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There’s a mistake I often see people make when it comes to the concept of “freedom”: the assumption that it’s a simple one-dimensional metric that can either increase or decrease; something you can assign a rating from 0 to 100 to.

In reality this is often not the case. My neighbour’s freedom to play music at 4am limits my freedom to have a good night’s rest. Does this increase or decrease freedom?

In many cases “freedom” tends to be a trade-off; increased freedom for one person or group often decreases freedom for others to some degree. Hell, even that is a simplistic take as it’s usually a complex multi-dimensional chart.

There are all sorts of examples of this; my big gripe with hardline “big-L” Libertarianism is that it often seems to pretend these trade-offs don’t exist and that “freedom” is some sort of thing you can just assign a single number to. That doesn’t mean that the libertarian position is invalid or “wrong”; I just wish they were more honest and thoughtful about this, with themselves and with others.

Things like freedom or speech or religion can infringe on other people’s freedoms. If I say that all Jews should be kicked in the face whenever you see one this limits Jewish people’s freedom live a life without fear of being kicked in the face. It’s widely acknowledged in almost every jurisdiction that inciting violence is not a good trade-off, and not covered by freedom of speech.

If a business rejects the patronage of people based on their skin colour or other personal attributes due to their religion increases the freedom of the business owner, but decreases the freedom of those affected by such rejections.

All of this is classic Paradox of Tolerance stuff, just phrased in a different way.

When people say “GPL[1] increases freedom” then they’re right. When others say “GPL limits freedom compared to MIT” then they’re right too. It’s just a matter about which freedoms exactly we’re talking about, and for who.

Perhaps more controversial: your freedom to drive a car impedes on my freedom to breath air without particulates, or my freedom to walk or cycle to the store without risk of getting injured, never mind the dominating influence on public infrastructure (why shouldn’t our children have the freedom to play on the street?) As a society we’ve decided that the personal freedom of owning a car is more important, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t limit some freedoms.

Well, and so forth…

There are also many cases where increased freedom doesn’t limit other people’s freedom; for example my freedom to have consensual sexual relationships with whomever I choose doesn’t limit anyone else’s freedom. But not infrequently when I see someone talking about freedom in absolutes I find they’ve failed to fully appreciated all perspectives of the issue, especially on complex topics which affect more than just the private lives of people.

  1. For people who happen to not be programmers, see e.g. What is free software? The GPL is a software license intended to promote a certain idea of “software freedom”; that is, the freedom to modify and share programs. This is not an endorsement of Free Software as a philosophy by the way.