Freedom has a voracious appetite. Offer it a bowl of peanuts and it’ll demand a three pound steak.
Look, for example, at the way tentative moves to let merchants trade freely in areas exclusively exploited by the aristocracy became a global movement for free trade. Or how nervous steps to extend the franchise beyond the very wealthy ultimately led to multi-party systems based on universal suffrage. More recently, the polite requests for reform of laws that discriminated against ethnic communities, women and gay people became loud and proud movements forcefully challenging economic, social and cultural constraints.
The truth seems to be that when people get some freedom, they just want more of it. It’s a truth that has been of enormous benefit to humankind. The huge advances made in material well-being over the last 250 years is in very large part the result of the freedom to trade. Our world has become more peaceful as democratic process has replaced violent battles over succession. And human life is now more diverse and colourful as cultures and groups once suppressed or dismissed have been allowed to flourish.
Which raises the interesting question of what freedom will demand off the menu next. Of course, there are still parts of the world and of life where freedoms historically extended to others have yet to be secured. However, I do think we can begin to see that where freedom is deepening even further it is heading towards an emphasis on creativity. Or to put it another way we are moving from a world built around the ideal of freedom of choice to one built around the ideal of the freedom to create.
From single to multiple elites
To understand this, it’s important to appreciate that for the greatest part of our history, the political, social and economic life of most societies were controlled by a single nobility held in place by a combination of force and orthodox ideology. Those outside the elite who questioned this monopoly on power would suffer various unpleasant penalties.
But something incredible happened in the early sixteenth century when the Reformation launched the idea that individuals could decide to leave the Catholic Church. It took a while but ultimately this idea become the radical notion that all individuals have a right to choose which religion they practice (generally seen as first being established by the Edict of Torda in 1568).
By the ‘iron law of expanding freedom’ it was not long before philosophers, poets and similarly dangerous types were asking why a similar freedom of choice couldn’t be extended to other areas of life such as government and trade. A suggestion that underpinned an unprecedented period of revolution and progress that affected European countries and their colonies for the next three and a half centuries.
What much of that progress meant in practice was a shift from a world dominated by a single elite to a world where people got to choose between elites. Government was based on a popular choice between party elites. Social values and practices meant choosing between allegiance to different clerical elites. And economics, certainly by the twentieth century, often meant choosing to buy a product from one or other large corporate elite.
This ‘multiple choice’ era has been an incalculably beneficial advance on the very long period of single elite rule that existed before. But freedom is always hungry and a great deal of the popular frustration that is now felt towards government and big business originates with a sense that people want something deeper than simply a choice between elites.
The freedom to create
The shifts in religion in the last few years give a sense of where things are heading. In recent decades many millions have simply walked away from religious elites seeking instead to live according to norms and practices of their own making. In essence, they have become the creators of their own moral and social world.
The same thing is beginning to happen in the economy as new technologies and a new spirit of freedom and creativity means consumers embrace and ditch brands at a stunning rate (witness the rise and fall of Blackberry and possibly Facebook) but also increasingly seek the freedom to create products and services unique to themselves. Alternatively, they buy them direct and bespoke from their peers bypassing corporate structures altogether. As I have written elsewhere, people increasingly want to be the creators of their own economic world.
The real laggard in this is the political world where systems remain dominated by a very select group of elites who insist that voters choose between them and only them every five years or so. If freedom of choice really is giving way to freedom to create then this is not a state of affairs that can last forever. Sooner or later new forms of political process will emerge which allow for much greater involvement of individuals and their communities in the decisions and delivery of government and public services.
This shift from freedom to choose to freedom to create is potentially enormously challenging with the power to stir up all sorts of tensions and conflicts. It is already making life for established political and corporate elites very uncomfortable.
Inevitably, some will see it as the beginning of a dangerous anarchy rather than a deepening of freedom. But this is, of course, what those who opposed the move away from single elite rule once said. By contrast, here at the RSA, we are starting to understand that humanity may, in fact, be entering a new era in freedom's great story driven this time by a hunger for creativity.
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