Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Freedom Cycle - from chaos to dictatorship and back

I propose that in any organizational group whether it is small like a family, or medium-sized like a company, large like an industry, or huge like a whole country, there is usually a process where you start with a large amount of freedom, and that is gradually reduced as rules and controls are introduced and tightened over time until finally there is a breaking point. A point at which people are no longer willing to live within the high levels or restrictions, they simply can’t stand it anymore, and there is a sudden change which resets the balance and throws off the old bindings and harnesses and lives free for a time. This happens until gradually, they see the need to impose restrictions again and one by one the people again give up their freedoms until they just can’t stand it anymore. Again. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Evolution of a City
When I was young, for a few years I lived near the Scarborough Bluffs. These are cliffs at the northern edge of Lake Ontario in an eastern suburb of Toronto, Canada. The cliffs are similar to the cliffs of Dover, England on the channel, but not made of white chalk. They are hundreds of feet high, and mostly steep drops, but there are places where I learned to climb up and down. I became quite a good climber in those days. I tried to conquer my natural fear of heights by forcing myself to stand on the edge and look out and down to the lake below. Whenever I needed to think, I would walk out to the edge of the bluffs and stand or sit and just look out and work through all my problems. I really connected to that place.

Years later, I went back to my old spot and saw that they had now built a fence all around, to prevent people from getting too close to the edge. Probably, someone had fallen off and decided to sue the government, so their lawyers decided to put up a fence to prevent further lawsuits.

On an emotional level, I saw this as an encroachment on my freedoms. I used to be free to go to my favorite place of meditation. Now it was fenced off, and my favorite way to commune with nature was cutoff. After all - what is the plan here? Are we going to go around and childproof the whole planet? No climbing on mountains. No swimming in rivers. No white water rafting. No walking across bridges – come to think of it, why not cancel all hiking period. Yes, that’s it! Just cancel it all because there is too much potential for lawsuits. While we’re at it, maybe we should cancel camping, too. Campfires are dangerous, aren’t they?
Speaking of dangerous, how about bicycles? And motorcycles? Skateboards, and rollerblades. Eliminate them all, right?! Let’s make everything that has any risk or possibility of litigation illegal. That’ll save us, won’t it? Hardly.

Let’s look at a couple more examples.

In Buffalo, NY, there is a by-law that prohibits anyone from painting a ladder. I thought to myself, how ridiculous! Someone must have gone rule-crazy." I thought, “These are how all our little freedoms are eroded away one by one just because someone wants to exert their authority over others.” But then I heard the reason. As it happens, the law was put in place to prevent people from selling old used ladders as new and covering up rotten wood with fresh paint. It was a safety issue. The steps might be rotten and fall apart when someone tries to climb it. Keeping the ladder unpainted would allow anyone to see the wood was rotting and the ladder was unsafe. It saved injuries and possibly lives. So the apparently crazy rule was actually reasonable and sensible.

Evolution of a Company
For a number of years, I worked in the consulting division of a large software company. It always amazed me when I looked at the terms of the contracts we forced our customers to sign. They seemed ridiculous on several fronts, and some customers simply refused to sign them and chose to go with smaller companies with less restrictive contracts, and ones that were more negotiable. At first, it seemed we were simply being stubborn and arrogant demanding these terms. One of the terms for instance, stated that when a customer pays us to develop some software solution for them, even though they pay for all the time of all the people involved, and for all the materials and travel costs, and everything, at the end of it, we still owned the code. They paid for it to be developed, but they only got the limited rights to use it, they didn't actually 'own' the code itself.

To them, that seemed like a form of robbery. At first, it also seemed to me to be unfair. But then, when I discussed it with a company lawyer, I heard a different perspective. He pointed out that when our developers/consultants perform programming exercises for a client, they usually have some templates or similar coding structures to start with. No one ever re-invents the wheel anymore. Common sense says you will use something you have that is similar and modify it to fit the case.

If the customer is given ownership of the code, Then they would take unfair ownership of code that was used as a template to begin their work. It's unfair because they didn't pay for that at all. It was used as a way to accelerate their development and give greater value.

Morover, later, when that consultant uses any piece of this code on another system for someone else as a template, if that template includes some piece of code written for this company, then this company would own a piece of the code that goes into those future systems, and they could demand royalties. In fact, they could claim ownership of the template used to start writing the code for their system, and then sue the software company for part of the royalties on thousands of other customer’s systems - both in the future AND retroactively. And each of those customers could also sue for royalties on every one else’s systems – what a mess! Civil courts would grind to a halt. Business itself in this country would grind to a halt based upon spurious claims of intellectual properties cross-ownership issues. Can you imagine the courts and legal system bogged down trying to sort out who owns which individual lines of code in programs that have hundreds of thousands of lines of code, and whose code is constantly being changed to fix bugs, etc? It's a nightmare. I believe it's not even possible.

So, essentially, when a software company starts out, they typically don’t have all those rules, because they haven’t yet learned the hard way to put them in place. They haven’t been sued yet. They start out very easy to get along with, but over the years, as they get stung in various ways and by various people, they tighten their rules and contract terms more and more, trying to protect themselves until they are losing business because of their rules and restrictions. They sometimes outsmart themselves right out of business. There is a trade-off between protecting yourself and losing to competitors who have not yet learned to be so demanding.

Evolution of a Country
Now let’s look at a country. America was a very free country at one point. It was formed by a group of men that wanted freedom from England. They felt that the taxes and laws and restrictions were too restrictive and so they rebelled and fought the war of independence, and upon winning the war, declared this a new country. The United States of America. United in freedom. But, of course that freedom carries with it a price. The price is anarchy and chaos. Think of how America was back in the beginning when the people still had almost unlimited freedom. It was the old west. And with the old west came the so-called 'Law of the Old West'. That meant that the man who was strongest and best-armed had all the power of the other people. Gangs of thugs ran rough-shod over the decent people and took whatever they wanted. The government law enforcement was too weak, too small, too thinly distributed to make any difference to keep the criminals at bay. So, if a man wanted to keep his family safe, he kept guns and taught his sons how to use them. In the chaos and anarchy of the time, the people tried to defend their homes with force, just like the criminals took what they wanted with force. It was freedom - but it was hard to live in that level of chaos.

The word freedom is extremely important to Americans. It’s written into the founding documents, even. Most Americans still believe this is a free country because they have been told it is since they were children. But honestly, that’s changed a bit over the years, and through ignorance and a declining education, they don’t know what to compare it against.

So they take some totalitarian regimes and compare America against them in order to feel free by comparison. They compare it against Communist China or Communist North Korea. But they don't necessarily compare it against Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Netherlands, England, France, Greece, Brazil, etc. So this is perhaps an unfair and inappropriate comparison. At the least, it is less than useful. To say we are more free here than we would be in North Korea, doesn't really mean that much.

We started out as the kind of a free country where any man could say what he wanted when he wanted. He could buy land and do whatever he wanted on that land. He could start any kind of business he wanted, join any kind of religion or any kind of club he liked. And he could do these things with no one looking over his shoulder and watching everything, or restricting him in any way.

But over the 230 years since the country was founded, inevitably, problems have come up. And to solve each problem, new legislation was formed to restrict the actions of people in various ways in order to avoid having that problem in the future. So restrictions tighten naturally, and with each new restriction or law or rule, a little bit of freedom is necessarily lost.

Recently, on September 11, 2001, we had a major terrorist attack in New York on the World Trade towers and at the Pentagon in washington, D.C. We were shown to be vulnerable to terrorist attack. That was a major problem. So the president announced a war on terrorism, and started putting in place legislation to try to catch any terrorists and stop them from doing this again. The measure put in place dramatically changed our concepts of freedom. Due to the Patriot Act, and the Homeland Security Act, we no longer enjoy freedoms that we used to. In fact, because of this legislation and our much more aggressive stance and policies overseas in war and in other situations, our whole reputation and demeanor has changed in the eyes of the world.

This has recently become a vastly different country than what the founders had intended. With the increased security challenges, and the resulting increases in control and power for the administration, our behavior as a country has generally become more aggressive. We are more likely to go to war. And when we do, we engage vigorously and aggressively. We now are known to torture our prisoners of war and even kill them. As other people elsewhere see it, we topple governments, invade sovereign nations, and assassinate leaders and key people in various countries all over the world in order to promote our business interests and military interests around the globe. Therefore we are now generally disliked or even hated by virtually all other countries in the world. Arab leaders call the President “The Great Satan” and vow his demise and the destruction of our country and our way of life.

Let’s get back to the internal picture and take a look at where our freedoms really stand in America today.

American Freedoms Today
Because of legislation in place today, and legal precedents already established in court of law, it is now possible for the government to take possession of your house and give it to another person or company, if they think that will “serve the public good better” than letting you do whatever you are currently doing with it. This is a remarkable setback in terms of freedoms. We have criticized China and other countries for this, and now we do it to ourselves. If buying property means that the government can still take away your property and give it to another person - then that says that we don't really have ownership of property here any longer. That is a huge lapse in freedom.

In schools, they are slowly changing the school curriculum to remove science and replace it with religious doctrine of the religion they choose, in order to train your children to think in terms of Christian explanations and Christian understandings of the origin of species and of the world and the universe, rather than the established scientific ones used here and around the world for hundreds of years. In a previous article I have pointed out the states already converted or in the process of converting to “Intelligent Design”(religious doctrine) and ignoring or subverting the teaching of evolution as the explanation for how species came to be the way they are today.

The FDA is currently trying to ward off the advances of the current government to restrict the use of any drugs or treatments for birth control, because the current administration has a religious/ideological problem with birth control and abortion. Regardless of what the population of the country wants or needs, and regardless of what science regards as safe or advisable, they seem determined to pursue their far right religious agenda. A spokesperson for the FDA said yesterday "If we allow the current administration to dictate this, then what's next? They might decide that obesity is immoral and a sin, and therefore they can simply force the FDA to outlaw any kind of food or drug or treatment that helps in controlling obesity?"

As a result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, and the resulting increase in security and governmental control that came from that, the government needed extraordinary rights to be able to find, chase and apprehend potential terrorists. And they cannot afford to be hampered in this effort by bureaucracy or paperwork, or civilian rights. So now they have the right to enter your home at any time without a warrant, and search your premises to find whatever evidence they like – and they can do this without your knowledge. They can intercept your email and search all your computer systems for any information they like, and they can listen to any of your phone conversations, and they can intercept and read your mail coming and going. They monitor your library activities, and church activities, looking for anything they feel is counter to the current governments’ interests. They track your bank accounts and financial activity and trace any transactions. They can do all this without your knowledge.

People are afraid that if they decide they don’t like you based on anything they ‘find’ using these techniques, then they can abduct you and place you in prison for up to 5 years without a court case, hearing, or even a phone call based only of the strength of an officer’s suspicions or opinion. No actual evidence is necessary. Your family and employer would not even know where you were. They would simply assume you are dead. If any federal officer feels you might be considered subversive in some way, then without actual proof, many constitutional rights are immediately and easily removed.

We must hope and trust that they use these powers only to pursue terrorists and not to pursue any political agenda of say undermining their political competitors, or anyone else who speaks out against them. That would run exactly contrary to the whole intention of the founders of this country, and in fact the very tenets this country was based upon. So we hope that our government agents act responsibly and selflessly.

In times of national security threats such as the terrorist threats we have seen over the past 5 years, it is expected that our freedoms would be impinged upon, or mitigated. In this case, most of the freedoms that we felt defined us as a country and a people and a culture have now been legislated away to serve to higher purpose of keeping us alive in a world full of people who hate us.

Where Does This Lead?

Rights and freedoms, once taken away, are never given back by the same people. Once they have the power, they don’t give it up easily. Inevitably, there is a major change brought upon by either a war with another country, or by an insurrection/revolution within that country which puts a new government in place and all the rules reset to zero and are re-thought again.

This just happened in Iraq. They used to have very very restrictive laws and rules, and then there was a massive change and now businessmen and people in general are wondering what the new rules are. There are no rules to govern business transactions, etc., until the brand new government can start to make them. So there is freedom – but there is also chaos. Some see it as an opportunity to do business, others see it as anarchy and cannot protect their business interests in that kind of volatile and uncontrolled environment.

The Freedom Cycle
Predictably, at the beginning of any system cycle, where there are no rules, and there is much freedom, there is also chaos. And as the system matures, rules are created and refined by those in power to bring order and reduce chaos, but then eventually they begin to introduce rules and laws that benefit themselves at the expense of those of less power. And so it build up tighter and tighter again until it reaches a point where the people cannot stand it anymore – and the cycle starts all over again.

I suspect that no matter where you are in the cycle, there are aspects of that time that you might dislike, but the alternatives have their trade-offs as well.

With freedom comes chaos. With order, comes stifling restrictions and lack of freedom. Perhaps the best, most comfortable place is some mix in the middle. We must work to understand the things we cannot change. And in understanding them, see the cycles and work within the system the best we can. It is the world. If you don't like how things are, don't worry - it will probably change again before too long.


At 8/05/2006 11:40 PM, Anonymous Igor said...


May I play devil's advocate? Just a little?
You claim that in "wild west" man was more "free" than in today's America. I cannot see how can this be true - in today's America man has much-much more options for his life, no?

As I understand, in "wild west", the only options available for a man then were:
a) being a small farmer
b) being a criminal who was robbing the farmers.

where do you see freedom? Yes, there were few rules - of course! because there were less than few options for a man's life - thus there wasn't a need for many rules.

and as the life was becoming more free, more options in life became available for man, so more rules were coming into existence...

you me agree ?

At 8/06/2006 9:16 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Sorry Igor, I don't agree.
Even in the old west there were many different vocations a person could choose besides being a farmer or being a criminal.

He could be a blacksmith, or a wagin maker, wheelwright, candle maker, furniture maker, he could run a shop, a saloon, a restaurant. He could be a doctor, a barber, a tailor, a lawyer, a sheriff. He could be a banker, or work the railroads, or be a surveyor, ride the wagons, etc. etc. etc. etc.
Depending on the size of the town, there were all sorts of things to do.

There were many choices for men then. (not quite so many for women, perhaps, though.

And with all of them, he had a certain degree of freedom. It was a golden age in the sense of allowing a man with a dream to work towards and fulfill his dream.
However, as I pointed out, the downside was that, since there were few laws and few people to enforce them, there was also a state of anarchy and chaos. So anything he built became difficult to defend and protect. The lack of infrastructure and rules and authorities meant he had to provide all protection for himself.

Trade-offs. Always trade-offs. One of the most important lessons in life is to learn the trade-offs.


At 8/06/2006 11:31 AM, Anonymous igor said...

Val, I probably wasn't clear in my first comment...

Let me try to put it this way:

when you talk about freedom, you point to "rules and laws" as factors that limit the abovementioned freedom. I cannot and I won't argue this, but what I wanted to say is that those factors are NOT the only factors that limit freedom!

you may not pursue a particular activity because of a limiting law, OR because there is no way you can do it AT ALL. What's the difference? The effective result is the same.

Example: general aviation.
1) You can do it in Texas, but you are a subject to a hell of regulations - your freedom is limited.
2) You cannot do it AT ALL in Wild West - there was no aviation there - your freedom is limited even more!

I know, this example sounds foolish - but pls try to understand the idea - I know, I am akward... you may say we cannot compare general aviation today and in Wild West, but what is a correct comparison? In ANY country where general aviation is possible at all, it is MORE limited than in USA either thru more regulations, or thru higher entry barrier.

Of course, you can compare TX's gen aviation to ... some ideal free world, but that ideal world doesn't exist - and, probably, cannot exist. How this comparison is any better than comparing with Wild West?

Returning to my Wild West example, yes, I simplified things saying that there are only 2 options for man, ok, let's play it your way:
1) Wild West - man can pursue 100s of activities within few laws,
2) Today's USA - man can pursue 100 000s of activities within many laws,
where is more freedom? (and I am yet to use the trump card of woman's freedom...)

I would say more - it looks counter-intuitive - but it seems to me that more laws and regulations IS SIGN OF more freedom:

1) North Korea. No freedom and only 2 laws: a) do as Dear Leader says, b) don't do anything else.
2) USSR - in Soviet Union all laws that a person had to abide (full criminal code, full civic code, admin law, tax law, etc) would fit into 1 (one) book. Few laws, eh? What about freedom?
3) hypothetical example - our predecessors in the Stone Age. Number of laws and regulation = 0. Freedom? I wouldn't say so - the ONLY thing that they were "allowed" to do was postponing death (from hunger, illness, predators) until they managed to procreate...

as for your words:
It was a golden age in the sense of allowing a man with a dream to work towards and fulfill his dream.
I don't want to dig into it here - it's a big separate subject, I just want to ask you:
are you sure that this conviction of yours is based on hard facts, and not on your perception from TV, movies, fiction, etc ?

At 8/06/2006 12:24 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

I do not suggest that the more freedom is universally better. I am merely noting that there is a cycle from high freedom, but low safety to high safety/high control but low freedom - and then back again.
My real point here is just that the cycle exists. Not that any one state is better than another. There are always trade-offs.

Just like age. Some might think that it is better to be young than old. But that is not necessarily true. It is nice to have a youthful body, but then you have little control over your life. Everything is controlled by your parents. Also, you don't have to work, but then you don't really own much, either. It's a pain to have to go out and work, but then it's nice to have the money to buy the things you want.
Every age is perfect. Again - it's all about the trade-offs.

So it is with living. So it is with countries. So it is with life.

At 8/06/2006 2:11 PM, Anonymous igor said...

you are probably right about the cycle. anyway, 90% of all nature is cyclic.

unfortunately, "freedom" is so ... vague ... - it is difficult to make any reasonable (as in contrary to perception-based) conclusions.

anyway, pls don't stop posting your thoughts/experience about music, ok ?
I don't comment on those for the simple reason that, being nothing there, I cannot possible say anything worthwhile - but music posts are my #1 read in your blog!


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