Fake Freedom

How does one approach economic freedom from a moral perspective? Obviously it’s not enough to say, “Freedom means I can do anything I want, and nobody can stop me!”. But is it enough just to add the following proviso? “I should not exercise my freedom in a way that prevents others from exercising their own freedom.”

That’s so 17th Century — when Thomas Hobbes was the first to develop this kindergarten version of freedom theory. Philosophers since then have long dismissed such simplistic models as immature and failing to capture any of the nuances of modern thought. They showed that basic negative freedom is a more complex concept than Hobbes ever dreamed of. Here, I am indebted to Prof. Quentin Skinner (YouTube) for a thorough history of the concept of freedom.

First of all, who says unfreedom is caused only by someone else forcing you to obey? Back in the 19th Century, John Stewart Mill pointed put that people can be manipulated even more effectively than they can be forced. They can be brainwashed to censor their own activities without even noticing it. Some might say that’s not manipulation, it’s just normal socialization, unrelated to unfreedom. Others might say it’s just as great a violation of their freedom as any blatant use of force.

The most dramatic example is emotional manipulation. Politicians prey on people’s insecurities to get them to identify with policies sharply at odds with their own interests. But you might ask — what’s the problem? People are making their own choices, acting freely on their own impulses (however influenced), and perhaps they see themselves as the only free individuals in the game. In the limited perspective of Hobbes (and mainstream economists), they are classically free, and should be left alone to enjoy their freedom.

But other classical philosophers disagreed. Manipulated people are not free people — even less so if they don’t even know they’re being manipulated. J. S. Mill pointed out similar problems resulting from biased information causing people to adopt an ideology that makes them live inauthentically — not living in accord with their own true values. Karl Marx emphasized how social relations create alienation from one’s own true interests, and Sigmud Freud analyzed how one’s upbringing seriously programmes one’s subsequent behaviour.

Considering all these factors, negative freedom is a problematic concept indeed. There’s really no practical way to describe the precise impact of these influences — systematic misinformation, manipulative social relations, ideological programming and all the resulting repressed anxieties — on your personal freedom. It’s a rat’s nest of unmeasurable pathologies out of which no clear picture can possibly emerge. Even unfreedom from brute external force is often too indirect and too complicated to tell us anything useful about whether or not we are free.

In other words, the simple little freedom idea that everyone swears by — “Dont fence me in!” — turns out to be a tricky little devil. Nobody can pin it down and come up with a simple definition that doesn’t contradict itself all over the place.

Yet mainstream Economics clings to the model tenaciously. They need it. They need to prove that a perfectly free market will satisfy all the desires of all individuals without any trace of conflict.

In order to claim this, they’re trapped into making some really stupid assumptions — i.e., firms can never grow, transport costs are always zero, everyone knows everything there is to know — and a raft of other ridiculous fantasies. That allows them to devise elegant models of calculus to prove that nirvana has arrived. And Hobbesian negative freedom is at the centre of it.

In other words, economists construct a perfectly competitive mathematical model of a market with perfect freedom — in which every autonomous consumer is satisfied to the max without preventing anyone else from being satisfied to the max. Perfect results — as long as government leaves the market alone and lets it be perfect (though they allow certain exceptions). But more than that — since perfect freedom guarantees perfect satisfaction, freedom is all we need. Negative freedom.

I’ve discussed the economists’ caricature of freedom in a previous post. It’s nothing more substantial than individuals facing no limits on their arbitrary behaviour. In that post, I was reviewing William Cavanaugh’s book, “Being Consumed”. There, he contrasts “negative freedom” with “positive freedom”.

So up to this point, we’ve been discussing negative freedom — no constraints. Positive freedom, by contrast, is the ability to do something. You can have negative freedom without positive freedom. For example, there may be nobody stopping you from doing what you want — no constraints on your negative freedom. But you may not have what you need to do what you want — no positive freedom. There are poor people where nobody tells them what they may or may not do — full negative freedom. But there’s nothing much they can do because they don’t have the resources — no positive freedom.

Cavanaugh points out that positive freedom requires you to dig deeper. It requires that you have something you want to do — have some purpose in your life. Then you can consider whether you’re free to follow your goals.

Economists don’t like that. It’s not scientific. Can’t do calculus around that. The Religion Department is down the hall. Stay away from the Economics Department.

But in the Philosophy Department, a scholar named Isaiah Berlin in the 20th Century drove a stake into the heart of positive freedom. Positive freedom exists in relation to a purpose in one’s life. It needs to define a purpose. If we’re going to use it for policy or even philosophy, we have to assume some general-purpose goal in life. That’s too thorny. Who’s life goal are we going to use? It gets too complicated at best, oppressive at worst. Impossible politics. Stick with negative freedom just to be safe.

The problem is that, if you believe life actually does have a purpose, then you’re going to have to deal with those thorny problems. You need to seek and promote the freedom to pursue everyone’s goals — access to the resources to pursue one’s goals — positive freedom. We don’t have to prescribe what everyone’s goals should be. But we should build a society that ensues that the necessary resources are available to all. Positive freedom.

Then you’re going to have to toss your Economics 101 text. You’re going to have to stop grasping for that imaginary perfect competition that — in the pursuit of it — siphons off resources to the 1% of the 1%. The frenzied pursuit of negative freedom for the haves is the death knell of positive freedom for the have nots.

In the end, which would you rather have — the freedom to be free in all its emptiness — or the freedom to live with purpose? Well, it can’t be all that black and white. We can’t really exercise our positive freedom without some key guarantees of negative freedom — just not an obsessive negative freedom that drives all of life. But also — we can’t really exercise our positive freedom without a baseline of resources for all — and a guiding moral compass.

It reminds me of the Facebook relationship staus — “Its Complicated”.


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