“Freedom” means the human capacity to choose among options, based on one’s own preferences and reasoning.
This week our topic is freedom and free markets. We want to explore the extent to which these two things are or perhaps are not mutually dependent on each other. You might think that the answer is obvious, that freedom and free markets necessarily go together hand in glove. Clearly, free markets would not be possible without a great deal individual freedom – particularly the freedom to make contracts. Similarly, to regulate the market, it might seem, is ipso facto to shackle liberty. When you restrict markets you restrict choice. When you restrict choice you necessarily restrict freedom.
But might it not be that it is sometimes necessary to regulate markets in the name of freedom. and in order to enhance freedom. Think about health insurance, for example. If the distribution of health insurance was left entirely to the whims of the free market, lots of people -- old people, people with pre-existing conditions, people with bad habits – probably couldn’t afford health insurance at all. What kind of freedom is it if you have to live in constant fear that the next illness will lead to financial ruin?
Now I admit that when the government steps in and forces insurance companies to provide health insurance to certain people, it is restricting the freedom of insurers. No doubt about it. But it seems right to say that the government would also thereby be enhancing – at least in the sense of rendering more useful – the freedom of people who otherwise couldn’t get healthcare. They would be freed from constant worry. They would be freed to change jobs without fear of losing their healthcare.
Sceptics about government intervention in the market will no doubt dismiss talk of this sort as taking liberty with the notion of “freedom.” They will quite rightly distinguish between making markets more free and making markets more fair or more equitable. Regulating markets may or may not them more “fair” or more equitable, but regulation always makes markets and people less free, they will say. It’s not that they deny that freedom and equity are potentially good things. But given a choice between more freedom, on the one hand, or more fairness or equity, on the other, they will choose freedom every time. You know the kind of people I’m talking about, I am sure.
But the problem with this kind of fetish from freedom above all else, is that it’s based on much too narrow a notion of freedom. Freedom as understood by those who resist regulation at every turn is usually taken in a purely negative sense – as amounting to nothing but the absence of compulsion or coercion. Suppose I were to get up out of my chair right now in order to go out for a run. What would it mean to say I acted freely in doing so? -- That I made an unforced choice to do so, that nobody coerced me into doing so. In the same vein, the market might be thought to be free when it is governed by nothing but the unforced choices of consumers and producers.
That’s fine as a definition of what is often called negative freedom. But there’s also such a thing as positive freedom. Positive freedom involves more than absence of external constraint or coercion. It requires autonomy -- the positive power to shape your own life in ways of your own choosing. It was Isaiah Berlin who first made it this distinction explicitly, I think. But the distinction has roots in the work of thinkers like Kant, Rousseau, Marx and Hegel.
Unlike those thinkers, who were big fans of positive freedom, Berlin, it should be noted, thought that a government dedicated to promoting positive freedom would eventually turn into an oppressive overbearing busybody. He thought that such a government would be constantly seek to protect us from the bad choices and baser impulses that supposedly undermine our autonomy. Such a government would to know better than us how to best live our lives. So he thought that it was best for the government to to just keep out of the way to the maximum extent possible.
But I think Berlin missed something deeply important. If I’ve got no money, no education, no health insurance, what good does it do me to be left alone? It’s not that I want a government to care for me cradle to grave. I really do want to be free and autonomous so that I can take care of myself. But in order to do that, it’s not enough to be left on my own. I need access to what might be called the necessary conditions of full autonomy. What do those include? Not exactly sure, but on the list would be such things as good schools, safe streets, and guaranteed access to basic goods like food, shelter, or health care. Without those things, it’s hard to see how I can be master of my own fate, shaper of my own destiny in the way that autonomy – that is, positive freedom, requires.
But why not t trust the market to provide those things? And my answer is that markets have their limits. I pretty seriously doubt that if we were to let the free market be the sole determiner of who should receive what education at what price, that rich and poor would have equal access to education. But I do admit that that is an empirical question. And I fully admit that we’ve never actually let the free market work its magic on primary and secondary education. Instead we’ve put our trust in in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. And I can’t say that that has worked out all that well.
Obviously, there is lots and lots to think and talk about here. So please add a thought or two of your own.