|Walden 7; from Hi. This is Barcelona.|
Not very long ago I noticed an old acquaintance commenting on the difference between life in the liberal nannystate Northeast and in states further south. One reason for the purportedly better quality of life further south, he claimed, is that people there "have more freedom." It got me thinking once again about the idea of "freedom" as a societal virtue per se, and I'm still not convinced that there even is such a thing as freedom. (Frankly, I'm still willing to argue that there is not.)
But as far as the the happiness and life quality of a people is concerned, I believe the extent of their "freedom" is rather beside the point.
First: putting aside arguments about free will, let's agree that our implicit contract as members of any sort of organized society necessarily demands we do certain things and restricts us from doing others. Even if the government isn't telling you where to work and where to live, the exigencies of life probably compel you to spend most of the day at a place you'd probably rather not be and doing work you'd probably rather not be doing to keep a roof over your head (in a neighborhood you'd probably rather not be living).
Just for the sake of argument, let's compare a society to an office building. Imagine you have two companies in two different buildings, both involved in the same kind of business. It doesn't matter what business it is; let's just say that most of their employees' workdays consist of sitting in front of desktop computers. Imagine that one of the offices conscientiously devises a workplace environment and corporate culture with the aim of making employees' work satisfying, and while other takes a more laissez-faire approach, telling employees they can do whatever they please, as long as they get their work done on time and don't distract their coworkers. Whose employees are happier?
In both cases, the workers at both offices have to put in their required hours and do the work they're being paid to do. This component of the situation is unalterable. (Again: no matter how a society is organized, its subjects still have obligations.) But a workplace environment that is effectively designed to maximize employee satisfaction will undoubtedly be a cheerier place to be than one where the corporate culture is either treated as an afterthought or intentionally left to figure itself out.
I'll grant the metaphor isn't airtight, but the concept is no less valid where a larger polity is concerned. What if a society -- a town, a city, a nation -- were to be designed with an aim toward equality, stability, and the maximizing of its people's quality of life? Currently, we're operating under the basic assumption that the public will automatically tend towards order, harmony, and happiness if left to its own devices. But let's imagine that a more proactive, regimented approach were to be taken in building a happier society.
Even if it were a relatively small community, it would require some degree of social engineering, which is anathema to the classical liberal/modern libertarian. It implies top-down control; it necessarily requires certain "freedoms" be limited. The kneejerk reaction is that this is a most undesirable prospect, but I think that needs reexamination.
Given the choice, would you choose a life in which you had more options (freedom), or more satisfaction? (How often does more options mean more happiness?) If you're in an environment in which you feel fulfilled by your work and participation in civic/community life, is "freedom" a concern?
This isn't the place for an outline or a manifesto; I'm certainly not saying I've got the blueprints to utopia. But I'm fairly certain it's possible to design a better society, and I'm absolutely convinced that the engine on which we're currently running -- "allow the people do what they want and let the market sort it out" -- is dangerously outmoded.
"Freedom" doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. A sense of meaning and satisfaction from one's work and relationships leads to happiness, and it's definitely possible to create social environments more conducive to it than the one we've got.
The fact that people associate "freedom" with happiness suggests, more than anything, piss-poor social design, as does the popularity of the belief that the inverse of "freedom" must necessarily be "oppression."