Finding Freedom Within The System

Starting in college I started to develop a kind of love/hate relationship with "the system". It was becoming apparent that out of all of the possible paths we could take in life, the powers that be had created a network of carrots and sticks to corral the population towards a certain style of living, developing a complex network that constrains and channels our behavior, and rewards us for those activities that have been deemed most socially beneficial. This complex web of laws and culture is taught to us from birth, it cultivates us from being just instinctual animals, and allows us to adapt to an increasingly complex world. Unlike most species that begin to largely fend for themselves within a couple of months, our socialization process can take decades. After we acquire language, we move on to years of institutional education, preparing us for a life of labor, in which we can share in the wealth created by society. For a time my mind revolted again this idea. I felt choked by it. So much of my time, thoughts, and actions were focused on fulfilling its demands. Hours of homework, lectures, and study, in preparation for a nine to five job. It's not that I mind working, doing my part in the world, working towards a better life for myself, but I wondered if this really how life was suppose to be lived? It seemed unnatural. I wanted to follow my passions, yet, those things that I most wanted to pursue had decreasing value in our capitalistic system (an unfortunate reality of supply and demand). But wasn't one's career suppose to be the central part of life, something that made them want to get out of bed in the morning? Or is a 40+ hour a week job just something we have to do, week after week, year after year, simply because that's life. Is that way of living really freedom? It seemed like to even ask this question was some kind of heresy. It ran counter to the common wisdom of free market capitalism, which suggests that the value of one's work is priced by the free market.

There are obvious flaws in the system, although people tend to disagree on the particulars. From my perspective it looked like so many good people who worked so hard throughout their lives were just barely scraping by, that those who made life better for the greatest number often weren't the ones who were most rewarded. And those who succeeded the most within the system were often those who seemed to exploit it: those who were the most connected to the powerful, had the ability to bend the rules in their own favor, to learn the loopholes, who bought out their competitors to become monopolies, or who were in the best place to capitalize off of the system. Too many seem to be overworked, while a few seem to reap more than their fair share of the rewards. At times the system can seem too all encompassing, our minds becoming too consumed with thoughts of taxes and money, every aspect of life becomes monetized and legislated. As the years pass it becomes increasingly complex as institutions age, and increasingly competitive as markets globalize. A liberal may be forced to pay taxes for their government's wars against their beliefs, just as a conservative may be forced to pay for foodstamps or welfare for the poor regardless of their consent or the recipients willingness to work.

But what's the alternative to this web we've made for ourselves? For the most part it gives an otherwise directionless populace structure, a shared set of rules to operate by, and relatively positive way to spend our days. Capitalism seems to be the most sensible way to allocate resources based on people's unique demands, and would life really provide as much opportunity to pursue our own paths if this system weren't in place? So the system has gradually evolved, through the work of the enlightened and the corrupt, through countless debates, a litany of legislation, and a court system that's dissected the intricacies of how it all fits together. And although we've had little say in the process, beyond voting between a monopolistic political system, we are now forced to accept its dictates, to abide by a system constructed by prior generations. The alternative is to become outcasts, criminals, homeless, expatriates...

We live within a system that has been largely designed for us. I see that as something that's healthy to acknowledge, to keep our pursuits in perspective. It's easy to see its structure as one of tyranny or benevolence, which may depend on your political philosophy or what party happens to be presently in power. I certainly have my complaints. But like any species, we adapt. It has given us roads and planes, and abundance of food, medicines, and technology. And as a consequence, as long as we provide the collective more resources than we demand, and learn to use it's rules to our advantage, it can reward us with greater freedom. And with this freedom comes a greater ability to choose ones own path in life. Yet, if we fail to earn enough to outweigh our needs (what seems like an increasingly challenging task for the middle class), we can easily slip into poverty or indentured servitude, where our choices begin to recede, or it seems like no matter how hard we work, we can't escape our debts. Breaking out of this cycle depends as much on one's ability to reduce one's needs as it does on increasing income, and often depends on factors beyond our control. This uncertainly and struggle is an incentive to strive, an encouragement to work, for each in the collective to contribute back to the whole. What results is an interdependency where our lives are all intertwined, working towards greater stability and prosperity for those who participate… at least when the system lives up to our hopes.

Over the years since graduating, now that I've found a stable place within it, I think that I've began to make my amends with the system. I've come to realize that the more one knows of its workings, the more that they can leverage what's there to lead a better life. It can serve those who act within it if they abide by its rules. Incremental choices begin to add up, hard work pays off, interest compounds. At some point though, enough work has been done to provide for ones needs, where more money won't necessarily lead to greater happiness, where we can choose to devote more time to the raw experience of life itself rather than continued striving for financial security.