Freedom and Population Density

Humans seek to maximize their freedom. What happens when a person’s freedom encroaches on the freedom of another person? A person who maims another person would reduce the freedom of the latter. Taken to its logical extension, what can this simple tenet of personal freedom teach us about political philosophy?

At play is the conflict of maximizing individual freedom versus preserving the overall freedom of the group. A theoretical ideal balance occurs when each individual curtails his own freedom at the boundary limit of another individual’s freedom. Conceptually, one can respect another’s boundaries by either contracting the sphere of one’s freedom or moving further away.

As population density increases, a greater need develops for people to subordinate their freedoms to the needs of the group. Some examples follow.

On a country road, absent other cars, a driver may be free to cruise anywhere between 20 and 100 miles per hour. The same driver on a crowded city road might be granted less freedom to drive at the pace of his own choosing because it could impinge on the driving performance of others. Thus for urban settings, we should typically create rules that reflect the need for more boundaries on personal freedom, but we should expect the opposite to be the case in rural settings. In similar fashion, a person living apart from the city may make noises with impunity, whereas such behavior in close quarters would encroach on the freedom of others. One should, therefore, expect an urban citizen to favor noise ordinances and a rural resident to disfavor them. 4Regions of high population density have greater potential for both intentional and unintentional conflict if citizens are armed. When conflicts arise, the police can be called in quickly. For those living in regions of low population density, police service is less available, so the expectation is that citizens should retain the right to defend themselves with weapons of their choosing. Naturally, high-density residents should prefer gun control, whereas low-density residents should abhor such limits to their freedom.

Rural citizens are more likely to be self-reliant as both a cause and an effect of all of their experiences. They may not be happy paying taxes for social services that they may not want or get. On the other hand, urban citizens live in a web of interdependence. They see everyday evidence of beneficial social programs such as public transportation funded by taxation.

In all of these examples, it is evident that in high-density areas, rules of behavior should proliferate over time, which is exactly what has happened. It is also understandable that rural residents should be befuddled by the relevance of such rules in their own lives and revolt against what they perceive as attacks on their personal freedom.

Political affiliations are affected by many factors. Nonetheless, it is notable that in the 2004 election, Kerry and the Democrats carried only cities with populations over 500,000, and the same thing happened in 2008 with Barack Obama1. In England, the Tory Shires and the Labour Inner Cities exist as political factions with the same dichotomy of support and demographics.

To some extent, self-selection is at play here — for example, one could argue that Democrats are moving to the cities because they prefer the liberal politics found in such areas, and conservatives are fleeing to the country accordingly. But could political disposition be instead a consequence rather than a cause of population distribution?

Is the ideal political philosophy elastic? Biased towards libertarianism in low-density areas of population, and biased towards socialism and a greater number of mutually-accepted rules in high-density quarters? Each political philosophy enables maximization of personal freedom in a particular demographic context. What does that say about national politics, which is bound to leave half its citizenry subject to a political philosophy not well suited to the local population density? A Greater shift of power to local politics may be part of the answer. What are others?


1 Retrieved at

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute in Fall 2011.