Shaya Cohen -


Time and Freedom

Most soldiers in history have been given very specific instructions, because without them, they are not as effective as they could be. But parts of the US Military were historically not told how to achieve an objective, but merely told what the objective was. The local officers (and even grunts) had the leeway to figure out how best to get it done. That kind of mindset requires a culture that cultivates freedom, that encourages individual responsibility, and so it was uniquely an American way of war.

The cultural relationships continue elsewhere, of course. Countries with lots of entrepreneurs are places where people are comfortable making their own decisions, finding ways to be productive with their time. Places without an entrepreneurial culture have a populace who really prefer to be told by others what to do, who want their lives to be “plug and chug.”

It seems to me that the autonomy or freedom of a person has a great deal to do with their leeway in arranging their own time.

Think of it this way: in a prison, all time is structured for you: waking, meals, exercise, work, rest, sleep, etc. The prisoner does not need to think about time at all; that is done for them, not so dissimilarly from public school.

In the adult world, time management tracks with responsibility (and income) overall: a regimented factory worker is not that much different from a prisoner (at least in terms of the working day), while professionals get increasing amounts of leeway, and CEOs are masters of their own schedule.

The problem with being in control of your own schedule is that most people are really not very efficient when they have the opportunity to procrastinate. And people who do not actually get things done should not be masters of their own schedule. They, like prisoners or students, need a more structured environment.

I think all this is well described in Exodus. The people were slaves, described as being animalistic in their “stimulus-response” behavior. And so the very first commandments are about time: the New Moon, when one can – and cannot – eat the paschal lamb, etc. G-d is trying to make the people grow up and become responsible, to start taking responsibility for their own lives.

In general, the attempt to rapidly teach responsibility to a slave nation fails. The Jewish people were told, for example, that they would be leaving the next day. Yet somehow none of them had enough presence of mind to bake bread in advance for the trip. The very most basic planning – dealing with the very next day – seemed to be too hard for them.

It takes a very long time for the time horizons to shift back outward again, to help people learn to take a long view. It is why so few cultures are suited to freedom; most people find planning for the future and being responsible for their own decisions to be very challenging; they actually prefer servitude.

Comments are welcome!

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