.g., the serfs (or slaves, or peasants or deplorables; whatever) must be made to work so that I can be most free.

Only in a relatively few societies in all of human history has the idea of freedom as a shared construct arisen in an organic fashion, and when it has done so – as in the conception of America’s founders that individual liberties are the inalienable gifts to all from God – it had to gradually overcome limitations on who was included in that “all” that had been part of how societies generally had defined themselves from time immemorial.


I recently watched a spectacular hour-long program on Amazon Prime called The Real Adam Smith/ Morality and Markets. The program gives an overview of Smith’s dual roles as a path breaking moral philosopher and a brilliant economist. His work focused on the intimate connections between morality and markets – demonstrating that where there is trust between buyer and seller, the positions of both and the economy as a whole are all improved by their transactions. Further, he argues that social trust itself is enhanced by regular trade – buyers and sellers both rely on their reputations for probity, so they take ever-more care to behave properly in a market.

In my view, Smith was brilliantly right about pretty much everything that he considered, including his ardent dislike of monopolies and royal charters. (Indeed, it struck me as I watched the show that many of the ideas that I’ve written about here on CH are distant and pale derivatives of Smith’s thinking; I call your attention, in particular, to Trust, in which I laid out my view that a sense of shared social trust is more important to the success of a society than its laws).  

Our individual freedoms must be constrained by a sense of others’ rights or society devolves inevitably into brutish contests of strength, where might makes right. We are individually and collectively empowered by the mutuality of our expectations of fair treatment.         


When efforts have been made to impose freedom as a new paradigm on low-trust societies – as when Bush tried to set up a functioning democracy in Iraq, or when “capitalism” was introduced to the former Soviet Union – the results have generally ranged from disappointing to horrifying. (As to the post-Soviet example, Judgment in Moscow by Vladimir Bukovsky describes how “capitalism” was taken to mean anything goes in a society in which, as a result of the baleful effects of seventy years of Communist rule, cheating others was the cultural norm. The result was a new status quo as ugly, and hopeless to the average Ivan, as the one that had preceded it).

An interesting counter-example is post-war Japan, in which democracy and free markets were imposed with great success by the occupying Americans. The difference seems to be that Japan was already a culturally unified, and therefore high-trust, society, where behavioral norms were well understood and accepted by all.


America’s traditions of relatively unbridled individual freedoms in a context of broadly shared – but evolving – values have fostered just the kind of explosion of wealth and knowledge that might have been predicted by Smith and others in the Scottish Enlightenment. Millions have flocked to these shores for the opportunities created by the heady mix of the rule of law and a culture defined by individual empowerment and personal responsibility. The extent to which this “secret sauce” of America’s successes will remain in place is less clear.

The Democratic Party and about half of the electorate have been moving sharply to the left in recent years. Many people, the young in particular, now reject the very idea of capitalism. To them, the market doesn’t look like it works.

I see several reasons for these political shifts, at least two of which call to mind the way that market economies work brilliantly in high-trust societies, and much less well in low-trust ones. The first reason, not particularly relevant to the themes of this essay but explored at length in other posts, is the way that our ill-designed social safety net and our entitlement programs have changed cultural expectations regarding work, thrift and personal responsibility, thereby creating enormous, permanent constituencies for government handouts.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, the nature of capitalism today is very different from the market for baked goods in a Scottish town so beautifully described by Adam Smith. In that market, a buyer and a producer/seller regularly saw each other face to face; there was an equality of bargaining power that meant that each party could develop trust in the other.

Nowadays, increasingly, Amazon sells everything (even Adam Smith videos!) and Google provides all the information. Neither of those companies has much, if any, answerability to an individual consumer. You will agree to Amazon’s and Google’s (and all the other tech firms’) terms of service or you’ll be isolating yourself from the rest of society to an astonishing degree. Consequently, the consumer feels disempowered: trust doesn’t enter into it.

A second relevant reason: the globalization of commerce further isolates the consumer from the sources of the products he or she buys – and it, coupled with unfathomably rapid technological change, dramatically increases job insecurity for nearly all.

For all the fact that these changes in the way the economy works have created staggering amounts of new wealth – for almost everybody – by creating global efficiencies, they leave many, many people feeling disempowered as consumers and insecure as employees.

The recent, seismic shifts in American (and British, and probably others’) politics should be understood in light of these changes. The Democrats have moved left because suddenly, to many voters, the markets look less answerable than the government. At least you can vote politicians out of office. The Republicans, for their parts, beginning with Trump, have done 180s on immigration and free trade because both threaten the livelihoods of millions of voters.

Arguably, on both sides of the political divide, voters are trying (as per the pro-Brexit slogan) to “Take back control.”


A free market works brilliantly to create new wealth by incentivizing creativity and finding of production/distribution efficiencies. Whether capitalism will continue to be allowed to work its magic here in America will depend in no small part on whether it is seen by voters as an integral part of a fair, high-trust society.

Maybe for that to be the case, the near-monopoly tech giants will have to be broken up. Maybe the tides of global trade and immigration will have to be sufficiently restrained so that they do not fundamentally alter the implicit compact between the great mass of job-holders (and seekers) – who are also voters – and society as a whole.

Saving the secret sauce will require a lot of careful balancing.

The good news is that our messy, but in my mind highly functional, democracy is already – demonstrably, and in different ways through the two major parties – responding to demands for change. The tough part will be figuring out just which changes are needed to ensure that we remain both a free society and a high-trust one.

M.H. Johnston              

One comment to Freedom, Constrained

  • Vivian  says:

    Please! Send this to the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.

    We need others to understand this, and if they get nothing else, the idea of a low-trust vs. a high-trust society is an enlightenment of its own.

    Cultures of corruption can not become capitalistic regardless of what the head of state wants for his/her people. Therefore, elections, i.e. democracy, have little effect.

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