Financial Success without Freedom is a Hollow Victory at Best

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Here’s a cheery question for you on this first day after the Fourth of July weekend: Would you rather be a financially independent black man in 1950s America or a barely financially solvent black man today?

I could be wrong, but I think most people would prefer the tyranny of living paycheck-to-paycheck to the tyranny of second-class citizenship.

This blog, of course, is about the quest for financial independence, and politics isn’t a welcomed part of the conversation. After all, what does politics have to do with spending less than you earn and investing the difference?

But wide-spread financial success is impossible without a certain degree of freedom (see the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela), and individual financial success is hollow without it (imagine being a wealthy gay man in Saudi Arabia). If we get the politics wrong and lose our freedom, this financial independence thingy is kind of moot.

In the name of freedom, then, I’m going to annoy you today. There are five essential components to freedom. In all five, we’re slipping. And all I ask is that you think about them for a little bit. That’s it. Give me ten minutes. Because the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that a problem exists.

The Five Essential Components to Freedom

Competition. I can see needing a license to practice medicine. But to cut hair? I can see passing the bar exam in order to practice law. But why do you have to go to law school and take on a hundred grand in student loan debt before you can take the bar exam? What are they teaching in law school that you can’t learn on your own? And why do public school teachers have to attend education schools in order to teach? Is Bill Gates unfit to teach programming in high school because he doesn’t have an education degree? Credentialism is needed to assure that those who want to enter a particular field or profession have a minimum degree of competency. I get that. But we’ve taken it too far. Credentialism is becoming less and less about protecting the public from incompetents and more and more about protecting incumbents from competition. Remember: You are not free if you need permission from the government to compete for a job. Competition is the lifeblood of freedom. It’s also the lifeblood of opportunity.

Risk taking. Using Uber or investing in the Lending Club is not without risk. Your Uber driver may not have adequate insurance. The loans you back through the Lending Club may go into default and you may lose your investment. And because Uber and the Lending Club represent an element of risk, their expansion is being resisted by many localities. Why? Ride-sharing and peer-to-peer lending is no more risky than smoking, drinking soda, playing football, buying stuff on credit, or starting a business. And if they were, so what? As long as people freely assume these risks, and as long as people pay for the consequences when Lady Luck frowns upon them, then such risk-taking should be allowed to flourish. Remember: You are not free if the government “protects” you from every conceivable risk under the sun. Risk-taking is essential to economic advancement and personal fulfillment.

Keeping what you earn. Are you free if the government has an unlimited right to confiscate your earnings? Suppose for a moment that Congress wants to double our military spending. Do the people who oppose doubling our military spending have any rights? Are they just supposed to shrug and meekly accept their increased servitude to the military-industrial complex? Apparently so. Right now there’s no Constitutional limit on the taxing powers of Congress. If it wants to jack effective tax rates up to one hundred percent for everyone, it can. And until the people can say no to the taxing powers of the state, we are all FINO: free in name only. Remember: You are not free if every dollar you make can be legally confiscated by the government.

Equal protection of the law. Up until very recently, the military discriminated against gays. It contended that in order to maintain morale, it couldn’t have out-of-the-closet gays in its ranks. Now, maintaining morale is a worthy goal, of course, but thankfully the Supreme Court stepped in and said the military could no longer achieve it by discriminating against gay Americans. Why then is it okay for colleges to discriminate against whites and Asians in the name of diversity? Sure, diversity on campus is important. But is it more important than the morale of our warriors? And if we can’t use immoral means to maintain morale in the military, why can we use immoral means to maintain diversity on campus? Remember: You are not free if some animals are more equal than others.

The rule of law. I was in 8th grade when President Nixon resigned. And I remember my teachers proclaiming that no one was above the law, not even the president of the United States. And that’s the way it should be. How is it then that millions of illegal aliens are above the law? And if they can flout the law to improve their lives, what laws can I flout to improve mine? My life would certainly be better if I could ignore those pesky income and property taxes I’m subject to. What if I and millions of other homeowners refused to pay our property taxes? What would the government do? Confiscate all of our homes? Put us all in jail? Remember: The rule of law is critical to freedom. Once you lose it—and the typical citizen comes to believe that obeying the law is for chumps—the distance between a functioning democracy and a ruinous kleptocracy is disturbingly short.

Final Thoughts

Our Forefathers were far from perfect. Some owned slaves. None believed that women should vote. You know who also owned slaves and withheld the vote from women in the late 18th century? Every civilization on freakin’ earth.

Prior to 1776, we can describe the world as the might-makes-right era. If you didn’t have the physical and cognitive wherewithal to defend your freedom, you didn’t have freedom. The powerful felt no compunction to respect what you couldn’t defend.

After 1776, however, cool people in Western Civilization, especially the cool people in Britain, America, and France, came to the conclusion that the might-makes-right era was bullshit. The weak were not put on this earth to be plundered by the powerful. In fact, it was the moral duty of the powerful to respect and defend the freedom of the weak.

So never forget: Our Forefathers began the fight to end the might-makes-right era. It is our job to end it. That’s the best gift we can give future Americans and the world.

God bless America.

God bless freedom.

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28 Comments

  1. The whole world is blinded by the ideal of “the land of free”. It only takes a few years living in the U.S. to realize that it is not as free as it presents itself. Or maybe the ability of humans to live without constant rules and restrictions declined over the last 200 years.

    P.S. I found your blog today and I am glad I did. Finally found a like-minded person who doesn’t agree with government control over every aspect of our lives. I sincerely hate paying income tax. Any ideas how to decrease income tax besides maxing out retirement accounts?

    • Mr. Groovy

      Thank you, MC. You made my day! I often say to friends that Americans are the most pampered slaves in the history of the world. They, of course, look at me like I’m nuts. But they fail to understand that they can’t be free if the political majority has an unlimited right to their incomes and wealth. Meh. But the water has slowly come to a boil over many decades–very slowly–and few of us poor frogs know we’re being boiled. I hope to come out with my ebook, The Groovy Guide to Government, by June. That will offer some advice on how to be as free as you can in an un-free America. Stay tuned, my friend.

  2. Financial success without the freedom to enjoy it sounds like it could be a definition of hell.

    My knee-jerk reaction to this post: preach on! Thanks for the discussion and for making me stop and think a bit this morning.

    • Mr. Groovy

      I like the way you put it, Ty. It would be hell. Your knee-jerk reaction is an excellent take. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Interesting post and timely, Mr. G. Like many of the other commenters, I don’t completely align with your takeaways on some of these, but I strongly, strongly agree with you that fundamental freedoms trump even financial ones. I wouldn’t want to live in an oligarchy, even if I got to be one of the oligarchs.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Amen, Frugal V. For many years I resisted the notion that our government was bought and sold. Now, I’m sorry to say, the corruption is so patently obvious, only a fool would deny it. And most sentient adults know this. And, yet, most voters want to give the government more money and power. Sigh. I only see more servitude in our future. Our appreciation and grasp of freedom is that weak.

  4. This is a great post, Mr. Groovy. I don’t agree with 100% of your tactical takeaways (most, but not all), but I suppose that’s the nature of well intentioned political discourse. Regardless, the premise is right on: what does financial freedom even mean without basic personal freedoms?

    We’re traveling in Hungary right now, and it’s been heartbreaking to see all the examples of people’s lives’ work — from factories to artists’ studios to synagogues — being taken away from them (“nationalized”) by the communists after World War II. So much for financial security in that world.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I would certainly rather live paycheck-to-paycheck in a place where I’m free and safe to have a relationship with my partner openly than be financially independent in a place where I had to live a life of secrecy.

    • Mr. Groovy

      “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” My generation and every one that followed were given the rarest of all gifts in this world–freedom. And we’re going to give it all away so we can get some “free” goodies from the government. How pathetic. If only more Americans had your wisdom, Matt.

  5. Mr. Groovy – stirring up the pot, I see! Great stuff. Unfortunately, too many of us lose site of the gradual destruction of our freedom from an ever-expanding government. They work for us, but they’ve forgotten who the boss is. Too many citizens become numb to the realities, and “powers to be” are wise in implementing a slow, gradual march away from freedom (frog in hot water comes to mind). It’s time to realize the water is getting hot. Time to jump out, turn down the burner, and save ourselves. Thanks for tackling a politically incorrect topic – we need more openness on the issues if we want to impact real change. Thanks for your courage.

    • Mr. Groovy

      The frog in the hot water is an apt analogy. The raison d’etre of America is freedom, and not one college that I’m aware of offers a program in freedom studies. But our colleges are teeming with programs that explain to the benighted just how wretched America is. Is it any wonder, then, that freedom is slowly being extinguished? I hope we can turn things around and jump out of the hot water. It doesn’t look promising right now. Thank you for your very kind words, Fritz. You made my day, my friend. Cheers.

  6. I think our education system is a joke, but I don’t lay the blame on affirmative action. AA has mostly benefited white women, like myself. I don’t know how to solve the problems in our education system, but I am horrified at what my young relatives are “learning,” which is even less than what I learned in a crappy public school.

    I’m definitely with you on credentialism. Law school, the LSAT, and the bar exam are all about keeping the “wrong sort of people” out of the profession.

    I just heard on Stuff You Missed in History Class that credentialism within libraries was about keeping men employed above women. It’s fascinating that most of these credentials are about protecting a group we won’t admit we are protecting from competition.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Great points as always, ZJ. I believe in England high school graduates who want to be lawyers go right to law school. They don’t have to get a bachelor’s degree first. Maybe we should try that over here? Do you think the American Bar Association would give that idea the thumbs up? It would be nice if more Americans were aware of the dangers of excessive credentialism and how it’s used to protect the established from the up-and-coming. But apparently our education system does’t see the need for freedom studies. How sad.

  7. I really like this article though I disagree with you slightly on one point specifically about the military.

    I’ll just say first that I don’t agree with discrimination against gay people at all and don’t condone it in any way. I personally don’t think having homosexuals in most military units will affect morale, though I guess it may in some circumstances/situations/units.

    Joining the military is not a right; Being promoted is not a right. In fact, a large percent of Americans don’t even meet the basic standards to enlist/commission and most people don’t have the mental or physical toughness to achieve any sort of rank.

    So, with the military, I believe that since we are required to do the dirty work that nobody else is willing, or capable, of doing, we should be afforded latitude in choosing how we accomplish it (within the limits of the laws of warfare, of course). This includes choosing who can participate, why, when, and how.

    So my issue is when people, who have zero understanding of warfighting, try to explain to the military that we need to change how we do things, even though we have the most capable military in the planet’s history… it just seems strange to me.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Eric. Excellent points. I for one don’t know jack-sh*t about the military and war. I didn’t fire a gun until I was over fifty! So you’re absolutely right: No discrimination in the military and no double-standards. No one’s entitled to be a Navy SEAL. No one’s entitled to be a fighter-pilot. If you can’t hack it, too bad. And I total agree about the foolishness of micromanaging the military. If we give our warriors an objective, we should leave it up to them on how best to achieve it. Thanks for stopping by, Eric. And THANK YOU for your service!

  8. Great post Mr Groovy. I understand how you feel on each of your points but will respond to only two of them. Otherwise I’d be hogging your comment space.

    In regards to how governments are gradually taking away our personal freedom, just look at all of the warning signs and prohibition signs put up everywhere. Here in Australia, we live in what many call the “nanny state”. here’s an example. In Sydney, there are some high cliffs at the coast that fall onto the rocks and the sea. There is a fence along the cliff top (very sensible) but all along this fence are notices warning you that, should you climb over said fence, you will be fined $150. It doesn’t mention the likely death experience of falling off the cliff, only that you will be fined if you do.

    Why does the Government feel that they need to put up these signs warning people of the potential for financial loss rather than the potential for life loss?

    Your other point about illegal aliens is very relevant in Australia today too. We had many boatloads of illegal aliens arrive in Australia from counties like Indonesia and India as we had become a soft target for them. They arrived, got clothed, fed, educated, and many were allowed to stay.

    These weren’t asylum seekers as they were called in the media. They were economic migrants who would not have been allowed to land here if they had applied legally.

    Now the Government has stopped the boats by implementing a policy that all illegal aliens are shipped to a small pacific island where they wait to be processed and sent back. They are not permitted to set foot in Australia.

    Now this has caused great controversy as the do-gooders think that they should be allowed to come into the country.

    But, as you say in your article, why should they, as law breakers, be allowed to get away with it and come into the country? No, the law has to be maintained and in this controversial case, the Government is maintaining it as it should.

    Great post and some excellent points to get everyone talking.

    • Mr. Groovy

      I worked for government for twenty-one years, and the primary lesson I learned from that experience is this: People don’t become selfless just because they’re employed by the government. I met very few “public servants” in my government career. So whenever the government does something, I try to understand it by asking how it benefits its employees. In your cliff story, however, I can’t see how a $150-fine sign would benefit the government employees more than a danger sign. The answer as to why the $150-fine signs were chosen just may be simple stupidity. The chaps who put them up felt their fellow citizens would be more fearful of losing $150 than losing their lives. Sigh.

      Many countries don’t have the luxury of immigration (who wants to move to Syria right now?). We, like Australia do. So doesn’t it make sense to have an immigration policy that benefits the country? After all, you can never have enough brilliant people. So wouldn’t it make sense to favor the highly-educated immigrant over the unskilled immigrant?

      Our elites have decided to go a different route. Our public schools apparently aren’t creating enough unskilled people. We got to import more. Will it work out? Will it help right our ship? Or will it speed up our decline? Time will tell.

      Thanks for stopping by, Martin. I really appreciate you sharing your experiences from down under. Cheers.

      • Droopy

        Just stumble on your site and am enjoying the content. Been a government worker myself (25+ years civ/mil) and your comments are on the money.

        I live in DC and am the product of public schools. Seems like all the big advocates of public schools never attended one. I think the entire system is a farce.

        Imagine if we had public grocery stores. And you could get food for free, but only at your zoned grocery store. Can’t go to another grocery store in another zone, nope, that wouldn’t be fair. Well, you can go to a private grocery store, but you have to pay the full cost of the food directly. How about public restaurants or public clothing stores?

        Anyway, I think education is way too important to be left to the government and since the vast majority of us avoid public housing and other public “goods”, I don’t see why public school still survives. Must be due to a lack of imagination (probably lost it in public school)… they just can’t imagine what a totally private option would look like or how to pay for it.

        Anyway, keep up the good work!

        • Mr. Groovy

          Hey, Droopy. I have a “solution” to education. Just give any child who wants one a voucher worth three-quarter’s of the school district’s per-pupil cost. And any school that accepts the voucher must provide an hour of math and an hour of English each day. That’s it. No other regulations would be imposed. Would it work. Hell yeah! Free people figure things out. They don’t need to be controlled by their betters.

  9. It is an interesting point, that the countries that have a lot of rules, regulations & laws are the ‘free-est’ and the ones with the least laws (like Somalia etc) are the least free.

    If you judge our society by how much people are governed by money, then we aren’t that free after all. It is us plucky few who aim for financial independence / retire early who can break free of those shackles.

    If were are to ask ourselves, what is the point of the human race? What do we want to achieve? The idea of money, capitalism in general, seems to disappoint – shouldn’t we be aiming for a Star Trek utopia? Why do we treat each other so cruelly? Why is there so much violence? It is hard to marry opposing ideals in the current world set up. The people in power, would not give up their power easily (if we’re calling money, power).

    I’m thankful to live in Australia, for all its faults.

    Tristan

    • Mr. Groovy

      I love it. If men were angels we wouldn’t need government! Great point about Somalia. It’s all about balance. We need a government big enough to keep our base impulses in check, but we also need a government wise enough to know its limitations. And great point about the “plucky few who aim for financial independence.” Achieve financial independence in Australia and America and you are likely as free as a human being can possibly be on earth. Australia and America, for all their faults, are still kick-ass countries. Thanks for sharing, Tristan. I always appreciate your thoughts.

  10. Hey, Kate. Thanks for your kind words. Mrs. Groovy was rolling her eyes at me this morning. Today’s post is definitely not appropriate for polite society. But I only bring this freedom stuff up because I can’t totally divorce it from personal finance.

    Case in point. Four or five months ago, my brother-in-law was visiting and he gave us a book to read about maximizing one’s Social Security benefits. And while I was reading it, I had two impressions. First, I had no idea how complicated filing for your Social Security benefits is. There are literally hundreds of options. Make the wrong choice and you can lose out on tens of thousands of dollars. Second, I couldn’t help but wonder who benefits the most from Social Security being so complicated? Is it the poor and middle class? Or is it the rich? Who is more likely to study all the nuances of our Social Security laws? A truck driver or a college professor?

    I just think we’re making things too complicated. And an overly complicated society is not friendly to the poor and middle class. The rich have the brains, temperament, and money to thrive in such an environment. The poor and middle class do not.

    Let me know what you think when you get a chance, Kate. I look forward to your thoughts.

  11. What I love about your blog is that you aren’t afraid of discussing things that are usually considered taboo. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about confirmation bias so I’ve been trying to be more open to other points of view, to at least consider what other ideas are out there and the reasoning behind them.

    You’ve left us with a lot to think about, as others have stated. Thanks for bringing up topics that few others dare to!

    • Hey, Vicki. Agreed. My thoughts are evolving as well. A lot to think about. What is freedom? Is it the absence of want? Is it the ability to compete and test your mettle? Is it a license not to care? And how critical is freedom to one’s financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being? In one sense, these questions have no place in a personal finance blog. But in another sense they do. I don’t feel comfortable injecting politics into our discussions. Thanks for understanding.

  12. ::sits on hands and decides to come back later when she has more time to reply::

    Way to start Tuesday with a bang, Mr. G! In general, we do have a lot of restrictions and regulations imposed on us. But, I’m not sure where I stand on all of it. I’ll have to think harder. There is a really interesting segment of the most recent Tim Ferriss podcast where he talks a little bit about (too much) government.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Penny. Take your time. I’m not sure where I stand on things either. I just see things that make me uncomfortable. We have too much debt, too much dependency, too much crony capitalism, too much crony socialism, and too much cultural rot. And I don’t see things getting better. So I was just kicking around some ideas in honor of the Fourth.

      P.S. What Tim Ferriss podcast was it? The one with Shay Carl? The one with Malcolm Gladwell?

      • It is The Random Show with Kevin Rose episode!

        I guess you know that I dig my heels in with anything related to schooling. I always feel like such a liberal when I re-read my comments on your blog! Anyway, I don’t think that affirmative action is really as big of a deal as people make it out to be, especially in comparison to what it tries to correct. The bigger point is the fact that higher education (and primary and secondary education) is such a broken system. PERIOD. I feel like we can slap all the bandages we want on them, but we really aren’t solving a thing. On that, we can definitely agree! Speaking of podcasts, what did you think of Malcolm Gladwell’s comments on the TFS podcast about school? I am chomping at the bit to get to his episode on Revisionist History about education and the obstacles kiddos face!

        • Mr. Groovy

          When I read your comments, I don’t think “liberal.” I think “smart,” and “holy crap I hope I can come up with an intelligent reply.” And I hear ya on affirmative action. For most of my life I was very ambivalent towards it. I’ve turned against it largely because our elites support it. And I have absolutely no faith in our elites. I also think the rationale for preferential treatment is wearing thin, especially in the age of the internet and free resources like the Khan Academy. But I certainly appreciate the arguments made in its defense. And I certainly don’t think those who support affirmative action are evil.

          I totally agree with you that our education system is broken. Never in the field of human schooling has so much money been spent on so many people to produce so little knowledge. The taxpayers easily spend $100K per student to provide twelve years of schooling. And what do the taxpayers get for that investment? What does the typical high school graduate know? Can they wire a house? Are they comfortable with bookkeeping software? Can they create and manage a database? Can they program a robot? Do they understand the fundamentals of personal finance? Do they have any worthwhile knowledge beyond basic math and reading skills? And I’m not blaming the kids or the teachers. The business model for public education sucks. What we need is competition. The one-size-fits-all approach isn’t working.

          Thanks for the push-back, Penny. Before I read your comments I’m always fairly confident of my reasoning. And then I realize just how weak my reasoning sometimes is. And thanks for the lead on the Kevin Rose episode. I should get to him and Malcolm today.

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