3. On free hay trade
freedom. negotiation. Hammurabi. understanding.
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Essay 3. On free hay trade
There is no such thing as freedom without an of. Like transitive verbs, freedom is “transitive”: it requires “of what.” There are freedoms of choice, religion, speech, abortion, movement, etc. “Freedom. Period.” is as abstract as weight and length. What can we do with abstract weight? Or abstract taste? This is why somebody who says “I am free” conveys his feeling, not fact.
It seems to me that the closest approximation to universal freedom is freedom of negotiation. Two persons offer their goods and start negotiating the exchange rate acceptable for both. It is simple to do when one or both goods are just money because money has a single attribute of value, while goat, horse, or baseball player have many qualities, hardly summarized by anything but money.
We pay a price for everything: for staying married, for divorce, for being a parent, for education, for the joys of food and sex, for being a good neighbor and friend (and, for that matter, being a bad one), for breathing good air and for inhaling a bad one. We sometimes pay a price for our words or even thoughts. We can pay with our life for our beliefs. The price we pay can come in the currency of poor health, gray hair, wrinkles, and neuroses, in addition to money. We pay because we agree to or because we don’t have any choice. There is one currency even more powerful than money: violence. Our courting and mating is pure negotiation with emphasis on advertisement and packaging, with most content borrowed from animals.
Freedom is commerce.
American history clearly points to the commercial roots of American Independence. It all started around taxation without representation and freedom of tea trade.
Personal freedom means that nothing and nobody interferes with the process of negotiating a price. This is not always possible: oppressive systems have their preferences overriding personal ones, and even in a free state the government tends to impose regulations. Systems with limited freedom set artificially fixed prices. The law of the land does not forbid crime—it is impossible to forbid it —but simply sets the price for some transactions, in the currency of both violence and money. Thus, the Babylonian codex of Hammurabi, almost 4,000 years old, records the following rates:
25. If fire breaks out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.
53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.
196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.
199. If he put out the eye of a man's slave, or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.
I cannot accept the definition of freedom as the right of individuals to act as they choose. This is a dangerous misconception.
Does a non-tenured university professor have freedom of speech in the sense that he or she is free to express any view? By no means. Even the tenured one does not. The decision to speak up would include a careful imaginary negotiation with the locally existing notion of political correctness, the unwritten codes of local Hammurabies, and the chances of a heart attack . If the price is too high, very few people will enact their freedom.
If somebody violates the law, is this act of freedom? Not always, because people can be driven by their animal nature and uncontrollable instincts.
Complete freedom of any action is possible when the individual chooses between two exchanges of approximately equal value. We would not crave for such freedom. The story of Buridan's ass that died of hunger between to equal loads of hay, known to most shoppers as the predicament of choosing between two equally attractive things, or to young people as the problem of a belle torn between two beaux contenders of equal stature seem to significantly devaluate the pure 200 proof freedom of choice.
What we mean by freedom is freedom of trade. America is free because the freedom of trade, business, and negotiation is almost absolute. Be it so everywhere, would political system matter?
Communism in Russia abolished the free trade and substituted the state monopoly for it. If Communism did not go as far as to abolish private property, it would have a good chance to be accepted into the world community from the very beginning, and, as a matter of fact, the acceptance started with the increase in trade in the 60’s.
What follows from my understanding of freedom is the acknowledgement of our debt to Things. We owe our freedom to black pepper, rubies, and indigo, as well as to telephones, cars, and airplanes. As soon as the society became involved into making Things for trade, the price of life went up: a man was worth his life (not much during most of human history) plus his possessions (Things) plus his muscles (to make Things) plus his mind (to get Things done) plus the future interest on the total of the above.
Under such circumstances, it was often more profitable to trade than to wage war.
Making Things, this demeaning, noisy, exhausting, boring, polluting process, has been the best peacemaker. Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin came to power in the countries where business activity was in shambles as consequence of revolution and war. Poverty and underdevelopment remain the breeding grounds for war, revolt, and political instability.
The paradox is that our freedom, which is freedom of trade, will never be complete until we are free of trade. We are being enslaved by the freedom-bearing trade, Things, noise, and money. This is a sweet, dizzying, and breathtaking slavery, but we might change our perception with time.
To be free means to be free of freedom: not to crave it, not to need, and not to dream about it.
What is happening with us is the same what had happened to domesticated animals: they have lost their freedom to the humans who can be both caring and cruel.
Are there any laws of nature, not those of Hammurabi, to understand all that? What's next? How can freedom/nonfreedom evolve after the present stage? It is a convenient copout to end an essay with a question. I'm taking the Fifth for the moment.
To answer a question of this magnitude needs some understanding, not knowledge, because we can never know the future. I will try to build the lower floors of this understanding in my subsequent essays. Essay, as Montaigne designed it, is a tool for understanding. About the difference between knowledge and understanding, see Essay 20.
Here I am leaving a hint. There are physical parameters that can be defined only in terms of their opposites. For example, order is absence of chaos. Chaos is absence of order. In fact, chaos and order are like heat and cold, light and darkness: they cover a certain range of a property that has two equally usable names signifying the opposite extremes of the scale and they can exist in their extreme forms only in our imagination.
Complete freedom from this angle looks as the problem of the Buridan's ass (see Essay 8) with two equal armfuls of hay. Complete non-freedom is just one armful of hay. If there is anything worse than complete freedom it is no hay at all.
I believe my view
of freedom resonates well with the commercial spirit of
our time. Make hay, not war.
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