How much freedom are your choices giving you?

11 Jun

One my friend asked me couple weeks ago how free I think I am. In the discussion that followed, I realised that there are many ways of understanding freedom and that I was not able to give a simple answer. She thinks that I sometimes constrain myself too much in what I do and that I should plan a bit less. I think that it is important to view freedom not only in terms of what I can do today but also in terms of what I will be able to do in the future. This blog post is about how our actions today determine what we can do tomorrow and how we should make robust decisions to maximise our freedom. The next post will be on planning.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts the importance of planning and deferred consumption. The post was in the context of why some societies are more developed that others. One of my points was that people living in cold climates were forced to learn to plan (I have to build a house and collect wood in the summer otherwise I will freeze to death during the winter) and to get used to the concept of deferred consumption (I cannot eat all my grain during the winter even though I am really hungry because otherwise I will have nothing to sow in the spring). Having applied these concepts also to other parts of life was an element that allowed some societies to develop faster than others. I think we should apply these concepts to our thinking about freedom as well.

Let me give you a simple example. All young people essentially face a choice of (at least sometimes) studying hard for school or spending most of their time just hanging out with friends and enjoying themselves. The latter is what some would call freedom. The problem is however, that without good education, their options of what they can do in the future will be severely limited. A lawyer can go work as a waiter but a waiter cannot work as a lawyer. A decision to work hard at school gives us more freedom of choice in the future than exercising our freedom not to work hard when young. This is an example of deferred consumption applied to freedom and we can call such decision a robust one.

Keeping your options open

Robustness is a very interesting concept. Most of our decisions are consequential. This means we do not have to decide our whole life at one time but rather more slowly step by step. But the decisions we make now will determine what we can do in the future. Assuming we can decide between options A, B, C and D robustness is an expression of what percentage of total possible desirable future options (desirable future options resulting from A, B, C and D combined, not counting the undesirable options which will inevitably also emerge) will decision X give us. The higher the percentage the better, the more robust the decision.

I did not really know what exactly I want to do when I was 18. I therefore decided to pass my A-levels from mathematics in addition to literature which would give me the option of doing quantitative as well as qualitative degrees at the university. Still undecided but already a bit more focused, I afterwards applied to BSc. Management at one of the best universities in the UK which has really allowed me to do almost anything afterwards. This was a robust decision I am glad I made. Had I decided not to go to university at all or to study something like medieval history, my options would be much more restricted now.

There are two main takeaways from this post. The first one that is it a good idea to occasionally restrict our immediate freedom for the benefit of our future freedom. The second one is that when making decisions, we should choose an alternative which would give us the highest number of favourable future options as opposed to picking just the easiest one. This might sound obvious, but I never stop being surprised at how often people prefer immediate satisfaction to future freedom.

An important point to keep in mind here is of course that we should not go to the other extreme as well. That is to give up on all our immediate freedom for future benefit. Sticking with the example of storing grain, one cannot store all the grain otherwise we would die of hunger; one has to eat well to be strong to be able to sow the field that much better when the spring comes. The same applies to just taking it easy and having fun sometimes.

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