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Freedom vs. Safety, An Epic Battle

Freedom vs. Safety, An Epic Battle

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I was thinking about something recently while composing my previous blog post regarding exercise selection and the process we take to determine when and why to prescribe certain exercises. If you’ll recall, I emphasized the importance of three concepts- safety, effectiveness, and engagement. In my description of the first of these three, safety, I started to talk about how we live in a world of dangerous things and a life with no risk for injury (emotional or physical) is, in my opinion, not a very fulfilling life. Given the obvious reality that one cannot experience the same life in two different conditions simultaneously, so a true comparison of one’s subjective interpretation of the interplay of risk and fulfillment is fundamentally impossible, I would still have to assume that taking no risks leads to no progress, growth, development. In essence, stagnation is the enemy.


To take a term from author and professor of Risk Engineering, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, humans are “antifragile”. We are antifragile in the sense that the more stressors or shocks to the system we receive, the more resilient and versatile we tend to become. The one caveat to this being that the person being stressed must have the necessary resources, whether they be intrinsic like “grit” or extrinsic like “family support” in order to adequately respond to the stressor itself and grow from it. Going off of this theory, we come back around to the concept of safety, and whether or not it needs to be absolute or relative. I’d like to postulate that there is actually a strong inverse relationship between safety and another important principle (perhaps the most important) in our lives, freedom. For those who might need a refresher as to what exactly an inverse relationship curve might look like in regards to safety and freedom, check out the nifty graph below.

It is not lost on me that this is an extremely rudimentary example of a highly complex issue, but the central point is that the trade-off of absolute freedom is a lack of safety from physical harm. The opposite is true as well, in that the trade-off of absolute safety is the sacrifice of one’s freedom or “free will” to do whatever they’d like to do at any given moment. The more you gain in one direction with one variable, the more you tend to sacrifice with the other, hence, the inverse relationship of freedom and safety.

This observation works on many fronts, the least of which is physical exertion in the form of exercise. Obviously when it comes to complex systems, which humans and the environments we occupy most certainly are, a graph such as the one above should not and could not possibly suffice to explain away most of the nuance. What it can be useful for, however, is helping us conduct a myriad of thought experiments regarding trade-offs about anything from exercise selection to public health mandates. Of particular relevance is the trade-off between pandemic lock-downs, and the reduction of harm and mortality. I’m not a public health expert or epidemiologist, so I’ll refer those interested to Johns Hopkins’ most recent meta-analysis regarding the “effects” of those lockdown protocols on COVID-19 mortality. If you’re in a rush, here’s the main takeaway-

“While this meta-analysis concludes that lockdowns have had little to no public health effects, they have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted. In consequence, lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”

Combining Nassim Taleb’s concept of “antifragility” with the inverse relationship between safety and freedom, we arrive at the central point of this diatribe, exercise is a microcosm of life. We must subject ourselves to discomfort, to risk, and to uncertainty, in order to grow, to live, and ultimately to survive. If we attempt to engineer out all of the risks in life, where life essentially becomes perfectly predictable and free from spontaneity, we become boring math equations instead of works of art. Also, what better opportunity for growth and development exists than one brought on by failure or experiencing that the flame is indeed hot, and it will burn you if touched?


We live in a world, at least in the United States, where we can expect with reasonable certainty that oncoming traffic will stop at a red light (unless you live in Carmel, home of the roundabout), that people who break the law will be subjected to consequence, and that the food we consume is actually what the label says it to be. We, as a collective, exert legislative constraints on elements of shared life to ensure that constituents can count on a baseline level of safety from unnecessary harms. But what if, let’s say, we wanted to ensure that not a single traffic accident ever occurred again? What kinds of freedom would we be asked to give up, and would it be worth it to the collective? The more progress you tend to make, the more costly (either in time, money, or freedom) equal measures of progress tend to be. The law of diminishing returns can be seen in full effect in this regard- it’s easy to make the argument for a law/regulation/car safety feature that “cuts accidents in half”, but should we treat 100,000 to 50,000 the same as 50 to 25? Obviously if your loved one is one of those 25, it is undoubtedly a tough call. I don’t pretend to know the answers to these complex questions, but I do know that it’s about time we wrap things up.

We cannot live perfectly safe lives, and it should not be a goal to do so. Homo sapiens as a species are an immensely complex system, and to treat us any differently would be a fool’s errand. We shouldn’t be trying to engineer all of the discomfort/risk out of life, and if anything, those of us fortunate enough to be born into this country into relatively comfortable situations (myself included) should be looking to inject a bit more discomfort, risk, and uncertainty back into our lives. Whether it be riding a roller coaster, trying a new food, or working with a personal trainer to subject you to some beneficial physical discomfort (see what I did there?), we should all look to enhance our lives. Freedom and safety should exist in almost a constant battle, each metric pushing until the other pushes back. What good is ultimate freedom if you can’t depend on surviving the inevitable randomness that comes your way and what good is ultimate safety if you don’t/can’t live your life to the fullest?

Yours in Wellness,