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

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