An essay on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Freedom is a word that applies to the individual, alone or in society. A solitary pioneer can cross the frontier into the wilderness and be free. In contrast, Liberty is a social word. It is the totality of all freedoms that an individual may enjoy in the context of society. In other words, when speaking about freedom in a community, society, or civilization, one speaks of liberty.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, as nations evolved, liberty became an importance concept. John Locke wrote "The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency [freedom from pain] of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.'
When the American colonists sought independence from King George III and his Parliament, Virginian George Mason wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776, "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Less than a month later, in one of the most famous documents in western history, the American Declaration of Independence, drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson, declared "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Note especially Mason's linking liberty with entering into a state of society. In other words, liberty is freedom in the context of a community or a society of what he called men, what today we would call citizens: adult men and women (except, of course, convicted criminals deprived by the state of their rights).
By the 20th century, in the name of taming the chaos of life, to give people a life that appears well-ordered and familiar, we saw the emergence of a new set of values: society reinventing itself by creating new, larger, and more complex institutions, corporations, and bureaucracies. These new forms of society were intent on controlling Nature, individuals, families, traditional communities and traditional ways of life, and in controlling many of life's uncertainties and unknowns. We saw the emergence of rules and regulations, of layers of government and private enterprise (led by the Industrial Statesmen - disparagingly known as the Robber Barons) that organized life into hierarchies in which human beings became less important. Unfortunately, while this promised to provide a well-ordered utopian life, it failed to deliver on that promise, and instead resulted in considerable restriction of liberty. In socialist nations, too often this meant corruption, the rule of the petty bureaucrat or the authoritarian dictatorship. In capitalist nations, too, this often resulted in corruption, and the rule of private oligarchies where a few used the system to benefit themselves at the expense of a majority – a majority who found opportunity had been privatized; only affordable by the few who held or had access to the power.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the character of society changed again. Societies redefined their majorities not as producers, but as consumers. The security that had been built up by the hierarchies of government and corporations broke. A good example is IBM, which in the 1990s reversed its lifelong-employment policy and laid off many thousands of loyal employees. Not coincidentally, it was the invention of the pre-eminent consumer device - the personal computer, run by an operating system licensed to IBM by Microsoft's Bill Gates - that contributed to this breakdown of the paternal corporation. At its core, the process of breaking trust began. The security that was supposed to be the trade-off for loss of liberty slowly began to evaporate. Many noticed the loss of security; few noticed what was happening to liberty.
In this new era of the consumer, social structure began to break down and individual life became fragmented. The abundance of things to buy, and for a while, the easy credit with which to buy them, masked the destruction of that sense of solidity built up over the centuries. Consumers gave up security in order to enjoy a debased form of freedom: freedom to purchase, to consume, and to enjoy material things. People would change jobs, homes, communities, spouses, and their core identity: their values, beliefs, their given and family names, and even the appearance of their face, body, or gender, according to the ever-changing demands of fashion and circumstance. Conspiracy theories gained new believers as individuals tried to understand their increasing loss of control. Insecurity and uncertainty became the new norm. Temporary became the new reality. At the top, the sense of obligation and stewardship of an older generation gave way to a new breed where the game is a fight for power, with little concern for the effect on people or planet. In a very deep sense, no one is in control anymore, as leadership has devolved to securing advantage. At its core, trust in institutions, leadership, community, and society, and even trust in marriage and family came under assault. Not coincidentally, the ancient principle of liberty was and is now increasingly in further retreat.
Trust is an integral part of the glue that holds communities, societies, and civilizations together. They can be forcefully contained by fear, but then as has been seen in the Arab Spring, new technology, such as smart phones and social media like Facebook and Twitter, can empower ordinary people to overthrow regimes that rule through fear.
Trust is voluntary, it is an agreement that is established through words, and earned through deeds. Often, trust is maintained through checks and balances, meaning power is distributed so that when one person or party starts to move too far to an extreme, another person, party, or group brings them back into balance. In English Law, the Magna Carta of 1215 established checks and balances to secure the liberty of freemen. It was secured by force of arms - King John of England had a choice: sign or die. Over the subsequent eight centuries, rule of force gradually was replaced by rule of law; today the great battles over the direction and fate of communities, societies, and civilizations are fought by lawyers, bankers, and captains of industry rather than abbots, bishops, and barons.
Today, the great institutions of state still guarantee peace and protection from national invasion or rebellion in most first-world nations. The VillageTown depends on that security for its existence. Unlike the ancient city-states, no VillageTown would maintain its own citizen-army to protect against invasion. But within the context of the safety provided by the state, the VillageTown examines the concept of liberty, and concludes that it cannot rely on the large institutions of state, business, and industry to protect its liberty. As was seen in near-crash of the global financial system in 2008, banks are no longer institutions of absolute trust. Instead of freedom from home invasion, individuals are told to buy locks, security systems, and insurance to protect life, limb, and property.
As individuals, restoration of personal liberty in day-to-day life is difficult, if not impossible. Instead, it is achieved when they enter into a state of society, to use Mason's words.
The VillageTown is a state of society. However, the VillageTown is not prescriptive, like an intentional community or a cult that provides a pre-determined set of answers. It is a culture, not a cult. Instead, it provides structure to enable the village citizens of the VillageTown to enter into a state of society. They set out their expectations for their village, and then negotiate with the other villages, the expectations of the town as a whole. By virtue of these many villages, checks and balances are introduced. The checks and balances provide a self-governance system intended to create a sustainable physical environment - meaning one that will provide for no less than seven generations - intended to foster life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How it will turn out, or evolve, entirely depends on the people who live there, as individuals, as families, as communities, and as members of a society and a civilization.
Some freedoms are inherently more accessible in a VillageTown. For example, at one time, children were free to roam, to learn independence and autonomy because their parents were not afraid they would get run down by a car, or abducted by an anonymous predator driving by. This freedom is stronger in a VillageTown because the cars are kept outside, and predators will find the villages provide no cover for them. Similarly is the freedom from economic control. Let this be explained by a story:
A number of years ago, there was a debate in the Costa Rican legislature over the downside of depending on a tourist economy. Many of legislators were independent farmers who noted that they could say what they want as legislators, because their livelihood was their own. If they were censured for what they said, they may get tossed out of the legislature, but they would be able to return to their farm and take care of their family's needs - they were economically independent. Yet they noted that if their children took jobs in the tourist industry, they were reluctant to become involved in matters of citizenship, for fear of losing their job if they took a controversial position. They saw that their future liberty could be compromised by a shift in economic dependency.
In the VillageTown, the reasons to create a self-supporting economy are due to the failure of the national and global economies to deliver on their promises of security. Events over the past several decades have proved they cannot be depended upon. However, as a happy side effect, by creating a self-supporting local economy based on many small-to-medium enterprises that are privately owned by VillageTown citizens, the fear of losing ones income if one exercises the right to freedom of speech is lessened.
If this self-supporting local economy agrees to take care of its own; that the Legacy Fund managers are charged with the responsibility to provide "hand-up" opportunities for people who suffer a setback, losing their job, for example, then there is increased freedom. Economically, people will take more risks. It was Thomas Edison who is quoted as saying "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." That sort of inventiveness was possibly only because Edison had structured his life so his family would not starve while he took the risks to find the way that does work.
The VillageTown concept looked carefully at liberty, to find that balance between freedom and enabling people to get along with each other. It took the long view, looking back thousands of years in history and looking at many cultures. While the language comes out of the European and American colonial experiences (which owe a strong debt to the philosophers of ancient Athens as well perhaps as the Iroquois Confederation), the cultures that were examined and whose best elements woven in is much broader. Essentially, the concept evolved through a pragmatic asking of what works, what does not work, and why. More importantly, the process is not complete. Each VillageTown will be established in a way that its people shape their own future. Each will be different, because the people will be different.
Throughout the history of humanity various forms of society have been tried and tested. In the 18th century, American and future President James Madison wrote a strong case for checks and balances, and indeed history has shown that as long as those checks and balances are upheld, extremes are avoided, and the state of society does fairly well.
History has also shown that the most effective forms of society are ones in which checks and balances are face to face. The elected or appointed leaders who regularly encounter their constituents on the street or in the check-out line face a direct form of accountability that can't be beat. This is one reason why the VillageTown seeks to cap its population size at about 10,000. Much larger than that and facelessness begins to creep in.
This is one reason why it is proposed to build a town made of villages. A village of five hundred people (including about 20% children) is generally able to run directly, not dissimilar to the 19th century New England Town Meeting or the New Zealand Maori hui, where all citizens meet to decide matters. In such communities, people will sort out matters according to their own ways, and each village may be run differently than the next. It is their business and their responsibility.
As can be seen, none of these ideas are new, and all are time-tested. What will make it interesting is that the internal governance of these communities will in effect be private. They will exist as a layer separate from the nation, state or host jurisdiction. They will pay taxes rather than collect taxes. If the VillageTown citizens decide they value services not paid for by the state or host jurisdiction, they will decide to assess themselves the cost to pay for them not as taxes but as fees.
Finally, it needs to be emphasized that this essay is not universally applicable. This essay speaks mostly to western civilization, not the much more ancient oriental civilization which has a very different set of values in which harmony holds a much higher position. There is considerable interest in VillageTowns in the Orient, and the physical structure of the VillageTown is most appealing to them. However, the system of self-governance that would emerge in an oriental VillageTown may be expected to be very different. Since the VillageTown concept is an inert framework given life by the people who will live there, this does not create a problem.
To summarize, liberty is a concept that emerged in Western nations over many centuries. Around the beginning of the 20th century, large institutions and hierarchies began to emerge in which society gave up liberty in exchange for order and personal security. Toward the end of the 20th century, the order and security began to break down, as anxiety was privatized, but the ability to do something about it remained centralized. In the 21st century, people are recognizing that if they want to do something about it, the laws give them the power to do so, but they can't do it as solitary individuals. So looking back to models that worked before the great centralization, the VillageTown offers a way in which people can take care of their own.