How to Find Freedom in a Unfree World
I recently re-read “How I found Freedom in an Unfree World” by Harry Browne. This book provides a wonderful guide on how to take responsibility for your own freedom and avoid various mental-traps that deny us far more freedom than governments do.
While I was reading it one thing stood out, the idea that we shouldn’t attempt to organize with others on a large scale. One of his points is that any public organization around a freedom loophole draws government attention to the loophole and eventually ruins it for everyone. Furthermore, all such efforts to organize create leaders who can be taken down, points of centralization that can be corrupted, and a misalignment of incentives.
Each of us is left with a choice to look after our own interests, or expend time and energy, attempting to secure benefits for others at great personal cost. In the past people have given their lives so that others might have some freedom (or at least that is the narrative). Some could argue that revolutions are lead by those for whom the risk / reward is a simple business decision and that justifications such as fighting for freedom are merely marketing tactics to attract donations of time, money, and blood to the cause.
This is the classic prisoners dilemma. Each of us profits by defecting and letting our fellow man suffer. Harry’s advice recommends defecting and looking after our individual interest, unless we derive happiness by sacrificing, even to death, for anonymous strangers. This is the strategy that game theory recommends.
The problem we have is an inability to hold our fellow man responsible for defection. After all, if everyone who was against a corrupt government action refused to participate in its enforcement then it would stop. If they proactively risked their own time and money to defend someone else then it would be even more effective.
Unfortunately there is no incentive to risk your life for your fellow man until you have nothing left to lose.
There are systems by which individuals could organize to defend one another via a kind of injustice insurance. If the probability of any individual getting attacked by government was low enough, then people could offset their risks by participating in the insurance program. Operating such a system requires its own internal and corruptible governance. Furthermore, the enrollment database creates a list of the resistance movement members who can be systematically punished for merely participating.
Bitcoin created a unique opportunity to increase monetary freedom that aligned incentives in such a way that gave users the feeling of privacy, the opportunity to profit, and the incentive to evangelize. All of the incentives were aligned to encourage individuals acting in their own self-interest to participate.
It took governments 10 years to realize the threat, but now that all eyes are on cryptocurrency the rules are changing. The centralized systems that were set up to facilitate connecting buyers and sellers of tokens are not anonymous and their operators are compelled to identify their users. More recently, they have been compelled to enforce government sanctions against users without appeal.
The cold hard truth is that blockchains depend upon a public network with public endpoints which can identify the individuals who provide the infrastructure that facilitates value transfer. Even blockchains that attempt to secure the privacy of transfers are unable to secure the privacy of the nodes which accept and distribute transactions or the websites that facilitate distribution of wallet software.
The only hope for the survival of public blockchain networks is the existence of countries which will physically defend the node operators. Even if the nodes are able to operate safely in some jurisdictions, it doesn’t mean that the internet service providers between the users and the nodes will be allowed to route traffic to the nodes.
While it is certainly true that there are always ways to route around internet censorship, it is equally true that for the masses the barriers can be made far too high. This leaves public blockchains the purview of grey-markets where the reward to participate is sufficient to justify the risks. Alternatively, public blockchains will simply become transparent infrastructure upon which all of the government’s rules will be enforced.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin will likely continue to exist, but users will find that they have no more freedom with Bitcoin than they do with the existing banking system. If banks won’t give you a bank account because they dislike your perfectly legal business then exchanges will likely decline to give you an account and your Bitcoin addresses will be blacklisted. It is likely that miners may even be forced to censor your transaction or risk losing their significant investment in hardware.
Remember, one of the first things desperate governments do during social unrest is turn off the internet. Unless you control the network infrastructure and the hardware platform your ability to communicate effectively will be cut off. If you depend upon an iOS application, then that application can be removed from your phone remotely the next time it connects to the internet, or perhaps Apple will simply revoke its signature on your binaries like it recently did to Facebook and Google.
The High Cost of Freedom
If you want freedom to pursue your interests without interference, then you need to minimize your dependence upon the global economy. If you (or your small community) don’t control your food supply, then you cannot be free. If you depend upon the internet to generate an income, then you are not free. Your ability to continue generating that income depends upon ongoing government approval of your business.
Maximum freedom comes from being self-sufficient; however, the price of this freedom is a dramatically lower standard of living. This is the standard of living you would have if there were no other human beings on earth to threaten you.
Obviously, most of us wouldn’t want to live that way even if we had the capability. We all prefer to cooperate with others on a voluntary basis. Cooperation allows specialization and increased efficiency at the cost of potential dependence. We can maintain our independence so long as we have multiple suppliers of any good or service we depend upon and/or retain the ability to produce the good ourselves.
Maximum economic efficiency eliminates redundancies and less efficient means of production, but it maximizes dependency and fragility. The price we must pay for freedom is an increased cost of goods and services provided by an array of redundant and/or less efficient means of production.
The effect of import tariffs is to make local, less-efficient, means of production more cost-effective than foreign-produced goods. An import tariff attempts to solve the prisoners dilemma where the individual members of a country choose the foreign good at the expense of the economic independence of a country. A country which loses its economic independence loses its sovereignty to other countries.
Imagine two people on an island. Initially they both forage for food, but one of them becomes more efficient at producing food. The two agree to start bartering and exchanging food for other goods and services. Eventually, one loses their ability to forage for food and/or becomes dependent upon more food than they could forage for themselves. This arrangement can exist peacefully so long as there is surplus food available to trade and the other goods and services are in demand by the food producer.
The food producer ends up with extreme leverage over the other party in price negotiations.
A country that places high tariffs on imported goods places a high value on its economic independence. Such a country would be largely immune to global economic conditions and its people could enjoy relative peace with their neighbors so long as the neighbors did not become dependent upon the products it exported. From this perspective, an export tax encourages the independence of your neighbors and discourages war so long as it is imposed *before* another country becomes dependent on your services.
Local producers selling to the local markets like import taxes, because they can make a profit. Local consumers dislike import taxes because it raises the cost of living by forcing them to pay for community independence.
The question becomes how should one distribute the proceeds of import/export taxes? Governments want all the proceeds to be managed by bureaucrats and politicians to pursue their social policies. My recommendation is to remove all political games from the equation and remove the proceeds from circulation or pay them as interest on long-term bonds. This will encourage the accumulation of capital investment necessary to increase local production and bring prices down.
The value of Many Small Communities
The smaller a market that you depend upon, the more freedom you have. This is evident by the fact that there are more small markets to choose from than there are large markets. If you depend upon cell phone technology, then you are ultimately dependent upon two major providers, Google and Apple which in turn are largely dependent upon a couple major hardware manufacturing companies.
It takes a global community to produce iPhones at a cost effective price and volume to justify the capital investment in factories. This means there will be a limited number of producers and if you come to depend upon this technology for your income then you have lost your freedom. You can no longer freely chose how your business will operate because if Apple or Google dislike your product or service then they can cut you off. Since Google and Apple are subject to the various governments of the world, you are now dependent on those same governments good will.
The same rules apply to social media. If you depend upon Facebook and Twitter to keep in contact with your friends and family, then you are at their mercy if they decide to cut off your service because they dislike your political views.
Perhaps even more disturbing is your email address. This is the heart of your online identity and the means by which countless online businesses communicate with you. If you depend upon 3rd-party managed email (like Google, Apple, Microsoft, or your ISP) to maintain critical channels of communication then you have lost freedom.
A look at the Chinese social credit system demonstrates the risk of relying on goods or services that can be cut off with ease by an edict. It makes you a slave to every conceivable government whim.
Minimize Dependency on Single-Source Products & Services
If you care about your freedom, defined as ability to act independently or simply say “no” or “opt out”, then you should endeavor to ensure that your food, shelter, clothing, and social network are resilient to external dependencies. It is OK to have a cell phone, so long as you retain the ability to live a happy life without it. It is OK to buy durable goods that are not produced locally so long as they are durable and redundant enough to give you time to adapt if the durable good is no longer available.
Perhaps you should attempt a dry-run, see how long you can live without a particular good or service. If you don’t periodically fast from technology then you will not realize how your life has become critically dependent upon its presence.
We have created a culture based upon just-in-time inventory management, streaming entertainment, and instant communication. Each of these optimizations reduces our freedom if our freedom comes to depend upon its ongoing operation. The more dependent we become on these services, the less negotiation power we have in the market and with our governments.
Money is perhaps one of the most fundamental things upon which we depend. It is half of almost every transaction. Wherever possible we should seek to issue our own currency, or use a local currency, or barter with gold and silver. Anytime we use a non-local currency we transfer our freedom to a non-local financial system. If this non-local financial system decides to cut us off, then we have lost our means of trading with our neighbors.
There is no perfect solution, but where-ever possible we should attempt to support local businesses that also support other local businesses. By trading locally using local currencies we increase our local autonomy.
Building distributed online communities seems like an appealing way to organize like-minded people around the world; unfortunately, these communities and the individuals within them are unable to survive in a world where the major technology companies are coerced to crack down on freedom of communication.
Will you Trade Freedom for Comfort?
There is a story of a man who tried to hunt wild ducks to feed his family. He would go to the local pond with his shotgun and attempt to sneak up on the ducks. If he was lucky he would get one shot before the ducks flew away. If he was unlucky the ducks would hear him coming and fly away before he could get a shot off.
After a while he got tired of the amount of work required to catch a single bird so he found some bread and started feeding the birds. The birds gradually came to trust the man and forgot how to forage on their own. In time the man could walk up to any duck, grab it, and take it home for dinner.
Every time we choose the convenience of the free bread over foraging for ourselves we risk becoming sitting ducks. The more dependent we become, the fatter we get, the harder it is for us to fly away when the government comes for its pound of flesh.
So each day we have a choice, forage on our own (or with a small community) and increase our long-term freedom, or accept the free bread and increase our short-term comfort. For some people, a year of daily bread followed by quick death is better than a life time struggle for freedom. Some people choose to do drugs for the quick high, even if it destroys their life.
No man is an island, the abundance we experience today is a result of our co-dependence on the rest of society. The key is to make sure that for any product we come to depend upon that we have effectively limitless competitive sources of similar goods and services. If we allow ourselves to become dependent a small number of sources we become enslaved.
This is what companies like Google, Facebook, and the Government have learned. If they can get a government enforced monopoly on food, water, shelter, transportation, electricity, communication and health care then they can demand anything and get obedience from almost everyone. The cost of rocking the boat and getting cut off from the services your life depends upon is too high. Furthermore, you, the consumer, are no longer in charge of the services offered. Want healthy food? Too bad, you get a steril-food-like-substance. Want a light weight diesel car, too bad, you get an expensive electric car. Want uncensored internet, sorry. Want to shop online without being tracked, you are out of luck.
It isn’t just about freedom from corruption, it is also about resilience against nature and market conditions. A solar flare could disrupt global power systems and lead to mass starvation. A poorly placed earth quake could destroy critical factories. A new fungus could kill the vast mono-crops. If all of humanity comes to depend upon goods and services produced in any single region, then all of humanity becomes vulnerable to a localized disruption.
What do you need in life?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that we require basic food/shelter/clothing followed by safety/security, followed by love/belonging, followed by self-esteem and self-actualization. It seems to me that much of modern technology is a distraction that does not build one up toward self-actualization. It seems that we have been building our lives on top of low-quality food, which leads to poor health, and our friendships have become digital and disconnected.
The number one requirement for an enjoyable life is your health. This comes from having good, clean, nutrient rich food and a clean, warm place to live with a healthy community. For most people, a quality local social network, combined with locally produced food, shelter, and clothing will provide a much happier life than a digital social network living on food stamps and government housing.
The price of freedom is high, but the potential quality of life realized is priceless.
True decentralization requires local solutions, not global networks.