Freedom is valuable. To be a slave, to be imprisoned, to be constrained by social convention or trapped by your own past, to be unfree in any of a wide range of other more or less subtle ways, is terrible. The felt demand for freedom can be transformative and overwhelming. The former slave Frederick Douglass writes:
I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition which tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trumpet of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
So, we should ask: What is the relation between capitalism and freedom? This is a pressing question for us, because if capitalism realizes this ‘beautiful, needful thing’, that’s a very strong ethical argument in its favour. And if it does not – if it leaves us without freedom or even enslaves us – that’s a very strong ethical argument against it.
We might hope to answer this question by saying what freedom is, and then investigating whether capitalism provides it. But it isn’t clear what freedom is. Is poverty lack of freedom, for example? For Amartya Sen, freedom is the means, opportunities, and capacities to achieve central human ways of being and doing, from getting enough to eat, to appearing in public without threat or shame, to having a voice in communal decision-making. To be poor is to lack some or all of these, and poverty is therefore lack of freedom. But Friedrich Hayek distinguishes between freedom and the powers needed to make use of it. For Hayek, poor people are just as free as rich ones, even though they can do less with their freedom. Someone who will have to sleep rough tonight, because she doesn’t have money or friends, either lacks the freedom to sleep warm and safe, or is free but without means to do so.
We can’t resolve this dispute by discovering the real or original meaning of the word ‘freedom’. It doesn’t have a real meaning, just multiple uses, and its original uses are no guide to its current ones. We don’t discover anything about the Pope’s views on contraception by noting that one root meaning of ‘catholic’ is ‘universal’.
Instead, we should recognise that ‘freedom’ means many different things, ask which of them is most valuable, and see whether capitalism realizes these most valuable freedoms. This chapter considers the value of three different regimes of freedom in relation to capitalism.
2.1 Hayek’s Regime of Liberty
Hayek argues that the most valuable freedom is liberty, which is just not being coerced. Coercion is the use of power, by some other human being, to make you act on their will rather than your own. The forces of circumstance and nature, including your own nature, are not coercion. So, liberty is not actually getting what you want. You can freely try and fail through mere bad luck. It’s not self-command. You can be free but weak-willed or confused. Contra Sen, it’s not power or wealth or capacity. You can be free without the internal or external means to get what you want. It’s not having a range of possibilities to choose between. In Hayek’s example, the climber who sees only one way of getting off the mountain alive is free, even though she has only one path into the future. It’s not political freedom, having a say in communal decision-making. You can have liberty in a dictatorship. (We’ll return to this last point in a later chapter.)
Hayek’s vision of the best form of life is a regime of liberty in which everyone has the status of free person, not slave. Each person is a protected member of the community with the rights gained by Roman slaves at manumission: immunity from arbitrary arrest, the right to work at whatever she desires, the right to movement according to her own choice, and the right to own property. This status is a private sphere of uncoerced action defined by the State’s public rule-governed use of coercion. Property, for example, is a sphere of rights to use things, created and defended by State-mandated contracts, courts, and force. This form of life is the life of individuals striving against circumstance and nature to get what they want, by their own efforts and by uncoerced agreement with others. Their striving doesn’t always succeed, but they succeed or fail as free people.
This is an idealized picture of capitalism: Hayekian liberty defended by a rule-governed State.
There is a common argument that capitalism is freedom because it’s human nature, and non-capitalism is interference with that nature. Non-capitalist forms of life are therefore thought to need special justification, where capitalism doesn’t. It’s thought to be the human default, and to exert a gravitational pull which distorts attempts at other ways of organizing ourselves. That argument is a mistake, and Hayek doesn’t make it.
First, if any human social form is natural, it’s anarchy. For most of the time there have been humans, we lived in small, nomadic, egalitarian bands connected by kinship and friendship. We divided labour by gender and age. We had no property except a few personal items and no trade except gift-exchange. We had no formal authorities or institutional centres of power. We organized our collective lives by negotiation, social pressure, temporary enthusiasm for individual initiatives, and shared ritual. That’s how humans lived for perhaps 90,000 years before some of us took up agriculture sometime around 10,000 BCE.
Second, slavery is commonplace in more recent human history. Every one of us is descended both from slaves and from slave-holders.
For both reasons, Hayek’s liberty is a recent and incomplete achievement, not a default. Both anarchy and slavery are centres of gravity in human nature which pull away from it. Hayek know this, and is clear that capitalist liberty depends on State interference and limitation of liberty. The private sphere is defined and sustained by State action, and it’s no accident that capitalism and the modern nation-state arise together in recent history.
2.2 The Value of Freedoms
But why think that liberty is worth having? We might say that it’s valuable just in itself, but that would have the strange consequence that it would be equally valuable for creatures who could do nothing with it. Dandelions pursue sunlight and water, but have no use for property, so liberty is of no value to them. Liberty must therefore be valuable for what it does to us, not just what it is. It’s beautiful and needful for humans.
This is how Hayek defends the value of liberty: it’s needed to live and make progress in a world we don’t fully understand. If we knew everything about human nature, society, and the future, we’d have no need for liberty, because we could see what would be best to do. But without such perfect knowledge we have to rely on experimentation. Different individuals make different uses of their liberty to try out various possibilities; the failures are abandoned or die off; the successes grow and are copied. Gradually, we develop a form of life, a set of habits and institutions, which expresses what we’ve learned about how to survive in our circumstances. Trial and error in practice comes first. Theory incompletely follows. The great mistake of forms of life which don’t provide liberty is their quixotic attempt to theorise and plan for the unknown future instead of adapt to it by multiple experiment. In the twentieth century, liberal societies displayed their superiority to centrally-planned ones by outliving them, and they did so by trying out many plans at once, rather than applying one five-year plan from the top down.
If liberty is valuable, its value is as a means to the gradual progress of knowledge in practice about how to live.
2.3 The Regime of Real Possibility
That means that if some other freedom creates more progress than liberty does, we ought to adopt it instead. Liberty is the absence of coercion, not the actual opportunity or means to do what you want, so you could have liberty and still not be able to do it. You might want to experiment with self-sufficient communal living, but be unable to make the attempt because there’s no free land, and your group lacks the money to buy it. You might want to experiment with the potential of your musical talent, but have to work long tiring shifts to pay rent. You might have an idea for greener transport, but have no capital to invest in developing it. An increase in opportunities, by a distribution of means to take them, would therefore make more experiments possible. If the value of liberty is its necessity for experiment, then real possibility, based in the wider distribution of means like money, is more valuable. So, we should redistribute wealth to maximise the number and range of experiments. If everyone has some possibility of trying new things, more experiments will be made than if only a few have it.
But some people pursue their artistic talent while working long tiring shifts.
Of course, but how many more would be able to pursue their talent without that necessity? How much more would those who struggled on have been able to do without it? The argument isn’t that progress is impossible without these extra possibilities, it’s that we’d get more progress with them than without.
But redistributing wealth just moves opportunity from some to others. It doesn’t create more opportunity.
That would be true if the number and range of experiments were proportional only to the means available, and had nothing to do with the number of people they’re distributed across. But why think that?
A rich person – Paris Hilton, say – has the means to pursue more experiments than she’ll ever imagine, desire, or have time for. Transferring some of her money to the musician, communards and inventor increases the number of experiments carried out, and therefore creates more possibilities for progress.
Neither is the range of different experiments proportional only to the means available. If all the means are concentrated in one class or group, their similarities and mutual emulation will limit what’s tried to a narrow range of possibilities. Transferring some of Paris Hilton’s money to someone very unlike her increases the range of experiments attempted.
But how do we know that the people we transfer means to will make good use of their new possibilities?
We don’t. But we don’t know that about the few who have the means now, either.
This regime of real possibility, created by distribution of means to experiment, could happen under capitalism. One form of it is universal basic income: every adult citizen gets a guaranteed income to use as she chooses, funded from taxation, so higher earners will pay more in tax than they get from the UBI, but everyone will have some means for experiment. But my brief here is not to make detailed policy proposals, it’s to argue that the demand for freedom, if based on the good of progress it produces, is a demand for real possibility not just liberty. My argument is the progressive effect of everyone really being free to pursue her own experiments. Its result is a freedom-based demand for redistribution of means, and therefore of possibilities, rather than an egalitarian demand.
But this destroys autonomy and independence. It turns free strivers into slavish clients of the redistributive State.
2.3 The Regime of Flourishing
This last criticism is a move from a defence of liberty out of what it does for us to a defence out of what it does to us. Lack of liberty is supposed to weaken and corrupt. Liberty is supposed to cultivate an admirable independence. Frederick Douglass would have agreed that slavery corrupts. The condition of subordination creates fear, cringing self-abjection, self-hatred, retreat into alcoholism and other forms of inner escape, and reactive violence, often against oneself or other subordinates. It destroys important elements of human flourishing, including self-love, self-command, and the ability to look other people in the eye and stand with them, or up to them, as an equal.
Manumission from slavery to liberty is a great good in that it removes these sources of corruption, but it doesn’t remove all sources of corruption. Advertising distorts desire the way fat and salt distorts appetite. Bad education misshapes our capacities of self-understanding and self-command. The examples of wealth-as-success offered to us by capitalism misdirect our efforts and admiration. There are many ways a life can go badly in a regime of liberty. So, if the argument for liberty is that it removes some sources of corruption, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which remove other sources. If the argument for liberty is that it makes us better, the same argument applies even more strongly to regimes which make us better still.
The conditions of flourishing, of living fully and well as a human being, are far more complex and demanding than just being left alone in a private sphere. They may include the education of desire, perception, and self-understanding; the resources to support oneself without having to become menial and cringing; mutually-transformative friendship.
We’ll return to the nature and conditions of flourishing in later chapters. For the moment, the moral to draw is that it is not obvious that capitalism’s regime of liberty is best for us. If we care about what freedoms do for us and to us, we need to pursue more and different freedoms than Hayek’s liberty.