Almost everyone is for freedom. At least they say they’re for freedom. Politicians wax eloquent when talking about America’s liberties in general. Advocates for free speech and civil liberties aren’t hard to find. Champions quickly rise up to battle threats against privacy. And most people intuitively understand that intimate personal and family decisions don’t belong to government.
But when it comes to economic liberty, a lot people suddenly change their tune. It’s as if economic liberty doesn’t count. Indeed, this facet of freedom seems to stand alone, vulnerable to state regulation and control. Some of those who fervently declare their devotion to freedom disappear when property rights, entrepreneurship, or freedom to contract are under attack.
Running Your Life Through Your Wallet
Today Congress and state legislatures are far too busy dreaming up new ways to run our lives. Some of those democratic diktats are directed at both our personal and economic affairs. For instance, health care “reform” empowered the national government to control many more of our medical decisions, as well has how we must fund those decisions.
So the bulk of what legislators do is manipulate the economy. They offer high-minded excuses for doing so: to create jobs, to ensure fairness, to alleviate poverty. The bottom line is: nearly everything they do requires government to violate economic liberty.
Regulators rarely acknowledge they are abrogating anyone’s freedom. Often they claim to be protecting the consumer. In effect, political elites have created two classes of freedoms: important and economic. If the question is about the freedom to criticize government, have sex, choose whom to marry, or keep one’s personal life private, most politicians at least say these are important enough to preserve. Some of the people who most support intervening in the economy argue that these personal liberties are fundamental, deserving of respect.
By contrast, if one is deciding what business to create, which profession to choose, where to work, how much to earn, what hours to work, where to advertise, which product to produce, whom to hire, and how to spend your money—then those in power view these liberties as less important. Government is not only allowed to regulate various commercial activities, they say; it ought to.
To most people, the right to protest seems higher-minded than running a business or making a living. Economic activity seems mundane in contrast. Choosing a life partner and engaging in sex are more personal than buying a product or hiring an employee. And the ability to keep one’s private life private would seem to go to the essence of being a human being. Buying and selling in the marketplace strikes many as common.
But economic liberty is much more important than first appearances suggest. We might be inspired by “higher” pursuits, for which people exercise their personal and political freedoms. But there is perhaps nothing more fundamental than the freedom to improve one’s life and to care for ourselves and our families in the manner we see fit.
During the 20th century, we decisively answered the question of whether economic liberty delivers economic prosperity. If you desire a better future, then you need economic freedom.
But economic liberty delivers more than dollars and cents. Most people view work as an outgrowth of themselves. It turns out an open marketplace rewards honesty, hard work, initiative, inspiration, and other unsung virtues, as well. Economic freedom is also a chance to promote our beliefs, achieve success, pursue happiness, and to develop as a person. Will you direct the fruits of your labor to satisfying personal needs, supporting good causes, or making sound investments?
Indeed, when you graduate from college the most important freedom probably is to work, in order to earn and save. Other freedoms—to vote or protest, for instance—are obviously important. But the most pressing liberty involves choosing a career, or at least landing a job. How will you earn a living? To what will you devote much of your life? Where will you spend most of your waking hours? In the economy.
Economic liberty has important spillover effects, too. Freedom in one area encourages it in others. For example, a dollar you don’t earn or can’t keep is a dollar you can’t spend on a noble social or political cause.
Freedom of the press is not just the right to speak out, but it is also the right to acquire the means of speaking out. In some countries, government controls the supply of newsprint and access to the airwaves. In such cases, media freedoms are at risk. Who needs censorship when one can silence critics through economic means? However, the spread of computers, fax machines, cell phones, and Internet access makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes like China to control their growing populations.
More broadly, increased economic prosperity encourages people to embrace political liberty. If your children are starving, you worry about feeding them. If your children are well-fed and healthy, you have the luxury of worrying about other things—like supporting a cause, a candidate or a campaign. In countries that have gotten richer—like Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan—growing middle class populations forced ruling political elites to give way. That may eventually happen in China.
Economic freedom means more than profits and losses. Economic freedom fits within a larger free society in which resources are more freely available for an array of possible pursuits. In the developed world, many people give up a life of commerce for one of service or contemplation. You can work for a non-profit, go to seminary, become a permanent graduate student, or join a monastery. And in most areas of the economy, anyone can opt out. If you don’t like the products or services a business is selling you, you can simply exit. Or you can find another provider, like a local co-op. The richer a society is, the more these kinds of options are available.
Finally, economic success enables one to more fully take advantage of other liberties. Earn a little and then travel the world, go to graduate school, start a newspaper, give to charity, back a Kickstarter campaign, or support the politician of your choice. Create a new online service—say Twitter or Facebook—and empower political dissenters and protestors around the globe. Or rely on a full bank account to switch careers, whether to contemplate your navel or to help mankind. People with few economic liberties have fewer options like these.
The punchline? Liberty is indivisible. Economic freedom is as important as personal or political freedom, because the personal, the political, and the economic are strands of the same braid: liberty. Thus, the only way to achieve and protect a free society is to defend liberty in all its forms.
Doug Bandow is a regular contributor to THE FREEMAN, and is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
Copyright © 2012 Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved. Used with the permission