Saturday, 4 July 2009

Just how much freedom do we really want?

Everybody wants freedom of choice. At least, so we’re constantly told. It’s been as much a theme of the present Labour government in Britain as of its Conservative predecessors. And it’s echoed throughout the media. So it must be true.

Certainly, when my wife and I were choosing schools for our kids, we wanted the choice to be our own. We sent each of our boys to different schools that we hoped best suited their different temperaments. We wanted our freedom of choice and we exercised it.

‘Keeping my options open’ was a major concern of my youth, and many people voice the same aspiration. At school, I chose subjects which would allow me to study either science or the humanities at university. In the end, I took both: four years getting nowhere in science, followed by seven years studying humanities, as my mother had told me I should, with much better success later.

That’s the problem of keeping options open. Making a choice closes them. Keeping them open means deferring decisions. There’s no guarantee a delayed decision will be better, and it may be delayed too long. Tony Soprano, in that great series The Sopranos, says something that I believed for a long time: ‘A wrong decision is better than indecision’. Today, I think that a wrong decision can be disastrous, but I understand the sentiment: it’s like driving a long way round on country roads rather than sitting in a jam on a motorway – it may actually take longer but doesn’t it just feel better to be moving?

General Patton got closer to the truth when he said ‘a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.’ I’d rather replace ‘violently’ by ‘energetically’, but otherwise I think the statement contains an important truth. In passing, it says something profound about the nature of decisions: they only really become decisions when they’re put into action. ‘Let's do it’ is just hot air until it's put into execution. In most circumstances taking action now, even if it isn’t the perfect action, is far better than waiting until you can perfect it. Returning to the travel analogy, if you set out in roughly the right direction, you can always correct your course as you go; if you sit at home, you’ll still have all the journey to do later.

So it’s interesting that so many of us spend so long trying to keep our options open.

The motive must be that we don’t like committing ourselves to a particular choice. Freedom of choice, yes; making a choice, well, maybe, and then again maybe not.

The principal of one of the colleges I attended was General Sir John Hackett. He and I had little in common: he was of another generation, older than my parents, a former Major General, a soldier of distinction as well as an author. All the same, I took enormous pleasure in his company and treasured many of the stories he told me for the wisdom they contained.

He once told me he had known no greater freedom than in the army. To me, the army, with its regimentation of men – and ‘regiment’ is a military term – was surely the antithesis of freedom. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it frees you from a lot of trivial, tedious decisions. You get up in the morning, and you don’t wonder which tie to put on. You know which tie you’re going to put on. It frees your mind to think of much more important things.’

He had never felt so free as when he was commanding a rearguard unit in the Sahara. He could see Rommel’s Afrika Korps in front of him and could work out with great certainty where it would go next. Turning around, he could see behind him the positions to which he’d have to retreat. All decisions had been taken. He could relax and just oversee operations. In fact, his whole unit was so calm that it had the leisure to stop and pick up things that had been abandoned by people leaving the same positions earlier: they, who couldn’t see the Germans, had panicked and fled leaving many of their belongings behind.

‘Often very desirable commodities,’ he said, ‘tins of marmalade, crates of gin. We baptised the operation ‘Retreating along the Fortnum and Mason Line’.’ Fortnum and Mason’s is the luxury food and drink emporium in London.

The men in that rearguard unit were exercising the freedom of choice to pick up what their friends had abandoned, because they were enjoying freedom from choice over their own destiny.

I often think of that story. There’s a general consensus that it’s important to be able to mould one’s destiny. But sometimes it’s much more pleasant to go with the flow. Isn’t that what makes us feel disinclined to make choices, that leaves us indecisive, trying to keep our options open?

It can be dangerous, as I learned to my cost. But it can sometimes be a tremendous relief too.

Today, the fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their nation’s birthday, is an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of freedom. And to wonder whether sometimes what we really want is freedom from freedom.


Awoogamuffin said...

I remember you telling me the rearguard story a couple of times as I was growing up. I can appreciate its meaning all the more today - I've often loved it when everyday decisions have been made for me (like when I was working at that boarding school).

David Beeson said...

When exactly were you growing up?