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The Freedom Balance


Person in Prison Everyone consciously or unconsciously makes decisions in their lives that determine, to a large extent, how much freedom they retain and how much they give away.

The social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote a book, called The Fear of Freedom (titled Escape from Freedom in the US), in which he said people don't want to be free. He wrote the book in the 1940's during World War 2, only a few years before what some have called "the era of the organizational man", a time when many men worked their entire careers at a single company, to which they dedicated themselves entirely. Fromm said that, while capitalism freed men from traditional bonds and contributed tremendously to the increase in positive freedom, "at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of isolation and powerlessness." (p. 93) However, Fromm went on to say that, rather than laying this at the doorstep of capitalism, we should understand two things. First, large powerful organizations, whatever they may be, have this effect on us. And, second, these are feelings that we allow ourselves to have. They are not due to fate or some other kind of unstoppable force.

Fromm said that, while human beings believe they know what motivates them to act as they do, to think as they do, and to feel as they do, they often do not. He pointed to experiments that showed that patients who were given hypnotic suggestions not only believed what they were told to believe under hypnosis, but they actually felt in ways that were consistent with the belief and made up all sorts of logical justifications for believing what they were told to believe. (p.161)

Fromm said that the majority of normal individuals in modern society try to escape from feelings of isolation and powerlessness by essentially becoming one with the society and institutions that led them to these feelings. Speaking of this normal individual, Fromm writes, ".. he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be." (p. 160)

Some forty years after Fromm wrote those words, James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist, widely regarded as a seminal figure in the field of developmental psychology, had some things to say about this topic. In his book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the quest for Meaning, Fowler wrote this about people at a certain stage in their psychological/spiritual development: "... despite their genuine feelings of having made choices and commitments, a truer reading is that their values and self-images, mediated by the significant others in their lives, have largely chosen them. And in their (the youths') choosing they have, in the main, clarified and ratified those images and values which have chosen them." (p. 154) The point of Fowler's book, however, is that this is only one stage in the psychological/spiritual development of the individual. Should he live long enough, be placed in the right circumstances, and have a desire for a higher understanding, he may transition out of this stage and become more independently minded, more "individuated".

I have included this lengthy introduction to make clear that human beings' unconscious propensity for giving away their freedom has long been recognized as a psychological fact. This unconscious giving away of our freedom may be subtle, but at the stage of development that Fowler was talking about in the quote above, people say to themselves, essentially, this is what everyone else is doing. So, it is the right thing to do. They don't ask the questions, "Is this the right thing to do?", or "Is this the right thing for me to do?" Fowler says that at later stages of development individuals do ask these questions. Often the answer they arrive at from deeper analyses of life and themselves is, "no".

The point of this article is that we have all given up our freedom based on unexamined ideas and feelings that society has placed in our heads and in our hearts that are simply not true. We marry, whether marriage is right for us or not. We get jobs at big, impersonal corporations, when we might have been happier working for a small company or for ourselves. We vote for one of the two candidates we are told have a chance of winning. We believe that our votes are being counted accurately, despite the fact that voting machines have been shown to have all the characteristics of vote rigging machines. We pay our taxes. We go to church, or not, depending on what our immediate family does. We accept Google as our email provider, even though Google has told us that it reads our emails. We interact with our friends on Facebook, even though we are aware that everything we post becomes the property of Facebook and may be used in ways that are not beneficial to us or our friends. We believe that many of our government officials are as pure as the driven snow, despite strong evidence to the contrary. We don't argue with our boss at work, even when he is clearly wrong and his decisions are harming the company. We believe the old, cliched line which is usually a lie, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

"The freedom balance" is my phrase that acknowledges the truism that, for everything a person gets, he has to give up something. That choice should be a conscious decision. It should be a careful decision. Psychologists have shown that people who retain more control over their lives (or at least have a sense that they have more control) are happier people. Yet, as Fromm and Fowler have written, we are willing, sometimes even eager, to give up that control for reasons we don't understand. The only person capable of changing this behavior is the person who engages in it, the person each of us sees in the mirror.



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