Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous Enlightenment philosopher of the 1700s, wrote in The Social Contract that “the larger the State, the less the liberty”. As a freedom-loving American, I fear the potential that Earth’s population could doom the freedoms of future generations. But, in the first place, is a populous world doomed to ever fewer freedoms? As population is ever on the minds of today’s elite in a bid to shape the world according to their either humanitarian or ruthlessly utilitarian interests, and liberty is forever at war with security, the 21st century (being the most populated century) is the best historical vantage point yet to decide if there really is an inverse relationship of population and freedom. First, let’s take a closer look at Rousseau’s argument.
Diluting the Political Power
Rousseau ultimately believed one’s liberty is a fundamental function of his or her voting power. He reasoned that larger states result in less liberty because the relative power of the individual’s vote is diluted by a larger population. It all sounds right on the surface, but is liberty truly tied to political power?
Though I am staunchly in favor of the American democratic republic model of government, I can’t help but think one could live equally as free under a monarchy, depending entirely on the demeanor of the ruler, of course. Could not a king allow his people, in theory, more freedoms than we have today? Under a monarchy, I could not run for President or other high government offices, but couldn’t the freedom to run for office be offset by other freedoms? It is tiny minority that runs for public office, after all – even including local governments that could theoretically persist under a monarchy.
While I believe his conclusion is true in a limited sense, Rousseau’s reason is incorrect because it equivocates voting power with liberty. In the extreme case, yes, if one’s voting power is 100%, then he is 100% free in his ability to self-govern. But as soon as another individual is in his State, his voting power departs from 100% and loses immediately this liberty that Rousseau references. Once any liberty is lost by agreement (e.g. a government, or any contract within a State) with another, that particular liberty of complete self-governance is lost. There, Rousseau is correct.
Taking a pure democracy as an example, a citizen may lose the vote against the only two other citizens in a tiny “State” or against 300 million fellow citizens with equal legal ramifications and loss of liberty (if greater liberty is what he is voting for). In either case, he will be bound to the will of the two or of the 300 million. His freedom is not reduced because his fractional power in politics is diminished, but because he entered into the “social contract” (as Rousseau called it) of a polity in the first place. There are then two types of freedoms when one has a share in the government: 1) the freedom that comes with the power of the vote and 2) the freedoms that are the object of the voting power. In a monarchy, only the monarch has both such freedoms, and all other citizens have only the second type of freedoms. In an aristocracy, only the wealthy possess the freedom inherent in the vote and the objects under vote, while all others possess only the resulting freedoms of the vote. In a pure democracy, every citizen has both, but their political power is greatly diluted.
The Kinds of Liberty
In any true State, which must necessarily involve more than a single person, the liberty of an individual is not reduced by a greater population simply because voting power of the individual is diluted. Rather, the form of a State’s government, it’s recognition of the source of mankind’s rights, and the particulars of each culture have a greater effect on the liberty of its citizens than merely population. If Rousseau were correct on this point, a growing nation would only result in greater and greater loss of freedoms to the individual – which is not uniformly the case.
As a general example, gun rights have generally expanded within the United States over the past 50 years, despite an increasing population and population density. Of course, other rights may have been lost at the federal level, as well, but rights may be better studied thematically rather than summarily. Further, in large States with sub-governing bodies (those of states, counties, and cities, for example), the relative freedom of the individual can differ widely in each region, such that the average freedom of the individual across the State follows no clear trend, as local regions work out their own particular governance, reflecting local values that can differ widely from “national” values.
It is certainly true however, that a natural loss of freedoms results from greater populations within a defined region; however, this is very different from voting power dilution. This raises the question as to which kinds of freedoms naturally wane with rising populations. We may find that a particular class of freedoms are subject to this unfortunate law, while other freedoms are unrelated to population.
First, there are “zero sum” freedoms which by nature trade one citizen’s freedom for another citizen’s. One such freedom would be the “freedom” to steal. In nearly every civilization, such freedoms are crimes. These zero-sum freedoms on behalf of one citizen always harms another citizen’s freedom, and hence society generally recognizes that such freedoms are not healthy for a community overall. The interesting case of this class of freedoms, however, is when the freedom of one citizen infringes on a lesser freedom of another citizen. A simple example is again the crime of theft, but with the particular thing stolen being a sustaining meal from a fat and well-fed victim. Put another way, is it justified to steal food from a prince when one or one’s family is on the verge of starvation? Only an absolute view of property rights would deny the starving family a natural right to food from one to whom food is not scarce. Hence, while most zero-sum freedoms are criminal, exceptions may persist in circumstances where the freedoms traded are unequal (in my example, the freedom to live at all vs. property rights).
Next, there are freedoms which are held by all citizens and which do not inherently clash with the same freedom of another. Such an example is the right to shoot fireworks in one’s backyard. Shooting fireworks in my backyard does nothing to prevent another from exercising the same freedom. However, in some places, such loud activities clash with neighbors’ subjective rights to auditory peace. Again the legal solution is a weighing of the relative value of one freedom versus another freedom; however, the freedoms are not inherently antithetical to one another, though they may often be found at odds. This is the class of freedoms most atrophied with growing populations. Freedoms are generally lost in the densest populations, as each person’s actions begin to interact with another person’s sphere of operation.
The final type of freedom is the absolute freedom – irrespective of how such a freedom impacts another. Such freedoms are closest to natural rights – such as the right to breathe air in order to live. In the United States, we like to believe our right to free speech is such an absolute freedom, though that is not the case in all circumstances (such as speech that proposes physical harm to another, e.g. a threat). Generally, these absolute freedoms are those least susceptible to censure due to population density. No matter how many people I must live amongst, I will always need to breathe.
Those freedoms of the first class are most susceptible to shrink with increasing populations, as in the extreme case none are able to exercise one of these freedoms without destroying another’s same freedom. The freedoms of the second class are also highly susceptible to shrinkage, as the exercising of one freedom increasingly crosses paths with other freedoms of neighboring citizens. Finally, the third class of freedoms is least likely to be reduced by growing populations as many such freedoms are essential and difficult to police.
As once rural localities become suburban and urban environments, freedoms generally diminish due to the increasing likelihood that one’s freedoms encroach on the freedoms of another citizen. The places with the highest population densities thus naturally restrict freedoms the most within the same State. One cannot use one’s 0.25 acre backyard as a shooting range the same way one can with 10+ acres. Nor can one blast music at all hours of the day when four neighbors are within a stone’s throw. Such freedoms generally belong to the first and second kind discussed above.
One need only experience living in a reasonably populated city and compare to rural life to understand the natural reduction in freedoms of growing population densities.
However, especially when comparing different nations, Rousseau’s belief that freedom is inverse to population density does not hold nearly so well to support a general principle. For example, the population density of Hong Kong is far beyond that of China, however Hong Kong’s status as a former British colony imbued it with far greater freedom than that enjoyed by the average Chinese citizen, as reflected by its relative “freedom rank” (assessed by the 2021 Human Freedom Index) of #30 vs. China’s #150.
The United Kingdom (#14 in the freedom index), an island with about 278 people per square kilometer, enjoys infinitely greater freedom than the citizens of North Korea with 215 people per square kilometer. More starkly, South Korea (>500 people per square kilometer) generally enjoys greater freedoms than China’s 150 people per square kilometer.
Further, a post by Pierre Lemieux reported a regression analysis on the freedom index vs. population and found no statistical correlation between the two. Because I believe population density is more pertinent than population, I conducted my own investigation of the statistics, collecting data from the relative freedom indexes from the Human Freedom Index (actual data from 2019) and looking at their relationship to the corresponding population densities (in people per square kilometer) of 161 nations (nearly all save a few, including North Korea and Cuba for which were not ranked in the freedom indexes). Below is the result, with lower freedom ranks indicating more free countries plotted against a log scale of population density on the x axis.
The result is admittedly surprising. Though not a strong correlation, the negative slopes of the economic (orange) and human (blue) freedom trendlines indicate more densely populated nations are generally more free.
One explanation might be that greater freedoms lead to prosperous and more populated nations. Another explanation may be that more densely populated nations are more cognizant of their citizens’ dignity. It’s also worth noting that the freedom indexes are not perfect, and outrageous regulations may be found even in well-ranked nations (e.g. Switzerland). Further, a simple glance at the data points in the figure suggest all combinations of freedom and population density are well represented, meaning there are many free and sparse nations, many free and populated nations, many unfree and sparse nations, many unfree and populated nations, and many nations somewhere between these four corners. Nonetheless, the positive correlation between freedom and population is contrary to the dismal musings of Rousseau on the fate of freedom in a populous world. At the least, one would have to admit there is not relationship between freedom on a national level and population or population density.
The Future Might Be Free
To summarize the state of freedom and population in the 21st century, while freedom in localities remains bound by Rousseau’s observation that freedom evolves inversely with population, the freedoms of a State or nation appear to have more to do with government structure and culture than with population density. A people with a fervor for freedom can institute a government that maintains its people’s freedoms even in the face of increasing population densities. Authoritarian governments, even in relatively unpopulated nations, ultimately do more to limit their people’s freedoms than the natural necessity to regulate behavior in densely populated regions. We have the power to be free and are not doomed to a gradual shackling of our freedoms resultant from our prosperity.