Constraints and Liberties

In The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Hatlen was released from the prison after being locked up for 50 years. He finally regained his liberty and yet his inability to adjust to the outside world gives him constant fear and desperation. He commited suicide. The freedom from the constraints of the prison killed him. Similiarly, after Booker T. Washington was emancipated as a slave, his initial rejoicing was soon overwhelmed by the sense of deep gloom due to the realization that without money, education, skills and property, life is not significantly different after liberation.

Instead of drowning in desperation, Booker spent his life promoting education, hard work and material prosperity among the blacks. Ultimately, without a fairer access to education, health care, security and other social rights, liberty would be an empty slogan for a large portion of the population. However, enforcing those social rights requires the redistribution of wealth and resources, therefore inevitably infringing the liberty of other portion of the population. The balance of this tension is one of the most important topics in the debate between liberals and conservatives in contemporary politics.

An important question to answer when discussing constraints and liberties is who are we optimizing for. The goal of most of the societies is to promote long term freedom and happiness of the entire population. Isaiah Berlin articulated in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty about the idea of negative and positive liberty. With only negative liberty, which focuses primarily on the freedom from interference by other people, the collective liberty and happiness can neither be maximized nor fairly distributed. As a balancing force, positive liberty emphathizes the importance of population’s collective capacity to act upon their free will, which can be achieved by applying certain constraints to the society. In that sense, negative liberty alone constrains the society from reaching its full potential, whereas proper constraints at the right level librate society at large.

Constraints and liberties seem to have similiar dynamics at smaller scale as well. For example, without the constraints of the rules, the game of Go will not be able to librate the mind-blowing creativities from the players. The limited form of expression offered by the likes of Tiktok, Twitter and WeChat seems to have unleashed the creative energy from their users and therefore created more sticky networks. Often times, less is more, constraint is liberty. This probably has to do with our limited mental capacity as human beings. Constraints abstract things away, sometimes at the expense of choice, but as a tradeoff we get to focus our precious cognitive effort somewhere else. This is not to say all constraints are well designed. Countless games must have been invented throughout history, the set of constraints Go offers stood the test of time.

Another example is programming languges. C is a great language for system programming with very little constraints, but at the same time it is also a double edged sword that can cut both ways. People who mastered the language (e.g. Linus Torvalds) might feel that nothing is better than C. However, for many programmers, having to worry about the countless traps and pitfalls of C severely limits their capabilities to create. Many languages try to fix this by enforcing different constraints. One example is functional programming, where mutation of variables are strongly discouraged or even disallowed. As it turns out, programmers’ creativity are liberated by these types of constraints because now their cognative energy can be spent more on solving the actual problems. In general, when we are trying out different ways of working, we are applying different constraints and see which one yields the best result. Liberty in the context of work usually constrains our ability to perform.

Constraint and liberty are also multifaceted. Even at the individual level, one freedom might come at the cost of another. The constraint of being monitored by the surveillance camera might give you the freedom to walk around safely at 2am anywhere in the city. The unregulated freedom of speech in the age of information explosion could significantly constrain your freedom to understand the truth due to the asymmetric cost to prove false information. Financial freedom at certain age might require very displined life style and prudent management of wealth at earlier age. The liberty to smoke many packs of cigerettes a day could deprive of any other freedom you might have the chance to enjoy prematurely.

Constraints Liberate, Liberties Constrain.


Written on July 3, 2021