#59: The ABC of money, part 15: freedom to, freedom from, freedom for
1st November, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that freedom without purpose is pointless, including:
- ‘Freedom to’ – pointless, fake freedom; the freedom to blindly attempt to do everything, and therefore do nothing but trade the chance to live for craving a carnival of meaningless consumption.
- ‘Freedom from’ – empowering, internal freedom; the freedom from being bullied by external forces.
- ‘Freedom for’ – purposeful, human freedom; the antidote to living in a self-deceptive, self-destructive, and ultimately unfulfilling fantasy world.
Freedom can be pointless, empowering, or purposeful. It pays to know which one you’re pursuing.
This week we’ll look at the problems posed by the unexamined ambiguity and unchallenged authority of ‘financial freedom’, through looking at the differences between ‘freedom to’, ‘freedom from’, and ‘freedom for’.
‘Freedom to’ is fake financial freedom.
You know the drill: freedom to succumb to every passing fancy, and to say ‘fuck you’ to bosses and responsibilities.
So called ‘F-you money’ believes it is saying that the consequences of decisions don’t matter. This is clearly nonsense. What it’s actually saying is that the consciousness of those decisions doesn’t matter. Yet to live unconsciously is hardly ‘to live’ in a meaningful way. All purchases are investments; it’s not wise to double down if you’re betting on bullshit.
The trouble with ‘freedom to’ (even ignoring the oddness of building your life around saying f-you to things) is that those that have such freedom don’t have a great track record of looking like they’re actually enjoying living.
My job for a decade was to get to know people with ‘freedom to’. If I learnt anything from that time, it’s that ‘freedom to’ mostly means the freedom to waste it.
(Though the response to the pandemic in certain places does suggest maybe I don’t fully appreciate the value to many of the freedom to be a fucking idiot.)
More ‘freedom’ in this sense confuses freedom with variety. Often, all more variety does is give you more options to express the idiocy of your decision-making machinery.
‘Freedom to’ looks outward because it believes quality of life is determined by external circumstances, and therefore keeps trying to live better by changing those external circumstances, even when it’s only ever the internal changes that actually make life better. As Stephen Batchelor explains:
To subordinate what is human to that which is less than human – wealth, opportunity, knowledge – is thoroughly self-defeating; we end up destroying the very life we set out to save.
‘Aha!’ You cry. ‘I’m wiser than this.’
‘I don’t confuse freedom with variety. I know life is limited. I know about the paradox of choice. I know the fifth Ferrari isn’t a sign of success, but a monumental failure of both imagination and living.’
‘I’m not picking from a pre-set menu,’ you continue. ‘I’m consciously – and freely – choosing things… and then seeing if I can find them. What I want is not the insecurity-showcasing “freedom to”, but “freedom from”! I want internal freedom.’
Though also slow down a sec.
The patron saint of ‘freedom from’ is angel investor and Twitter royalty, Naval Ravikant:
My old definition was freedom to, freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom. It’s freedom from.
So, the purpose of wealth is freedom. It’s nothing more than that. It’s not to buy fur coats, or drive Ferraris, or sail yachts, or jet around the world in your Gulfstream. That stuff gets really boring, and really stupid really fast. It’s really just so that you are your own sovereign individual. You’re not gonna get that unless you really want it. And the entire world wants it. And the entire world is working hard at it. And to some extent it is competitive. It’s a positive sum game, but there are competitive elements to it. Because there’s a finite amount of resources right now in society. And to get the resources to do what you want, you have to stand out.
‘Freedom from’ is nothing new of course. Think of the Buddhist attitude to attachments. Or the Greco-Roman ideals espoused by, for example, Epictetus:
Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it. Assure yourself of this by expending as much effort on these new ambitions as you did on those illusive goals: work day and night to attain a liberated frame of mind.
Or 17th Century French mischief-maker La Bruyère:
The man who, one fine day, can resolutely renounce a great name, a great position or a great fortune escapes thereby, at one blow, from many cares, many sleepless nights and, sometimes, from many crimes.
In common understanding, all ideas of ‘freedom from’ (having removed the clearly insane ones about being free from human connection) are tied to an ideal of freedom from worry.
However, as we saw last week, if you think financial worries are about money, you understand neither finances nor worry.
The implications of this are rarely, if ever, understood, let alone publicised.
‘Yeah, whatever, mate.’
That millionaires have money worries too is possibly the most valuable lesson personal financial planning has to teach the world. Though few learn it properly. Many are momentarily moved by examples of millionaires being a bit silly, but few use the examples to permanently shift how they see the same silliness in less exaggerated exemplifications.
People are happy to ‘learn’ that millionaires aren’t living perfect lives, but they’re not happy to learn that if they became a millionaire, they likely wouldn’t be living a perfect life either.
We are happy to see other people playing the same game we’re playing badly, but not happy to see that it’s a bad game to play.
To move towards financial enlightenment is to move away from money anxieties. Yet you do not move away from anxiety by turning away from it, but by turning towards it.
The first step in overcoming any addiction is to recognise you are actually addicted. The first step in overcoming money blindness is to recognise that you’re not blind, but wearing a blindfold. And it’s within your power to take it off.
There is one sense in which ‘freedom from’ is wiser. Freedom from fantasy. As the incessantly insightful Iris Murdoch explained:
The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centred aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.
What Murdoch is talking about here, of course, is the same thing we encountered when looking at the Eightfold Path – the cultivation of a complex dynamical system for countering the equally complex dynamical system of self-deception, and consequently for affording a flowing, flourishing, meaningful life.
Freedom from fantasy – from self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour – is rather different to freedom from worry. It’s something more. It’s purposeful. It’s freedom in a perspectival and participatory human context. It’s ‘freedom for’.
Reflecting on the key lessons he’d extracted from his epic study of 6,000 years of human behaviour historian Will Durant wrote: ‘Real freedom is possessed only by those who are not anxious to be rich.’ Adding later that ‘Freedom unlimited is chaos complete.’
For freedom to be fulfilling, it needs a focus, a ‘for’.
Those that spend hours a day moving, meditating, and contemplating will tell you that it doesn’t take time, it creates it, because they’re now able to easily and happily ignore all the distracting, de-energising crap that blinds other people into believing they don’t have time for anything else.
A few of you asked me to elaborate. This is the elaboration.
Freedom is an ability. Therefore it’s also a responsibility. And like any ability-responsibility (like money, time, energy, intelligence, connections, and the like) if you waste it – if it has no purpose, nothing it’s for – then rather than flowing, you’re going to flounder.
We all cling to fantasies, especially financial fantasies. Freeing ourselves from them is frightening. But when you do so, you gain far more than you lose, both mentally and materially. You wire yourself not for waste, but for your wants.
You open up the opportunity – the freedom – for flourishing. Which, assuming your goal is living better, rather than being able to say ‘f-you’ to your boss, is excellent news.
But you can’t live better if you can’t see more clearly how to do so.
According to most classical Buddhist texts, achieving this sort of freedom involves three stages: listening, contemplation, and meditation.
‘Listening’ essentially means allowing oneself to be introduced to new facts or ideas.
‘Contemplation’ […] essentially involves thinking deeply about lessons learned through reading and oral teachings, and questioning whether or not what you’ve heard or read is a valid means of understanding and responding to life events.
‘Meditation’ the third stage of practice, asks us to begin by simply observing our physical, intellectual, and emotional experiences without judgment. [...] Even looking at a thought like, ‘Oh, I did such and such twenty years ago. How stupid of me to regret it, I was just a kid then!’ is meditation. It’s an exercise in simply observing thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they rise and fall in our experience. And it is an exercise.
As we noted in Part 11 of this series, we want insight: we want to free our sight from both external and internal distortions and distractions, so that by seeing more clearly we edit the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and rewire our default mental patterns from pursuing waste to pursuing our deepest, most human wants… so, in short, we live better with money and use it to consciously make our lives better, rather than leaving the whole thing up to an ineffective and usually disastrous game of chance, however freely we believe we’re rolling the dice.