We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”

Charlie Munger
Ant Colony in Cement

Buckle up.

If you live in the United States, the most unifying word in the language is: freedom.

There are only two more appealing ideas in the world: love and power.

It is self-evident that it is nice to have the freedom to do whatever we want. It is also important to point out that no one loves freedom more than your humble author.

Freedom is one of my most closely held ideas. Ask me why I like money…freedom. Ask me why I don’t own an English Bulldog…freedom.

What if Freedom is Simply Clever Marketing?

We don’t have “freedom” to do whatever we want.

The obvious example: We have laws. We have police that occasionally enforce those laws.

So, we have freedom within the laws.

The United States, with 330 million people, is a system.

The unfortunate truth is that the goal is for the system to work, not to accommodate any individual person.

I cannot name the people who laid the internet cable to my apartment, who picked the spinach in my refrigerator, who built my computer and so on…

But I’m glad they did it!

This is the result of a good system.

Thankfully, our system is so good that it occasionally focuses on individuals. The system highlights its capabilities by killing Osama Bin Laden, sending Jeff Bezos into space, and saving Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.

Freedom is a very appealing concept at the individual level. I want freedom. You want freedom.

But in your heart of hearts, you don’t really care about *my* freedom. ESPECIALLY if it conflicts with *your* freedom.

I read the book Freedom by Jonathan Franzen because I thought, “Oh man, I loved his first book, The Corrections, and everything I do is optimizing for freedom, so I’m sure this is going to be excellent!”

It was excellent, for unexpected reasons.

It is kind of a tongue-in-cheek title, because the big thought-provoking idea in it is that maybe we have too much freedom. The delivery is beautifully subtle.

That book, plus all of Ray Dalio’s writing, significantly influenced my thoughts on this idea of individual vs. group.

Did He Just Say Ants?

It is going to seem silly at first, but ant colonies serve as a useful analogy and metaphor for large groups of people (e.g. cities). Here is a video of it.

Think of the world as an ant hill.

Few individual ants stand out and the system works they are moving crumbs with purpose.

Then, you kick the ant hill.

What happens?

Utter chaos. For a moment.

We all know what happens next. They are going to be fixing that anthill faster than you can say “Wow, I have never thought about this before.”

Get Out of the Way!

Compare that to a car crash on the highway.

The INDIVIDUALS in the car wreck very much care about the wreck. It is potentially the most significant moment of their life.

What does EVERYONE ELSE want? For these wrecked cars to get out of the way so they can get to work, school, or a bathroom!

So, the anthill is one of my models for society.

It is mostly about clearing the traffic and removing the friction in the system, so that it can run smoothly for everyone, collectively.

The ideal is having freedom within boundaries that allow the system to work.

If each ant is focused on getting the most out of his crumb instead of rebuilding the mound, what happens to the group?

Something to consider about car crashes: people get in wrecks because they are “free” to drive however they wanted.

Drivers are “free” to text, eat food, drink alcohol, etc. while driving.

Your author has, on multiple occasions, eaten sushi with chopsticks whilst controlling the steering wheel with his knee, driving 90 mph. (Although true, I say this to make a point. I usually drive thoughtfully and much safer with passengers. See Bad Drivers.)

In other words, no one prevented us from doing those things.

We are free to do whatever we want in the moment. The punishment and consequences get sorted out afterwards. Sometimes actions get punished appropriately, sometimes they don’t.

We would generally call this bad design. Ben Franklin or Meek Mill is somewhere in Philly shouting “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!”

If we are in the wreck or know someone in the wreck, it is tragic.

We are compassionate.

But, to most people, the people in the wreck are strangers on a highway.

In a sense, they are directly responsible for you being late to work, your kid’s soccer game, or you peeing in an empty water bottle.

Sticking with this example, it would be better for the system and flow of traffic if we had autonomous cars (i.e. less freedom to drive poorly).

Many people understandably would say they prefer the “freedom” to drive how they want (e.g. going over the speed limit).

I exercise the freedom to go over the speed limit every time I get into my car. I love it.

So, in some ways we have less freedom than we think. In others, maybe we have more than we should.

What is my point?

When you try to provide the biggest benefit to the largest number of people, you are unable to accommodate each individual’s wants. If I live 400 miles from a city and I say the government should build a road and lay high speed internet to my house, maybe they shouldn’t listen to me.

I like sleeping with my air conditioning on 66° in the summer. I also like flying in airplanes around the world and driving SUVs. I like fresh water pools.

It is going to make me really angry when you stop listening to what I want, even if what I am doing is bad for everyone else.

If someone disrupts the system, and my internet stopped working because Google had the freedom to decide to turn it off, or there was a problem with chips in Taiwan that delayed new cars being readily available, I would say, “What’s going on? Let’s FIX THE SYSTEM!”

Then someone tells us, “Okay, we’re working on it, but first we need everyone to get this vaccine.”

Then we may say, “Oh hell no. I have the freedom to decide what goes in my body.”

And there you have it.

Do you want the system to work or do you want your individual freedom?

See also:
  • Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
  • @raydalio (Instagram)

Thanks to James Bunch, Ari Schaffel, David Nakhleh, and Suzanna Villarreal Wood for reading drafts of this.