The visible hand in economics

All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains

Posted on: July 10, 2008

My favourite quote by Rousseau is the title of this post “men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains.

When I was a young boy of 16 I interpreted this with predetermined judgments, namely freedom is good and chains are bad. As a result my feeling was that I should try to break these “chains” and rediscover the freedom I was born with.

In this quote it seemed implicit that chains where the restrictions place on us by society (rather than the physical restrictions in nature – if we included these then freedom truly would be an illusion), while freedom was the absence of these chains.

However, as I grew older I came to realise that not all “chains” are bad and “freedom” in this sense (the absense of chains) may not be good. In fact, if a single “chain” could be said to be beneficial, then freedom in the sense inferred by this quote is not the preferred state – having the appropriate “chains” is. An example of this may be the social norm for parents to look after their children, if this chain did not exist the liberty of the child may be heavily restricted if the natural urge is not enough to ensure that the parents care for them.

Fundamentally, this quote states that there is a direct trade-off between chains and what it defines as freedom. However, when I think of freedom I think of the ability to have as large a choice set as possible (this view has degrees of freedom rather than a discrete distinction). In this case, “chains” that prevent people from murdering me or stealing my intellectual property increase my freedom. Furthermore, by increasing my freedom I am more likely to create products and services that increase other peoples freedom.

Ultimately, I think my point here is that we have to be careful stating that there is some type of conflict between state and personal actions – sometimes the actions of the state can help improve individual freedom. Furthermore, this does not mean we can just justify all state action as empowering – the state has the ability to restrict freedom too. Trying to distinguish between cases when state action restricts us and when state action empowers us can be difficult – however, this does not mean we can just randomly assume that a given policy does either of these things

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8 Responses to "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains"

[...] bookmarks tagged intellectual All men are born free, but everywhere they are in … saved by 4 others     maaaaarco bookmarked on 07/09/08 | [...]

[...] of course stems from the realisation that a sometimes regulation and government can increase individual freedoms.  The true question should be, in what ways can government increase individual freedom and [...]

Awesome post. Im forwarding it to a few people

The very point of Rousseau’s Social Contract is a defense of these chains. His definition of freedom is not the same as our modern definition – Rousseau viewed freedom as the obedience of rational law. The chains of society hold individuals together to turn them from weak, unorganized creatures in solitude to extraordinarily bright and efficient creatures capable of building cities and nations.

The “chain” of parents looking after their children- namely, family- is actually stated in Rousseau’s social contract to be the only natural form of giving up freedom, rendering that argument invalid. In addition, Rousseau was not arguing against said “chains”, but explaining how we give up our natural freedoms to gain certain other freedoms, such as safety of property and physical well-being. You, sir, have not read The Social Contract recently enough to be making such claims.

I found this article to be highly interesting, and wanted to say good work.
I myself have recently had a book published on similar subject matter. It has all 5 star reviews thus far, and is available wherever books are sold…..including Android Phones.
I hope that anyone who likes to read, will scope out my world wide book of Poetry.
“Between Chains and Freedom” by Daniel Lee Wilt
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/between-chains-and-freedom-daniel-lee-wilt/1104130225

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