Is lean thinking consistent with freedom? There are clearly some senses in which it is not. The five rules of the grammar of lean thinking—intention, lean means, flow, pull and feedback—are designed to focus minds on a purpose, so there is a commitment there which may narrow individual options. The purpose may be the business of making cars or the Lean Economy’s aim of building and sustaining a community, but it cannot be achieved in a culture where—as Aristotle put it, warning us of the fallacy—“freedom means doing what you like”.F39

Nor can we expect useful results from a collective activity organised around a second concept of freedom—the nineteenth century principle of Libertarianism, derived from the Enlightenment, and based on the belief, or hope, that when intelligence is applied in the minds of different people, they will converge on the same thing. Here we have an even-handed account of Libertarianism by William Fleming:

The doctrine of Libertarianism is that the Will is such a power as makes it possible to govern or control all the motive forces of our nature, including dispositions and passions, so as to determine personal conduct in accordance with the decisions of the understanding. It implies negatively that impulses or motive forces are not dominant in our life under its normal conditions; positively, that will is associated with intelligence [with every intelligent decision] presupposing that motives have been subordinated to thought.

William Fleming, Vocabulary of Philosophy, 1856.F40

To make sense of freedom, we need to look at it in greater depth. It comes in many shapes, and there is no definitive list of them, but a summary is suggested by the philosopher Richard De George:F41

1. Rational freedom. This is the ability to act according to rules; it is also the ability to refuse to act according to them, or to act contrary to them. At first sight, it is a curious argument. How could we not have the ability to act according to rules? Well, for one thing, the rules need to exist, and in a chaotic society they don’t. While they may be written down somewhere, like the blueprint of a car, you can’t drive around in a blueprint: statements need to have at least a degree of acceptance before they can be recognised as rules. Also, if freedom to act in a certain way is to mean anything, there must be the possibility of not doing so. And freedom applies here not just to individuals, but to groups: no choices can be made by the group if those choices are not accepted by its membership; without a means of reaching agreement, decisions made by any individual within that disorderly group may well come to nothing. The first essential for freedom in this sense, then, is an orderly environment in which sensible and realistic decisions are possible.

2. Interpersonal freedom. Here we have a much more straightforward aspect of freedom. You are not free if someone is stopping you from doing what you have decided to do. Actually, all of our freedoms are moderated in this way to some extent. Slaves, carers, employees, married people, children, teachers—anybody with responsibilities and obligations, whether freely entered into or not, has some loss of freedom, and it would be a lonely and a rather useless life without it. Good things are bad things at the extreme, and freedom (too much or too little) is no exception. Limits to freedom are the price of being part of something.

3. Teleological freedom of action. “Teleological” means purposeful (Greek: télos end, aim), and freedom in this sense is the freedom to carry through what you have decided to do. It depends on two conditions: first, the extent to which you have the capability to do what you have decided upon and, secondly, the extent to which there are obstacles in your way. This kind of freedom, too, is likely to stand in some middle ground: you are more-or-less capable of doing what you intend, and the problems that stand in your way can be more-or-less overcome. In a totalitarian regime, of course, such moderation may not apply.

4. Negative freedom. This is simply freedom from misfortune, such as sickness, poverty and want.F42

These four kinds of freedom naturally overlap, and they are often interdependent, with expectations of positive feedback: more freedom of one kind opens up the possibility of more freedom of another, so that a society that is on a benign trend towards freedom may well become able to progress towards further freedoms, while a vicious spiral will see each reduction in freedom opening the way to the next. But let us now stay with the idea of a society in which freedom of all four kinds is strongly supported, and consider how that might happen.F43

There are several circumstances that may promote freedom. One helpful condition is mountains. A country like Switzerland which is surrounded by mountains and therefore easy to defend, or hard to reach and seldom invaded, has the advantage of being able to work out its differences, its institutions and its freedoms at leisure. Being an island may have the same effect. Another helpful, if less stable, condition is federalism, where small states or institutions are able to balance each other’s power and learn from each other, although there is the risk of takeover by a large, would-be empire, as happened in nineteenth century Germany.

But the key condition for freedom in our context is authority. Authority is hard to define, and there are various understandings of its meaning, but Lean Logic takes the view that it is emphatically not the same thing as control. For example, a man with a gun or a sadistic dictator could force you to do things you don’t want to do and which would in the end be bad for both of you. Some critics would say that this is the exercise of an authority of sorts, and there is nothing wrong with that, except that Lean Logic’s intention is to reserve the use of “authority” for another purpose.

Just as there are several forms of freedom, so there are several kinds of authority, and one particularly revealing kind is “epistemic” authority (Greek: episteme knowledge)—i.e., authority relating to knowledge, intelligence, insight. Teachers, books and maps are epistemic authorities. That is, they are sources of knowledge which is better than, or more than, that of the person who is receiving it. A child is an epistemic authority when she tells the doctor where she hurts; a tramp is an epistemic authority to a general when he shows him and his army the way through the forest. A strongly-developed culture is an epistemic authority in its traditions, assumptions, standards, language, literature, music, humour, skills, and in all aspects of its social capital.F44

There are two reasons why the idea of epistemic authority is fundamental here. The first is that it is a reminder that authority does not by any means have to be embodied in a person, nor in an organisational structure such as a politburo: it may have a tangible embodiment, but that is a special case. It can reside in any source of reliable guidance, and the mark of a key source is one which is embedded in the atmosphere and the spirit of the place, in the culture, in a shared recognition of value and purpose—the personality of the hospital, ship, community, institution, society.

Secondly, epistemic authority introduces the principle of authenticity. A source of incorrect information is not an epistemic authority. Authenticity means that a person is entitled to the respect and admiration which she inspires. Authentic is good. And authority of all kinds, understood in these terms, is authentic. Authentic executive authority has a mandate to act on behalf of others, and/or to give them instructions. Its claim of authority is based on recognised knowledge or ability, and/or on fair appointment, and/or on natural leadership or experience. And on the grounds of it authority it can exercise judgment. Authority in this sense was used by the United Kingdom’s then-shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking of the case for assigning more regulatory powers to the Bank of England:

We have learned from this crisis the old truth that one cannot separate central banking from the supervision of the financial system and that sound regulation is not just about a checklist of rules but about the authority to exercise judgment and to see the bigger picture.F45

There are, of course, many other forms of authority justified in these same terms: political authority, parental authority, operative authority (invested in a person or group for a particular purpose)—and representative authority, arising from a person being able to speak for people who have invited him or her to do so. All of these forms of authority may be usurped, with savage consequences, but—in the terms of Lean Logic—the usurping force is not authority: it is power, tyranny, autocracy.F46

The reason why the interpretation of authority as something which is authentic and good has been made here with such emphasis is that it would be helpful to explore the idea that freedom is compatible with living and working in a community or institution, even one which has a well-defined purpose.

Lean thinking is not, by any means, a system which says “Come along and do exactly as you want.” It is not a holiday camp. It is a way of enabling a group to accomplish difficult things in a focused way, to learn fast, and to keep an enterprise going. It is not an Enlightenment project—that is, it does not go back to first principles, discard all emotions and prejudice, and rely on ideals of reason and intelligence. Nor is it a form of genealogy—tracing the genetic inheritance of its guiding ideas back to the point where it discovers that there is actually nothing there, apart (maybe) from the malice and power struggles that gave rise to them. On the contrary, lean thinking in Lean Logic gets its hands down into the particular, the earthy, the local, into what is here.F47

The loyalties of lean thinking are embedded in particular places, for which they make no claim other than that they are the ones the people concerned know and care for most. Lean thinking recognises the community’s authority as being authentic—and trusts it as central to its identity and that of its members. Their aims are not simply permitted by the community, they are inspired and enabled by it. Call that empowerment.

And the participants accept the premises around which their group or society has come into being. In fact, as Edmund Burke pointed out, any “controlling power upon will and appetite” has to be located somewhere, “and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without”.F48 If authority comes from within—accepted, adopted, internalised—then . . .

. . . interest, habit, and the tacit convention, that arise from a thousand nameless circumstances produce a tact that regulates without difficulty, what laws and magistrates cannot regulate at all.F49

And the other freedoms hold, too. There is rational freedom, since the rules are sufficiently coherent, well-defined and supported for people to be able to act in accordance with them. There is interpersonal freedom—the weak interdependencies of resilience. There is teleological freedom: you can get something done. And there is a reasonable chance of freedom in the negative sense of being spared the consequences of a failing system. In such a community, there is no need for autocracy, for force, for regulatory control. Here culture and authority join up, drenching the community in shared purpose, sustaining the benign circle in which freedom makes freedom.


Related entries:

Grammar, Choice, Subsidiarity.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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