Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Freedom is shabby and inconvenient

As much as we value liberty and tout the virtues of living in a free society, I humbly submit that eternal vigilance is not the only price we pay for our freedom.

Anywhere there's freedom, you will find disorder, inconvenience, and shabbiness. We allow our freedoms to be restricted because we want some sort of orderliness, convenience, or good aesthetics. These are good things, but conceding to rigidity often means losing substance or meaning.

Take homeowners' associations, for example. With pretty much any HOA, you cannot get away with painting your house bright pink, letting the weeds grow to four feet in your front yard, and then parking your car among the weeds. It may be how you prefer to live your life and run your household, but by joining the HOA you are giving up freedoms that you would otherwise have, in exchange for the assurance that your neighbor across the street will not paint his house a loud pastel purple, because pink is okay but purple is not. You may be fine with how shabby your house looks, but you'd rather your neighbor not make his house an eyesore for you. So what you end up with is people being restricted; everyone's content, but chances are that nobody's house really looks any different from anyone else's.

This year, I'm living in Irvine, California. Having lived in more freewheeling places in California, like Davis, or San Bernardino, or Monterey Park, I feel the contrast here. Everything is much more convenient and well-planned, but it's hard to find shops that aren't part of a large national chain. In place of character and charm, I've got well-run homogeneity — which I actually like, but which plenty of others detest. (Even San Bernardino, with neither charm, character, nor well-run homogeneity, had good Mexican food.)

It's kind of like this with people, too. People may dress sharp, but I've found that many people who have taken the time to develop character on a deeper level, or hone their talents, are not the most fashionable or up to date when it comes to the latest trends. Of course, if you were really smart and considerate, you wouldn't be a complete slob and smell utterly foul due to all the time you spent "finding yourself" with little thought of more trivial things. All I'm saying is you just have to look good enough.

Or take a look at any Linux distribution, and compare it to Apple's Mac OS X or even to Microsoft Windows. Running Linux is the ultimate celebration of freedom, if you are using a computer. But you have to go through a lot of trouble to get wireless networking going, or even printing. The font display on any Linux distribution is mediocre at best, but you have access to change all of it, if you are so inclined. The trouble is, it's not fun at all to make these changes, and a lot of these difficulties arise due to inconsistencies and disagreements among all the "free" people about how to do things. With a proprietary, tightly controlled platform like Apple's or Microsoft's, there is much less freedom to tinker, and you have to trust that they make things "just work" but that's precisely why one would give up one's freedom. Most people just want to make things work.

Sometimes, we give up absolute freedom because it's more convenient to do so. Those who restrict us should give us something good in return, but I hope we don't lock ourselves in so tightly that there's no going back. Liberty has a price, and on top of that, it's not always pretty.


Bigi said...

you know, you've gotten something right on the spot -- "In place of character and charm, I've got well-run homogeneity".

it's actually one important reason I like living in HK more than in the US. I think that most cities in the US, even those you mentioned, are way too (what I used to call) "systematic" -- but you are right, the words I'm looking for are well-run homogeneity.

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