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As we enter the final days of the U.S. election cycle, the air is thick with tension. Walmart temporarily removed guns and ammunition from their store shelves. Authorities charged unregulated militia with planning the kidnapping, pseudo-trial, and possible execution of the governor of the state of Michigan. Armed “poll watchers” are anticipated to be outside of some voting locations. And legal maneuvers are underway to implement extensively war-gamed challenges to all manner of voting methods should the election feature close results in any key races.
Ask any American, and they will tell you that they worry more about the days and weeks following the election than any point leading up to it. And what has transpired up to now has been disturbing.
But why is it that we feel under threat by others of differing political views? Why is it that we are described as being more polarized than at any time in our recent history? Why, given the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, did an educated, conservative, schoolmate of mine say that she was ninety-nine times more worried about losing her freedom as a result of this election than being impacted by COVID?
As I’m writing my next book, God’s Portfolio, I’m asking questions like this, taking a more existential look at life and living as the book’s subtitle might reveal: an examination of the I, the We, the All (and then some). I want to understand better how we see ourselves and relate to each other, our beliefs, and big things like the economy, the environment, and more.
In the second chapter of the book, I look at two powerful, American-flag-waving concepts: freedom and liberty. But I do so differently from what you might expect. As both words tend to be used interchangeably in languages like English where both exist (note: they don’t both exist in most languages), the idiomatic equivalence that has become commonplace may be keeping us from differentiating them for our greater benefit.
Our lives intersect with the lives of others in many complex ways. The word complex is essential here because of the dynamism associated with complex adaptive systems like those that surround us. This intersection of our individual existence with these myriad systems yields a conceptualization of our perceived freedom that I call Nested Freedom. It is a combination of what we have the capacity to do and the continuously changing imposed or perceived restrictions on our ability to utilize that capacity.
To explain this further, let’s look at two forms of freedom. Each of us is given or has earned some capacity to live life in pursuit of things we need or want. The degree to which we can do these things — our physical, financial, or emotional capacity — is one form of freedom. We mostly desire more of something we need or want. So, we think of this as a positive form of freedom.
But we are sometimes not allowed to do everything we are capable of doing. By our intersecting with other people like our neighbors, friends, or social groups, norms of behavior often emerge that may restrict our ability to have pure and full enjoyment of our positive freedom. Think of the disapproving glance of a neighbor or fellow commuter on the subway. These are emergent forms of social control that are dynamic and changing depending upon with whom our life intersects.
Belonging to formal organizations like churches, workplaces, or political economies will impact our ability to enjoy our positive freedom fully. Even entering contracts with others has the same restrictive impact. Since we generally view constraints on our behavior negatively, these restrictions are often called negative freedom. We mostly desire less negative freedom.
The diagram below illustrates the idea of Nested Freedom.
So why might the concept of Nested Freedom help to explain our current sense of ill-being in the United States? For one, we are wealthier now than at any time in our country’s history. Even amidst the pandemic’s damaging impact, many possess access to resources at a higher level than any generation before us. This condition of wealth is far from universally true. Still, by taking into consideration the broad improvement in things like air quality, roads, computing power, health care innovation (e.g., cancer treatments), access to information, food quality and abundance, and more, as a general statement, people’s positive freedom has grown considerably in the United States. And as most know, for a tiny percentage of our population, their positive freedom has grown extraordinarily.
At the same time, the restrictions on our ability to enjoy that increased positive freedom can be perceived to be, or are, greater — more regulations, more political correctness, less tolerance, less empathy. Even if those restrictions are stable and unchanging, we may perceive exposure to more negative freedom as, on a relative basis, a more significant percentage of our positive freedom is constrained, and that feels wrong.
If such is the case, it is natural to take action to alter the complex adaptive system that is our life — if we are able. We move to different neighborhoods where others are more like us. We join churches where others share our same values. We find news outlets, magazines, and books that tend to affirm our sense of what is right rather than deal with the challenges that a counter-narrative presents to our desired way of living.
To reduce the sense that anyone or anything is restricting the ability to enjoy our capacity to live life to its fullest, if we are able, we might alter our mix of friends, place of employment, the stores at which we shop, or even the things we will say out loud.
Yet, there is one aspect of belonging to a political economy that we cannot escape: “the government.” That “non-person.” That slow, inefficient behemoth that only seems to exist to constrain us further. It seems only natural to want to move away from that or limit its impact on our personal, positive freedom.
But at this point in our analysis, we benefit from considering liberty as having a different meaning than freedom. It’s a place where government can be to our individual and collective benefit.
While not trying to explore the depths of debate about libertarianism or other models of political life, I will note that some leading libertarian minds believe that freedom is lost when we cannot count on fair enforcement of society’s rules. Like other social norms, our government is an emergent property of our complex interactions with each other inside of various political boundaries. When those ruling bodies’ political or legal actions seem to be arbitrary — favoring friends over unknown people or “enemies,” even changing who is preferred based on the circumstances, we cannot be considered truly free. This loss of freedom is equally the case when laws and the courts appear to have a bias towards those with more significant resources — e.g., access to more or more expensive and experienced legal representation, or when wealth allows one to bully another party into submission via the potential for financial ruin.
When those who establish the law are put in their places by the influence of those with extraordinary resources — resulting in what the father of modern corporate governance, Bob Monks called a Corpocracy — we are right to expect the laws will favor their more narrow interests over our individual interests. These powerful entities may gain positive freedoms that are no longer available to us as less-well-off, less powerful individuals. Again, when this is true, we cannot be considered to be free.
In our country, freedom and liberty enjoy constitutional standing. That’s one of the reasons why we wave a rhetorical flag at the mention of either word. In the U.S. Constitution, the word freedom first appears in the Bill of Rights — an amendment to the core constitution focused on individuals’ rights to speak, worship, write, congregate, and challenge our government. On the other hand, where liberty first appears in the constitution, it looks beyond the individual to the place each of us has as a member of the political construct that defines the United States. In the U.S. Constitution, liberty’s first usage emphasizes a larger collective with expressions like “a more perfect union,” “the common defense,” “the general welfare,” and securing “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” — our future selves and kin, collectively.
Liberty is, therefore, a condition of the collective, but to be enjoyed by the individual. Liberty is our protection from the exercise of other people’s positive freedom — their capacities to act — where that exercise leaves their nest and enters ours in some harmful way.
When any of us feels that our protection from others who have capacities — positive freedoms — greater than ours is gone, we find that our system is not to be trusted. And we want to fight to change it.
Similarly, when any of us feels that a change in the system will limit our ability to enjoy our positive freedoms, we fear that change. And we want to fight against it.
Presently, these notions are in sharp conflict in the United States.
To ameliorate both concerns, we must ensure our liberty’s health as a priority.
In our nation, the constitutional guarantee of liberty is under threat. That threat is from the ability of those with more positive freedom to gain favor in the drafting or enforcement of laws. It comes from the use or choice not to use governmental resources based on our political leanings, preferences, or ability to utilize our positive freedom to support those in power. Our liberty is also under threat to the extent that we leave the collective, or even leave parts of it through the types of social sorting mentioned above. We weaken our ability to ensure liberty for ourselves and that of those whose social networks we have departed or from whom we have shielded ourselves. We lose empathy because we are simply unaware or unappreciative that many do not have significant positive freedom.
When individuals believe that they have no belonging to larger groups — like nations as-a-whole or even communities — we begin to only care about our personal needs. We begin to see only winners and losers and work to ensure the positive outcome is for ourselves. As people move away from complex interactions, the unhealthy result is what we see today in the U.S.A.
The nest within which we can enjoy Nested Freedom has a boundary determined by all the systems with which we interact, including our political systems. For that boundary to survive, we must all enjoy the surety that our laws will be enforced fairly, without bias, and without any arbitrariness. This is our primary call to action.
The most important outcome of this election is not whether our positive freedom will grow. It is whether we will continue to have the liberty to enjoy whatever positive freedom we have as individuals or collectively. Neither liberty nor freedom is guaranteed. That is why we must maintain a vigilant watch that we are not pulled apart. We need to view it as a duty to vote for those who will keep our liberty on an equal level of standing as our individual freedom.
The word constitutional has another meaning in the English language: relating to the physical or mental condition of something. We may take the state of freedom and liberty in our society as a reflection or measure of our country’s physical or mental condition — its well-being and, consequently, its value.
As we vote in this election, more importantly, as we live our lives going forward, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of liberty as a collective guarantee in the misguided belief that only our personal nests of freedom matter. If we do, then, in the long run, the elements that allow for that nest’s existence, like any poorly governed complex system, will collapse. If that happens, even those who have realized extraordinary benefits over the years will have little freedom to enjoy them.
David R. Koenig is the author of both Governance Reimagined: Organizational Design, Risk, and Value Creation (2012, 2018) and The Board Member’s Guide to Risk (May 2020). He spent the first half of his career building firmwide and portfolio-specific risk management programs for multiple companies. As the founder of The Directors and Chief Risk Officers group (the DCRO) — a global collaborative of c-suite and board members focused on risk governance and one of the founders of The Professional Risk Managers International Association, his work over the past twenty years has focused on establishing and implementing global best practices for risk governance at the board level and the general practices of risk management. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Risk Management in Financial Institutions and on the Executive Advisory Board of the Center for Advancing Corporate Performance. David’s concept, “Risk Capital as Commons — Distributive and Networked Governance,” was one of the winners of the inaugural M-Prize for management innovation, and he is a recipient of The Higher Standard Award, the top industry recognition given by the Professional Risk Managers International Association. David’s next book, God’s Portfolio: An Examination of the I, the We, the All (and then some), is scheduled for publication some time in 2021.