Monday, March 19, 2012

Johnson liberating an unfortunate debtor

Welcome to this week's guest blogger - Philip Brewer. 

Choosing Freedom

There was a time when most people were self-sufficient. They acquired what they needed through some mix of hunting, gathering, fishing, farming, raising animals, and making things themselves. Not many people do that any more.

It's a hard way to live. It requires capital, because you need to own the land that will provide your bounty. It requires skills that you probably don't have. It requires a lot of hard work. And if you invest your capital that way and put in the hard work, you'll still live at a pretty low standard of living. You'll probably eat better than the guy working at a minimum wage job (because he's probably eating off what fast food joints used to call the dollar menu, before prices went up). But even at the bottom of the wage scale, someone who works at a job will be able to afford a much higher standard of living than a subsistence farmer, at least to the extent that you measure standard of living by how much stuff you have.

As a society, we've chosen to make this trade. Almost everyone works for wages. In return, they get a reasonably high standard of living. Miraculously high, really—the reason for the quaint old customs of hope chests and bridal showers is that it used to take two families saving diligently for years to outfit a new household. And the reason that those are now quaint old customs is that now you can earn enough to outfit your kitchen and linen closet in a few days at minimum wage.

It's a pretty good deal. You get everything you need (and plenty of wants) and all you have to trade is your freedom.

Personally, I always wanted freedom.

Fortunately, although society has chosen to take this deal, you don't have to. Even better, you can pick and choose—you can take the parts of the deal that appeal to you and reject the rest.

The key is to avoid debt. That isn't easy. It wasn't easy when I went to school, and it's much harder now. But if you avoid debt (or get out of debt), you can choose freedom.

You can even have a job, if you want. (As I say, you'll have a much higher standard of living than someone who strives for self-sufficiency, although perhaps not as much as someone who runs their own small business.)

To make it work—to preserve your freedom—you need to live within your means (and by a good bit). That lets you put aside some savings as a cushion. More important, it means that if you lose your job you can take a lower-paying one and still support yourself.

Most people don't seem to care much about that sort of freedom. Most people take on commitments—leases, mortgages, debts of all sorts—that obligate them to come up with cash that would be totally beyond their means, unless they had a job. And not just any job—the highest paying job they can find.

In the past, when people were trapped in bondage, it usually required the use of force to catch them and force them to work: slavers, debtor's prisons, and the like.

Now we've come up with a system where the use of force is barely used at all. (That is, barely used at all to make people go to work. It's used plenty to "keep order.") We don't enslave people; we convince them to enslave themselves. And most of them do it for little more than a big house and a fast car.

I wanted the freedom to be a full-time writer. It's not an impossible sort of freedom to achieve, if you start by accepting that you'll probably be pretty poor.

Personally, I think it's a much better trade.

Philip Brewer writes science fiction and fantasy stories, and also writes for the personal finance and frugality blog Wise Bread.


  1. Ahhh another voice of reason in the forest of consume, consume, consume until you work yourself to death for another IWidget. Thank you for showing there are choices to be had other than wage slave and consumer drone.
    I am currently paying off debt from helping out a family member and I enjoy working at my own pace as a professional artist. I am free to help my aging parents in their business, help my community and spend time walking the dog in the magnificent parks in the beautiful city I live in. Thanks and I look forward to reading more.

  2. I absolutely agree. Living below your means, growing more than you can consume and working fairly amongst your community is the key to a healthy life.

    I played the game: Went into the Military, got an education, a good job, and bought a quaint little condo.

    The minute you stand up to anyone you can out all of it in jeopardy. You have to decide if it is worth it. Currently here in the US we have a chronic problem with potential employers asking applicants to give them cart blanch on their Face Book account allowing HR to gaze about as they wish.

    Frequently on the posting there was the sad argument: I guess they don't want the job that bad.
    And the old stand by from 9/11 and the Bush era: If you don;t have anything bad in there it shouldn't be a problem.

    We give them as much power as we let them. If you free yourself from the shackles of crap you become a power individual indeed and are free to find your life's purpose. But you have to be willing to give up the plush things in life sometimes.

    I'm looking forward to moving into an RV on top of a 180 degree view of Avocado Escondido valley on 17 acres of avocado orchards.

    I'm OK without the truck, the house, or the California King Mattress.

  3. Amen to the wisdom of Philp Brewer's post here.