Freedom in Mind

Chapter 6
Looking for Home

"It's okay, ma'am. He sleeps there. Just step over him."

In big cities, derelicts demand freedom to live as scavengers, apart from society and strangers to sanitation. They are called "the homeless". They use doorways as bedrooms and alleys as toilets in the name of freedom. Visitors to big cities avert their eyes, wrinkle their noses, and conclude that there can be too much freedom.

Cities spend millions making publicly owned places attractive to visitors. Tourists avoid such places, because scavengers have taken over. Public servants frown at the paradox of preferring the restrictions of the mall to the freedom of Civic Center.

The paradox is gone as soon as you trust your own reasoning. You would not let a malodorous beggar into your house unless you were coerced. Nor would you let scavengers into your public square unless you were coerced. The real situation is there in plain sight in front of you: some people have chosen to live by forage instead of by production, and have moved in on you.

They get away with it because city officials are caught in a contradiction. In order to justify taking your money to fix up their civic center, they say that you are part owner of it. But "you", they think, includes producers and foragers alike. So the scavengers are not homeless, but part owners moving in.

People who could not be coerced into accepting uninvited guests into their homes think that using force on "the homeless" would not be self-defense, but aggression. It would be a denial of individual freedom. It's not that I have to let them live in my house, but I do have to let them live in my public park. Freedom is a pain.

The painkiller is a trip back to basics. You're stranded alone on an island, so you have total freedom. That is, you have a complete absence of coercion, because nobody is there to coerce you. However, you are not free to sit, unless you choose to starve. That use of the word "free" is a figure of speech indicating that hunger and thirst will, in a metaphorical sense, coerce you into action.

A figure of speech is an implied comparison. "Music is like sex" is a simile comparing two things in a favorable way. "Music is love without sex" is a metaphor making the same comparison less favorably. To take either statement literally would be to confuse a comparison with an identity. That is why many have the wrong idea of what freedom is: they take figurative uses literally, and end up confused by any use of "freedom".

It does not help that the word "free" denotes more than one concept. You are free to ride the bus, but it is not free, even if you find a free seat. That is, the ride is an uncoerced choice, but you have to pay and find an unoccupied seat. If you want to be alone, you are free to find a free island, but getting there will not be free.

On your lonely island, freedom in the political sense will not apply, since there is no society. But other meanings will apply. You won't be free of getting wet unless you find shelter, which won't be free of effort. You will be free to forage, and free to devise comforts, but not free to use wishing as a method.

But wait! What are you doing on my island?

You made a mistake. You thought this island was nobody's home, but in fact it is my home, though I am not at home right now. Whenever you discover that fact, then what? Well, we can be reasonable and strike a deal. If you were shipwrecked, now you're rescued. If you were looking for a home, this is not it; keep looking. If you want to stay a while, you might help me build a house. As long as we're reasonable, the mistake was not a big thing.

Or we can be unreasonable. I can react as to a barbarian invasion. You can claim that since you need a home, this should be it. I can declare a "freedom" to do whatever I want to you on my island. You can insist on a "freedom" to stay on the island of your choice. If we cannot settle the matter by reason, then we will have to settle the matter by force. In the absence of reason, then a beast has climbed out of the sea, and the resident beast must defend itself.

What happens if "the homeless" discover my island? Nothing different as long as I own the property. If they are reasonable, they earn a stay, or move on. If they are unreasonable, I defend myself. But suppose I own the island only in part? Perhaps I am a partner in a law firm that owns the island. Now, if the interlopers are reasonable, who do they strike a deal with? If they are unreasonable, who decides what self-defense measures to take?

That is the reason many avoid the public plaza in favor of the private plaza. In the private place, neither bums nor offal create an obstacle course. In the public place, they don't either—whenever somebody gets up the nerve to remove them. In the private place, property rights are clear; interlopers cannot claim the place as home. In the public place, property rights are mixed with various senses of freedom. It is said already to be home to everyone.

Since freedom is the absence of coercion, there is no sense in which one is "free" to initiate force. A forager is not "free" to eat your garbage, sleep in your doorway, or soil your yard. As your agents of self-defense, police have the moral right to deal with violations of your private property, and of your public property. They have a duty to make "the homeless" into the homeless—people looking for unowned property to live on.

In the absence of coercion, what can people do who feel compassion for unfortunates forced to live by scavenging on the street? They can join one of the many charities equally concerned. They can be rescuers. If they value freedom, they must take care to avoid complicity in crimes against people or property.

Meanwhile, "the homeless" can earn their stay by providing an object lesson in mistaken ideas of freedom. Garbage and shopping carts are not "free" goods. Sidewalks are not for "free" use by vandals. Charity money does not provide "free" beds and "free" meals. To live by foraging is not to be "truly free".

A parasite is truly free when the host neglects self-defense. When property owners are asked to respect "freedom" by neglecting defense of their property, they are being asked to forego not coercion, but self-defense. They are being asked to surrender freedom. When public officials neglect defense of public property, they are not upholding freedom by foregoing force, they are surrendering to force. While they preach "freedom", they surrender freedom.

In the absence of coercion, what does looking for a home consist of? It consists of deciding where to live, which includes deciding how to live. When you say, "Now I am home," you imply that this is where you live your own life, stolen from no one. Here is where you consume what you produce. If your home is an underpass, you prove that foraging is inferior to producing. If your home is a mansion, you show how effective production can be.

If your home is a jail, did you get there by denying individual rights? If so, you were looking for a home outside of society. Or did you get there by defying arbitrary rules? If so, you were looking for a home in a free society rather than this one.

People who feel at home in a coercive society pretend that a figurative use of the idea of freedom is the literal use. "One of our basic freedoms," they say, "is freedom from want." If this means anything, it means that my want is a claim on your wealth. I say that your wealth was in some mysterious way stolen from me in the first place. I declare arbitrarily that you are not living your life, but my life. You stole it from me, and now I want it back.

That replaces reason with envy. If you believe it, then in logic self-defense against "the homeless" is just more aggression. Also, your own home is not rightfully yours, but only borrowed. You are never at home, but always looking for home. When you see a scavenger on the street, you think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

In a tourist town, beggars claim to make hundreds of dollars a day from such deep thinkers. A coercive government will eagerly encourage such thought. If every life is a stolen life, and production is luck, then self-regulation is pretense, and freedom requires coercion.

Others do not spend a life looking for home, but being at home in reality. They reject coercion because it interferes with their method of making their home: thinking. Since they know how to find the way to success, they are impatient to get on with it. They want regulators to stay out of the way. Any time they spend looking for a home is spent purposefully, beginning with a conscious decision and ending with success.

Saying that a wild animal is "born free" does not mean that you won't shoot if it attacks. It must satisfy its hunger somewhere else, without your help. It is not "free" of your self-defense. Saying that "the homeless only want to be free of society," does not mean they are free from society's self-defense. A demand for "total freedom" is not a demand for freedom to violate individual rights; there is no such freedom. To get clear on freedom, it is vital to grasp that the absence of coercion never implies the absence of self-defense. My agreement to your freedom means I will not physically push. But I will push back.

Next Chapter Previous Chapter Contents Home