A brief philosophical discourse on what financial freedom really means, and if there are other ways that we could define freedom.
‘Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. But what of the freedom-to?’David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
I was supposed to attend the first-ever Financial Freedom Summit in St. Louis at the beginning of this month. An offshoot of FinCon, this was more of a “business-to-consumer” conference and less of a “business-to-business” conference.
It didn’t happen due to the pandemic, and instead it, like so much else in our lives, was moved online. The actual event has been postponed to be adjacent to this year’s FinCon in Long Beach, CA, but I have no confidence that either will actually happen.
But it, and so much else in our political discourse, has gotten me to think about what the “freedom” in “financial freedom” actually means. And whether it means the same thing to everyone. I suspect it doesn’t.
Let’s start with a 20th century political theorist, shall we?
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Isaiah Berlin was “a British philosopher, historian of ideas, political theorist, educator and essayist.”
He is well known for his “Two Concepts of Liberty“, which expounds upon two different ways of discussing the seemingly simple term: positive liberty and negative liberty.
I’m no philosopher, so I can’t of course do these terms justice, so I’ll quote from a source that made sense to me:
Negative liberty Berlin initially defined as freedom from, that is, the absence of constraints on the agent imposed by other people. Positive liberty he defined both as freedom to, that is, the ability (not just the opportunity) to pursue and achieve willed goals; and also as autonomy or self-rule, as opposed to dependence on others.
Freedom-from vs. freedom-to
Freedom-from versus freedom-to. There’s a powerful and deep rabbit hole in that differentiation.
After all, when we’re talking about our own freedom, we also have to talk about constraint. Does a strong state that restricts your actions limit your freedom, or does it ensure freedom? Which is more important, your freedom to dump toxic chemicals in a lake, or my ability to go for a swim?
I have argued that no one is truly self-sufficient. And yet, so much of our discourse forgets that. We want the freedom to drive wherever we want without paying for it, but the roads themselves are a collective good that we all paid for, whether we know it or not.
“Why should I pay higher taxes? It’s only going to go to government bloat and to lazy people who don’t want to work.”
“Of course I don’t want to be on unemployment, but I had no choice.”
Positive liberty, the way I’m reading it, is associated with a state that allows the individual to thrive through collective benefit. Those roads we drive on, those hospitals and public schools, those laws that protect my face from your fist.
Negative liberty is associated with the will of the individual over all. And that appears to be the definition of liberty used most often by the U.S.
Apparently, this liberty has been taken to its farcical extension to mean that we are free to die because we don’t have the ability to get quality healthcare, or free to starve because it’s better to punish supposed indolence rather than assist those in need.
If my state offered me universal basic income, and didn’t tie my healthcare to my job, would I have more or less freedom? Think about it.
I’m sure I’m oversimplifying these concepts, and I hope all the philosophers out there will forgive me (or will correct me in the comments below). My point is that freedom does not only come from the individual.
All of which leads me back to financial freedom.
The Financial Freedom Summit, I was sad to say, doesn’t define what financial freedom means to it.
Instead, the best I got from the website were quotes about the related book Financial Freedom:
“Financial Freedom is about a lot more than money, it’s about living a richer life.”
“Financial Freedom is a comprehensive guide to building tangible wealth that you can deploy immediately to give yourself real options in life.”
All of which is good enough, but what strikes me is that the freedom in question here isn’t technically directly linked to finances.
Instead, the premise seems to be using your finances to gain freedom.
What kind of freedom? It certainly seems to be the freedom-from, this “this freedom from constraint and forced duress”. Or the negative liberty discussed above. The triumph of the self.
Ultimately, this is the game that we all must play. And this is what I talk about so much with my clients and on this blog. Pursuing freedom from pain and struggle, from anxiety and fear.
Unfortunately, it is the individual that must triumph, because the state has failed us.
What if we could build a system where we weren’t so afraid of the future, that one wrong move would spiral us into a financial hole that we couldn’t get out of? It’s certainly possible. Other places have taken a good stab at it.
I’d probably be out of a job, of course. But I’d have the freedom-to do something else.
What does freedom look like to you? Do you know which freedom you are thinking about?