Material Freedom

Updated: May 31, 2019

Why distributed energy is essential for liberty.

by Sam Miller McDonald

Liberty is a simple virtue. Reasonable people spanning political spectrums can agree that liberty means that an individual enjoys the autonomy to control their economic, political, and personal trajectory, to navigate the world without coercion, except where they might harm others. Most Americans consider political freedom a supreme virtue, but the concept remains contested. There’s no consensus on who deserves it. Competing attitudes toward political freedom rest not so much on its definition as on its distribution. Although ideological battles waged over the distribution of liberty have raged through history, there is powerful evidence that the form of energy underpinning an economy may be by far the most important factor determining how broad a liberty society enjoys.

In 1824, Thomas Jefferson argued, in a letter to Henry Lee, that there are two broad categories of political belief. First, "[t]hose who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them,: and consider other citizens “the most honest and safe…depositary of the public interests”. In the other category are “[t]hose who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes”. They constitute two parties in every polity: “Call them therefore liberals and serviles…aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object”. In other words, these parties represent conflicting ways of distributing liberty in society: the democrat aims to distribute it broadly, the aristocrat narrowly.

One way of conceptualising Jefferson’s two conflicting parties is in Aristotle’s distinction between democracy and oligarchy. In Aristotle’s conception of liberty, democracy is indispensable: broad freedom is enshrined in the rule of law and exercised by citizens enfranchised to elect accountable representatives. Under Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy, political freedom is restricted to those few who hoard wealth; only the wealthy are entrusted with power and liberty. Instead of universal enfranchisement, power in oligarchies is distributed through hereditary transfers (as in aristocratic monarchies), fiat and favours (as in military dictatorships), or state-sanctioned monopolistic markets (as in capital oligarchies). In the latter case (the most relevant to the US) freedom becomes commoditised, purchasable by those with the most wealth and diminished for those who suffer poverty or precarity as a result of concentrated capital.

Put another way, tying individual liberty directly to capital means that those who gain more of the former achieve a proportional increase in the latter. Capital buys freedom: freedom of movement, freedom from servitude, freedom from want and freedom from the consequences of criminal behaviour. Where capital concentrates, so does freedom. When elite ideologies refer to ‘freedom,’ they mean this particular species of liberty. This is why libertarian, neoliberal conceptions of freedom found on the Institute for Economic Affairs website, for example, look so perversely unfamiliar to those invested in democracy and broader conceptions of liberty.

Whether freedom is democratic or oligarchic depends on many factors: cultural attitudes, political traditions, economic ideologies, geographic conditions and geopolitical conflict. But there is growing evidence to suggest the most important factor in mediating whether a state is free and democratic rests on one element: the form of energy capture on which its economy depends.

Liberty and Energy, Wild and Domestic

Energy capture refers to the material calories that humans consume in order to live. Calories from animal protein, wood fuel, or coal, all derive from the energy emitted by the sun. The ways in which we capture this energy from the environment has varied through time.

Stanford archaeologist Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, separates energy capture into three historical paradigms: first,foraging’, which started probably 300,000 years ago; second, ‘agrarian’, which began around fifteen thousand years ago; and ‘fossil fuel industrial’ which emerged about two hundred years ago. This framework aligns with mainstream anthropology’s arc of human history.

Morris calculates foragers’ energy consumption at around 4,000 kilocalories per day for those living around the equator and double that for those living nearer the poles. This energy came in the form of “food, tools, cooking fuel, a little clothing, and simple shelter” foraged from the immediate environment. Given the natural paucity of wild resources, groups were small and nomadic, ranging from a few to a few dozen members. This meant that resources could not be hoarded; one could only control what they could carry. It also meant that individuals controlled the means of their economic production. Unable to withhold resources from other members, it was difficult for one member to maintain coercive power over others. On average foragers would dedicate just “two to five hours a day” to labour. They would spend the rest of their time as they pleased. Groups tended to make decisions via voting or consensus. On the whole, no one had much more liberty than anyone else. According to Morris, foraging societies achieved these enviable levels of democracy due to the nature of the energy they relied on.

As people domesticated their energy with sources like wheat, rice, and livestock, new politics and economies emerged. With agriculture, daily per capita energy capture increased to about 6,000-8,000 kcal and grew over time. The added energy wealth from denser food production increased populations. But the means of energy capture, more than amount, dictated the degree to which political freedom was distributed. Agrarian rulers could now withhold vital resources like tools and weapons. Most importantly for controlling populations, they could with