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In Favor of Free Markets: Freedom as an End in Itself

April 14th, 2011

It’s often argued that eliminating such-and-such a federal department will make us richer. Or that removing this-and-that tax burden will let us keep more of our paychecks. You’ve heard it before. It goes something like this:

If we get rid of the onerous taxes on the middle class, the regressive taxes that disadvantage the poor, the myriad regulations which hamstring businesses (the right-libertarian does not qualify, but the left-libertarian will probably refine the definition to include “small business, cooperatives, etc. in lieu of capital-intensive, oligopolistic industry) we’ll all be richer.

Depending on the degree of “libertarian” you’re dealing with they may add optional conditions like:

And just for Karma points, let’s stop dropping bombs on kids in Pakistan and funding death squads in South America, and you know what else, it doesn’t really matter if we put another man on the moon…

I’m with you so far [1].  But the argument concludes that we just axe all this stuff and your net income goes up, voila you are richer and then this becomes some sort of justification for the “free market”.

Wrong.

If you are going to be better-off in a free market, it’s not simply because you’ll be “earning more money”.

It ain’t about that 10% or 20% that Uncle Sam takes out of your paycheck every week.

Your nominally “higher” income isn’t going to matter much [2]. There will certainly be discomfort in the short- to medium-term as generations of capital misallocation are revealed all at once. But prices, like water, eventually find their level. So, the fact that you might have “more” money is probably not going to matter.

Nor is it about the paltry few cents that you pay for dozens of programs you probably vociferously oppose, (e.g., public health clinics, welfare for displaced/redundant labor force, mass transit, free birth control for high school kids or low-income people, crappy artwork in public places, etc.) but in the grand scheme of things don’t amount to a hill of beans.

If your primary objection is that the government is ripping you off a few cents on every dollar that you earn, if your strongest talking point is simply, “Well, we could all be richer”, don’t act surprised when people look at you like some bougie sonofabitch who’s just using the rhetoric of “liberty” in order to appeal to that me-vs-the-world selfishness with which you’ve been indoctrinated since kindergarten.

So this is a terrible argument: not only is it objectively incorrect, but it relies on gross exaggerations (if we stopped paying welfare – of course without examining or addressing the root causes of the poverty in society, we’d be richer!), and also because it espouses the very worst aspects of consumerism.

What matters in a free market is the opportunities which freedom presents.

In my estimation it is these intangible effects of such a shake-up that will really improve everyone’s lot in the long-run.

Deep down inside I’d like to believe that we all want freedom, security, a modicum of material comfort, leisure time to spend recreating and enjoying with our friends and families. Money-blind, though, so many have been brainwashed in to believing that these “luxuries” can only be purchased, and the price is perpetual labor & toil to make ends meet and provide for the occasional escape. But that ain’t freedom, and it ain’t security[3] either.  It’s a very, very poor substitute at best.

Imagine the freedom to enjoy your life. Real equality of opportunity. The wherewithal to carve your own destiny, rather than trying desperately scrambling to fit perfectly in to some cookie-cutter pre-fab box that’s been forced in front of you like you’re the next interchangeable and totally replaceable piece rolling down the assembly line of life. And if everyone else could do the same? especially if the poorest & least-fortunate among us could substantially improve their lots as well?

The most important part about a free market is not that you will make more money (because you probably won’t, but that won’t even matter!). It’s the freedom, stupid! It’s working within a society, shaping those institutions which foster the freedom, security and well-being which is what we all really want (not that bullshit illusion of prosperity known as “The American DreamTM“); a world where it doesn’t take 50+ hours of nose-to-the-grindstone or mind-numbing, paper-pushing, rubber-fucking-stamping “labor” to provide for your family, all the while barely making ends meet.

You can’t buy freedom. And you can’t really replace it.  Understand that freedom contributes to real wealth, not the other way around, and that we need to be working towards freedom as an end in itself and not towards monetary wealth as some proxy or substitute for what we really deserve.

1. Setting aside the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing arguments, of course, viz., some advocate policy with sleight of hand that really means, “Lower taxes for me, but not for thee!” in a close-minded zero-sum mentality; they just want a bigger piece of the pie and they are not at all interested in making that pie bigger. It’s easier to just take someone else’s.

2. Prices (including the price of labor, a/k/a “wages”) might rise because of the psychic effect of “more money”. But they might fall as barriers to entry, previously enshrined in law & tax code, have been removed, and competition prevails.

3. I can’t help but recall Franklin’s famous quote about those who would trade liberty for security. Right now it seems we’ve done just that. And if you look around at the jobless rates or the foreclosures or the number of people on this earth who are starving or living on $2/day or less, well it’s hard to argue that anyone is really very “secure”, either.

Comments

6 Comments

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  • BelgianBrain says on: April 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm

     

    A very enlightening post… if only uncle sam could be somewhat more of a force in favor of opportunity and freedom.

    I’m very interested to know which sites you have on your shortlist.

    • David Z says on: April 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

       

      If only, indeed! Thanks for commenting.

      It’s been a while since I was actively engaged in the blogosphere so I’m forgetting the sites I used to read regularly, but here are a few good ones to start with:

      leftlibertarian.org (this is actually an aggregator so it pulls content from many sources I admire)

      georgedonnelly.com

      fee.org

      strike-the-root.com

  • mike says on: June 4, 2011 at 8:44 am

     

    Good post, but perhaps your mention of the “equality of opportunity” meme is out of place: surely what matters is that opportunity is universal rather than equal per se, no? The distinction between negative and positive liberty seems to me quite important in this respect.

    • David Z says on: June 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

       

      Real equality of opportunity would be universal, no?

  • mike says on: June 12, 2011 at 10:43 am

     

    No: suppose we compare two people of different positions in a given society, one with greater economic opportunities than the other (i.e. a greater power of choice over when and where to work, the conditions of work and what kind of work to do and so forth…). Is it not the case that such inequality of opportunity among people would emerge, even in a free-market paradise, simply as a natural consequence of differences in ability and intelligence, or even prejudices?

    To argue that there should be an equality of such opportunities (however ill-defined) strikes me as the quintessential objective of a social engineer looking at society without realizing its root in economic exchange. Surely what matters is universal opportunity, in the sense that nobody is denied opportunity by the State, even if the spread of that opportunity is unequal?

    • David Z says on: June 14, 2011 at 11:28 pm

       

      point taken! I expect something much more like what you’re describing than any sort of social engineering, and that’s what I meant by the phrase, although I see how that would be misconstrued by my poor choice of language.

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