On Being Free In A Free Market


Economic Liberals, especially in the USA, often make a direct correlation between private property, free markets, representative democracy and individual freedom. They contend that individual freedom is maximised when markets are not regulated, private property is protected and government takes the particular form currently associated with the developed Western democracies.

So how free is the lived experience of most people in the free world? For most of us on a day-to-day basis freedom means taking orders and doing what we are told by employers, forces of law and order, government agencies and even private corporations. In return we theoretically get to freely choose how to spend the money we earn. Our freedom seems to consist in the freedom to choose from an endless array of consumer goods – even though these consumer choices are influenced by the endless barrage of marketing we are subjected to and the vagaries of fashion  – i.e. our choices are significantly influenced by manipulative advertising and what everyone else is choosing.

It is also perfectly possible to argue that in fact free markets significantly limit the consumer choices of the majority, while increasing the choices of a privileged minority. The argument would run something like this:

  1. In a free market an individual can only choose among the goods that get to market.
  2. Profitability, not human needs or wants, determine what gets to market. The goods that get to market are goods that can be profitably sold. So consumer choice is determined not by consumer preferences but by profit.
  3. Mass sales reduce prices; limited sales mean high prices. Therefore there is built-in majority dominance in the range of affordable choice provided by market mechanisms.
  4. The choice of an individual is only limited by their ability to pay for specific goods.
  5. So by definition in a free market poor people are less free than rich people.
  6. By economic necessity rich people are a minority in any society so the poorer majority have restricted choices on a sliding scale linked to ability to pay.

So even according to it’s own logic free markets don’t increase consumer choice for the majority. But freedom is not only, or even primarily, about consumer choice, and certainly simply increasing choice per se does not increase freedom; any sort of choice, not just consumer choice, because, to be meaningful, choices have to be genuinely, not just theoretically, available and unlimited choice becomes no choice because the time and effort involved in making informed choices renders it impractical to do so – certainly for anyone who has to go to work.

But in any event, is it credible to equate this consumerist vision of freedom with the political and social freedom’s that brave men & woman have fought for over thousands of years of human history?

Significant public resources have been expended in educating me to be able to think, to reflect and analyse. And yet for the most part I am expected to articulate my knowledge and skills to fulfil other people’s agendas – and in the private sector make them rich. In return I can choose what type of car I drive. Can they be serious!

It is argued that in a free country I can “choose” whether I carry out the orders of my employers; that I am free to resign and seek employment elsewhere. While this may be technically true in the real-life, lived experience of individuals this choice is rarely ever a serious option. Unless we are independently wealthy we have to earn a living and we have to carry out the orders we are given by those higher up the organisational hierarchy, however foolish, misguided or even immoral we may feel those orders to be.

Similarly, in political life for most of us our influence over those in power is limited to casting a vote once every 4 or 5 years to elect one of a number of parties who basically offer the same policies, differing only in issues of degree.

And historically it is these more profound issues of the limited autonomy and political power of citizens that has driven the fight for freedom. And radicals from Tom Paine to Naom Chomsky have recognised that any meaningful concept of freedom also has to address issues of equality & justice.

Traditionally philosophy has distinguished between positive freedoms, i.e. freedom to do things, or negative freedoms, i.e. freedom from things.

Positive freedoms might include (but not be limited to):

  1. freedom of expression
  2. freedom of speech
  3. freedom of thought
  4. freedom of assembly
  5. freedom of movement
  6. freedom to criticise those in authority
  7. freedom to worship
  8. freedom to organise
  9. freedom to resist power when it is abused
  10. freedom to choose governors

Negative freedoms might include (but not be limited to):

  1. freedom from poverty
  2. freedom from hunger
  3. freedom from ignorance
  4. freedom from unnecessary sickness
  5. freedom from oppression

Consumer choice has very little to do with any of these concepts of ‘freedom’. I doubt if Watt Tyler, The Levellers, the Chartists, Captain Swing, the Peterloo demonstrators, the Tolpuddle martyrs or the Pankhurst sisters sacrificed so much so that they could choose between 20 different brands of sunglasses! What these men & women fought for was justice and equal rights for all.

The free market does not make the average citizen free, on the contrary consumerism and Western representative democracy are the chimera that hide us from our lack of autonomy. We are not ‘free’ in any profound sense. On the contrary we are all serfs, entirely dependent upon an international economic & political system that serves the interests of a wealthy ruling elite. For most of human history tiny ruling elites have seen the rest of mankind simply as tools to do their bidding, I would argue that little has changed today.

I do acknowledge that in the Western democracies the cruellest excesses of the ruling elite have been moderated through the struggle of progressive forces of opposition and that capitalism combined with a welfare state has given more citizens in the West a more comfortable lifestyle than at any time in history. Undoubtedly I would rather live in the UK today than any time in the past. But the Western capitalist democracies also have extraordinary levels of mental illness, crime, depression and suicide. It appears that buying things does not compensate us for our profound lack of personal autonomy and political powerlessness; indeed, the illusion of choice seems to serve only to leave us bewildered at why we are not happy.

The battle for human freedom; for equality and justice is far from over and it is not the free market that will bring these ideals about. It is a return to a progressive politics that sees all men as being born equal.

Resistance is rational.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

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