Free will: an American value
Free will is defined as, “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” This concept — along with self-determination and willpower — are at the heart of America’s capitalism and democracy. Fundamentally, it’s the ability to choose actions without restrictions.
Americans tend to hold free will in high regard — whether you live here or not. When the system is working, people are working. When people are working, they should have increased free will. The mainstream message is that if you work hard, choose wisely, and are entrepreneurial, you will surely succeed.
How to envision another’s free will
Unfortunately, free will is a philosophically dense, nightmarish concept to swallow. The aforementioned dictionary definition doesn’t speak to the measurements of “one’s own discretion.”
For instance, what amount of free will does a…
- North Korean have under a “supreme leader’s” rule have?
- Child living in a physically and emotionally abusive household have?
- Minority living in Ferguson, Missouri have?
- Woman working on Wall Street have?
In each of these disparate examples, an individual has their free will impacted. The North Korean doesn’t have access to the Internet, controversial literature, and cannot speak in critique of their leader. The child living in an abusive household has no money, a small social network, and little experience (if any) experience escaping the oppressive household. The minority living in Ferguson, Missouri might feel coerced or pressured by the current police presence, and suffer from racial stereotypes in the workplace. The woman is in a world that’s eschewed the role of women, and frequently denigrates their intelligence and place in business.
Free will is not universal, but relative
Despite contrary evidence, America continues to trumpet free will as universal and absolute. You have it, and always have it no matter who or where you are — absolutely.
In reality, free will appears to be relative and on a spectrum. This means that the free will I experience day-to-day would differ based on location, if I was a different race, income class, etc. There is no absolute — only more or less.
At times, I’ve criticized the idea of free will because it’s frequently used to explain class and income differences. It can be used to blame people, instead of properly attributing individual and societal variables. The message goes something like this: “If they would just work harder, maybe they’d be more successful.”
Messages manipulate our free will, too
Recently, I wrote about refusing to be a “customer in training.” My argument was that IKEA’s powerful brand recognition and loyalty efforts affected my shopping decisions. Moreover, that being a child, exposed to IKEA’s lifestyle design affected my decisions as an adult.
One of the common complaints I heard from readers was that I was blaming the corporation for my own decisions — that I wasn’t taking responsibility for my actions. Essentially, the critical readers were suggesting that I had free will, and should know better — that I chose to purchase IKEA products (regardless of being exposed as a child). Rather than deny that claim, I hesitate to provide an answer to it, as I don’t have one.
Those in Western society are born with advertising everywhere. We never had the free will to say “no” to ads. We never had the free will to prevent magazines, TV shows, and billboards from advertising us at every waking moment. And now, many businesses (including this one) use advertising to supplement revenue that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I wouldn’t make a dime off my website and the time I spend would never be paid, if there weren’t ads.
Advertising works, too. People buy after seeing external messages. The industry is growing at epic proportions, and it’s hard to find an accurate number for the amount of money spent to advertise to consumers. What we do know is that research suggests people are tremendously affected by emotionally provocative marketing campaigns. Thus, companies will continue to advertise.
Financial free will isn’t real, until we do this…
Today, I urge you to question the concept of financial free will — that some have worked harder than others for wealth. If not for yourself, then for others who might not be as well off.
Recognize free will as relative and on a spectrum
We are born into a society with relative free will — on a spectrum of more or less — and we are targeted via advertisements to spend and/or “choose” one product over another. We are manipulated for dollars — in complete contrast to the ideals of free will.
Notice that successes and/or failures are both individual and societal
Additionally, it doesn’t do us any good to blame one’s failures or successes on pure individual free will, hard work, and entrepreneurism. Instead, we need to properly attribute the societal, cultural, and communal attributes that helped that individual accomplish their goals.
Develop a skepticism towards advertisements and external pressures
This can be tricky to accomplish. Advertisements are everywhere. Fortunately, you can reduce advertising messages by turning off the TV and downloading Internet ad blockers. Those two steps alone will prevent most of the messages from getting through. Remember that nothing truly necessary should need to be advertised. If it’s being advertised, it likely isn’t a necessity like air or tap water.
Provide equal opportunity to others
To truly have a functioning democracy, meritocracy, and informed electorate, a society must have strong health care, education, and living wages for all. As these needs are restricted, so are the dreams for future generations and social/income mobility. By providing these basic living standards, more people will succeed.