“How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World” is an ugly-looking book by a former US politician who you won’t have heard of, advocating a worldview that could easily be criticised as selfish or impractical.
It’s not a perfect book, but I re-read it every couple of years because it contains a simple message that’s easy to forget: you have far more control over your life than you think you do.
Freedom can mean different things to different people, so let’s adopt Harry’s clear and simple definition:
Freedom is the opportunity to live your life as you want to live it.
Why you’re not free
Harry writes that your lack of freedom – that is, your inability to live life exactly how you want to – has two causes:
- You’re not aware of the alternatives open to you.
- You’ve accepted assumptions that restrict your freedom without questioning them.
These are very much linked: because you’ve accepted certain assumptions, you haven’t even considered that there might be alternatives.
Harry calls these assumptions “traps”, and dedicates a third of the book to listing out the most common ones. These include:
- The belief that you must obey a moral code created by someone else.
- The belief that you should put the happiness of others ahead of your own.
- The belief that the cost of getting out of a bad situation is too severe to even consider.
- The belief that others can prevent you from doing what you want to do.
You probably won’t agree that everything he lists is in fact a “trap”, but that’s not the point: the point is you’ve never even considered them, but just accepted them as true.
To at least some extent, you’re accepting constraints on your freedom that aren’t real – so becoming more free is just a matter of questioning and rejecting them.
Your freedom doesn’t depend on anyone else
The paradox is that you have tremendous control over your own life, but you give up that control when you try to control others.
Most people identify a change they want, then set about making it happen by trying to change other people.
For example, say you want to earn more money. Most people would set about finding ways to persuade their boss to give them a raise, or maybe even lobbying for a change in the law so everyone doing their job has to be paid more.
Maybe your boss should pay you more, and it would be “fair” if you got more. Maybe the world would be a better place if everyone doing your job had to be paid more. Those are perfectly good reasons to push for change…but you have to recognise that it doesn’t make you free.
If what you actually want is more money (not fairness or justice or anything else), you have the freedom to find a way of getting it – maybe by finding a better job, or learning a new skill, or starting a side-business. Nobody can stop you from doing that: your freedom doesn’t depend on changing anyone else’s mind.
This gets to the core of the book’s message: you can live the life you want without changing the world, or even changing a single other person.
It’s similar to the core idea of Stoicism, which is focusing on what you can control and letting go of everything else.
You can always escape by paying the price
As well as “traps”, which are erroneous beliefs, Harry talks about “boxes”, which are unpleasant situations that restrict your freedom.
A box could be:
- A bad marriage
- A social obligation
- A profession you don’t enjoy
Just like you can change your beliefs to gain more freedom without changing anyone else, you can escape from any “box” without anyone else’s permission – if you’re willing to pay the price.
The price might be small – like a bit of awkwardness turning down a dinner invitation. Or it might be large – like giving half of your assets to a soon-to-be-ex spouse and starting a whole new life.
But regardless of whether it’s big or small, you’re always free to pay the price and escape.
It’s important to be aware that “price” isn’t necessarily monetary, and can often be related to powerful forces like a need for social approval. For example, if all your colleagues are giving up their weekend to support a particular charity, you’re perfectly free not to join them – but the “price” is the fear (both real and imagined) of negative judgement from the group and possible social exclusion.
He points out that there’s also a price for staying in the current unpleasant situation. You need to weigh up the price of staying and the price of escaping, then decide what to do. That’s a choice you’re free to make – but most people just accept their current situation, and consider themselves “un-free” as a result.
There are elements of this book that seem extreme or even silly: at one point, Harry argues that if you don’t enjoy looking after your child, there are always ways of giving it away.
It can also come across as selfish: some people won’t resonate with the idea that you should strive to have an amazing life without trying to make the world better for everyone.
But locking onto these judgements risks missing the bigger point. You’re free to take the ideas in the book to the black-and-white extreme that Harry does…but you’re free not to as well.