The Free And The Poor

It was shortly after noon when I arrived at Rogers house. He had invited me to spend some time in his pool, and a later dinner.

Roger was just giving some instruction to some of the farm workers:

"Just finish picking the south field. You can go home after that. I'll see you at seven in the morning."

"You give your employees a lot of freedom, don't you?"

"Actually, they are not free at all. They are my slaves. Poor employees are always slaves, Mark."

I thought that over. I had not actually been anyone's employee for some time, but I wasn't sure I was not poor. I suppose I must seem poor to Roger, but I didn't ask him if he thought I was a slave.

Still, what he said had surprised me, and I didn't mind asking him what he meant.

"Do you mean everyone who works here is a slave, Roger? Is that what you really think of them?"

"No. Everyone who works here is not a slave. Most of them work for themselves, as far as I'm concerned. They just sell me their services. The field workers are employees, because that is what they want. It's a bother to me, but I pay someone else to take care of all the government rigmarole."

"But they're slaves, sure enough Mark. It's by choice. When they sign their contract, they are selling themselves into temporary slavery. It's not the relationship I'd choose, but it's the one they've chosen. They do not really want to be free. It's easier to have someone else tell them what to do. It relieves them of the responsibility of deciding what to do themselves.

He paused, and looked at me. "What do you think freedom is, Mark?"

"I know what it is," I said. "It's being able to do whatever you choose without anyone or anything else interfering in what you choose or do."

I thought the answer was pretty good. After all I've written enough about it, and have given it a lot of serious thought.

"No, that's not quite right! That's what most people think it is, but it really doesn't mean anything. No one is free to do whatever they choose. Some things are just not possible to do, and reality has a thousand barriers and impediments to what can be chosen.

"Other people are one of those impediments. The fact that others exist means there are places you cannot go, because those places are already occupied by others, and it means there are things you cannot take or use, because they have already been taken or used by someone else. None of these things are limits on your freedom, however, because freedom means being able to do whatever you choose within the limits of reality. Without that caveat, any description of freedom is an open-ended mistake. The most important limit reality places on our liberty is the necessity of being totally responsible for all our choices and actions. The consequences of our choices are also part of reality.

"Now I'll give you the short answer to what freedom is. Freedom is wealth."

I think I was a little indignant.

"Roger, are you seriously saying one cannot be poor and free?"

"Yes, that's what I'm saying. I am not saying an individual cannot be as free as they choose without great wealth, but a free individual must be wealthy enough to afford to do whatever he is able and chooses to do. If there is anything an individual would really choose to do, but is too impoverished to do it, he is not free to that extent.

"Now here is a great irony, Mark. There are many people in the world seeking freedom—they work for freedom, join organizations and movements promoting freedom, study the history and philosophy of freedom and all of them will never be free themselves or bring freedom to anyone else.

"They pursue freedom as some kind of abstract ideal, usually in the form of some, "free society," an ideal that is as impossible to achieve as any other utopian ideal.

"They spend all their time, resources, and energy on what will never achieve freedom. If that same time and energy were spent producing wealth, they would have the very freedom they seek."

Just then Andrew, Roger's Valet, arrived to inform Roger he had a telephone call. Roger excused himself and went in to take the call and tend to some business. I opened my laptop and wrote a little until Andrew came out to tell me dinner would shortly be ready.

I suspect Andrew is several times wealthier than I, and therefore, by Roger's standards, several times more free.

I couldn't resist the question.

"Pardon me, Andrew. May I ask you a question?"

"Of course, Mr. Halpern." I've asked him numerous times to call me Mark, but he never has.

"Andrew, are you free?"

"Oh yes, sir. I'm free to do anything I choose."

"But, Andrew, you have to wait on Roger."

"Yes sir. That's what I choose."

At dinner, we continued the conversation about freedom being wealth.

"Roger, most people do not have the ability to earn great wealth. Does that mean most people have no hope of being free?"

"Actually they do, Mark. Most of them could make a great deal of money if they chose to, but they won't choose to, and therefore will not be free."

"In reality, Mark, most people not only could earn great wealth, but actually do. They will never have great wealth because they squander it, and further squander the opportunity to earn more; but, there is no reason they could not have great wealth if they chose to."

"You make it sound as though making great wealth were easy, as though the only reason everyone isn't rich is just because they choose not to be, or are lazy."

"Oh no. It is not easy to earn wealth. It is the hardest work in the world. It is true, many do not do it because they are lazy, but many more are just not willing to pay the price. The work is horrendous, often grueling, often cruelly disappointing, but there is nothing more rewarding or fulfilling in life. Creating wealth is the only way to live fully as a human being. Most people will never enjoy that most rewarding of human activities, but human nature demands fulfilling, and most people seek it in their diversions and entertainments, then always wonder why they are plagued with a perpetual sense of failure and disappointment.

"For some, earning a moderate amount of wealth is not difficult and, if they chose to, they could easily be fabulously wealthy. They waste their seed money. Instead of saving some of what they earn to invest in themselves or others to make more money, they spend it on endless gadgets, pleasures, and diversions they believe will fulfill them and that they just cannot live without—almost all of it on impulse.

"All the things they squander their wealth on never satisfy them, and because they are not wealthy, they will never be free either. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Almost no one on this planet truly wants to be free, anyway.

I must have looked as incredulous as I felt, because Roger continued.

"I assure Mark, there is no one who truly wants to be free. None of them know what real freedom is, and if they did it would terrify them. People talk about wanting freedom, but what they really want is security and guarantees, both of which are incompatible with real freedom."

I had nothing to say.

This subject came up more than once, and I'll just mention one other time Roger expressed his odd view about freedom.

"It's always the poor people who are most oppressed, Roger. Poor decent people. They work hard, support themselves and their families, do not bother anyone else, are honest and treat others with dignity. Don't they deserve to be free?"

"No one is stopping them from being free if they choose to be. They don't choose to be.

"How can you say that, Roger. Government holds them around the neck, demanding they pay their hard earned dollars in taxes, demanding they get some government bureaucrats permission to drive a car, own a car, to build a shed, to wire a house, to do their own plumbing, sometimes even to paint their house. If they have kids, the government takes them away the better part of most weekdays to force-feed them government propaganda, and if they refuse to submit their kids to government brainwashing, they go to jail."

Roger listened, then explained something I had never thought about.

"Mark, is that what those 'poor people' think about themselves, or only what you think? What you call oppression is what they love. Oh, they chafe under it sometimes, but for the most part they believe all those things you see as oppression are what makes their lives better. They believe all those laws keep them safe, that regulations insure their plumbing will be done right because it's done by government approved plumbers, that their house won't burn down from a wiring short because it's done by a government approved electricians, that their car won't get stolen, because it's registered with the government and the government police will protect it. They love the fact that the government provides them "free" schooling for their children. They are even glad to pay their taxes believing they are paying for all those government services that keep them safe and secure.

"Only you see it as oppression, Mark, because it is for you. It is oppression for them too, but they love their chains and would be afraid to live without them. If you seek to make them free, you seek to impose your views on others. That's wrong, Mark."

"No one may rightly force others to be or do anything, even for their own good."

Well, I did agree with that, but still felt uncomfortable about Roger's view of freedom.

—Mark Halpern