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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What Is Freedom?

A definitive answer to an age-old question…

Today I gave a talk to the Alabama College Democrats on the subject of “freedom.” They were a delightful group with excellent questions and I really enjoyed hanging out with them. Below is the prepared text of the speech, though the actual delivered version had a number of improvised digressions. 

I have been asked to talk about what freedom is, which is just about the most difficult possible question you could have asked me to answer. Several thousands years of political philosophy haven’t sorted it out so I doubt I am going to successfully answer it today in a few minutes. But I can give you a few thoughts on some ways that the contemporary left thinks about freedom and why they are useful.

In fact, the left perspective on freedom actually starts with the fact that freedom is a difficult concept rather than an easy one. If I was a free market libertarian, it would be quite easy for me to tell you what freedom is. Freedom is when nobody physically attacks you or touches your stuff. That freedom is secured through a minimal government: A government that devotes itself to making sure that violent crime is punished and that property rights are protected and that contracts are enforced. Often, this idea of freedom is credited to John Stuart Mill, with his principle that the only legitimate use of government power is to prevent people from doing harm to each other. If you accept this idea, then this question of what freedom is isn’t really interesting or complicated: Freedom means being left alone by the government. There. We’ve solved it.

The left, however, has always looked on this idea of freedom as somewhat ridiculous, because it leads to situations that seem distinctly un-free to be described as completely free. If I am a poor migrant who signs up for indentured servitude, and I have to work long hours for low pay or be sent back to my country of origin, and I am sexually harassed and bullied by my boss, and I spend each night in a crowded worker dormitory, miserable and desperate, it seems grotesque to say that I have freedom. And yet if we accept freedom from government coercion as the only important kind of freedom, then people who have almost no meaningful choices in their lives are still considered as free as you can possibly be, purely because they are not being threatened with jail by the government.

This is the reason for the distinction made between negative liberty and positive liberty, the freedom from and the freedom to. It is not enough just to be free from interference, you actually have to have the capacity to act. You can see why this is so important if you look, for example, at the sharecropping system. Slavery was a horrific restriction on people’s liberties. They were physically deprived of their freedom; the threat of physical violence was constantly present for anyone who tried to leave. But after slavery ended, many African Americans entered another system that had its own kind of liberty deprivation: the sharecropping system. Because they had been freed, but didn’t own any land, black southerners had to enter into contractual arrangements with white landowners, in which the sharecroppers would farm the land and give a percentage of the annual yield to the landowner. This percentage was as high as the landowner could possibly extract, often leaving families at bare subsistence level. The notion of owning a person may have disappeared, but the substance of people’s conditions often did not change significantly: They worked the same land for the same people. This is why Frederick Douglass said that:

There may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other. . . . The man who has it in his power to say to a man, you must work the land for me for such wages as I choose to give, has a power of slavery over him as real, if not as complete, as he who compels toil under the lash. All that a man hath he will give for his life.

Douglass is pointing out something that leftists throughout history have said, which is that if your choice is “take this job or starve to death” then you don’t have much of a choice at all. Contractual arrangements may be voluntary, but if you are pressured into them by despair, then that voluntariness is a farce. If I offer to throw you a life preserver while you are drowning, on the condition that you give me 5 percent of your income for the rest of your life, it is difficult to call this “voluntary.” You did not have a real choice. If people don’t have any viable alternatives, then they are not really free.

This understanding has led leftists to develop a much richer idea of freedom, an idea that takes people’s life experiences as its starting point rather than a thin and theoretical kind of bare contractual freedom. So if you have to sell your house to pay a family member’s medical bills, yes, it’s true that you made the choice voluntarily, that you could have just said “sorry, kid” and let them die. But our choices are structured by our circumstances, and our circumstances are structured by the political and economic systems we live in, and those systems are in turn structured by decisions that are made by people with power. You face that choice to sell your house or let your parent/child suffer because you do not live in one of the many countries where this choice doesn’t exist. The diabetics who try to raise money for insulin on GoFundMe face a choice of whether to crowdfund or risk death because that is the choice that everyone else has chosen to offer them.

In criticizing the Supreme Court’s campaign financing cases, we on the left often say that “money isn’t speech,” that free speech doesn’t mean you can just spend as much as you like to speak. But I actually think we should frame it a little differently: In important ways, money confers freedom. Money gives you the capacity to actually act. The more money I have, the more things I can do. I can speak more if I have more money, because I can amplify my voice. I can be Rupert Murdoch and buy media outlet after media outlet and blast whatever message I choose into the homes of hundreds of millions of people. Money is speech, and how free your speech is always depends on the amount of money you have. If I am an ordinary person with a job, not only might I not be able to afford to blast my message out, but I might be fired if I say anything too controversial, even outside of work. I regularly edit people’s political writing for publication, and a lot of them have asked me to use pseudonyms, because they’re worried that even things they say off the clock when they’re outside of work could cause them to lose their jobs. In the United States, the law generally does not protect you from being retaliated against over your speech by employers. You are “free” to speak, in that it is legal, and they are “free” to fire you afterwards. Everyone has maximum freedom, which some people think is wonderful, but the end result is that since power and wealth are very unevenly distributed, some people have a lot more freedom than others.

One of the most important aspects of leftist thought is its insight that “power” is more than just the government putting people in jail. Power relationships are everywhere: an employer who harasses employees, but those employees can’t quit their jobs because they’re worried the employer will punish them by giving them a bad reference or retaliating against them. Verbally abusive partners who make the other person afraid of losing love and support, and wield the power they have to withhold those things to coerce the other person into putting up with behavior they shouldn’t have to put up with. Bullies at school, telemarketers who take advantage of old people’s confusion and loneliness. These situations do not always involve the use of physical force, they can involve other kinds of manipulation and coercion.

The goal, then, is for people to be free of all of this. And you can make people freer in lots of different ways. If you have strong laws protecting political speech, then while an employer is less free to discipline people for what they do outside of work, the employees are freer to speak their minds. If you are free to easily unionize, then workers have the power to collectively withhold their labor if there are managers who abuse their power. If being a single mother wasn’t such a financially terrifying prospect, because we had a more generous welfare state that made it easy to raise children, the idea of leaving a bad marriage or relationship wouldn’t be quite as difficult to contemplate. If healthcare is provided free at the point of use, and funded through progressive taxation, then people are freer to go about their lives without having to worry about whether they can afford to get sick.

Climate change is another useful case study. Many on the right have been strongly critical of the Green New Deal, the proposal to reach zero emissions within 10 years through a large public investment program. They would argue that there is something socialistic, and anti-liberty, about taking money through taxes and using it to fund environmental projects. On the left, we see it as exactly the opposite: Climate change is the greatest possible threat to people’s freedom. Rising temperatures and sea levels are expected to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, people who have to flee their homes because of the consequences of climate change. Now, people would like to stay in their homes. But they’re not free to do so, because of circumstances out of their control. The left conception of freedom says: What is causing those circumstances, and how do we alter those causes in order to maximize people’s freedom?

Inequality itself is a restriction on freedom. When some people have billions of dollars, and others have zero dollars, the ones with billions of dollars can control the lives of the others. My friend the economist Rob Larson has an excellent book called Capitalism vs. Freedom, and in it he shows how the accumulation of extreme wealth in some hands serves to destroy freedom. In fact, he says, it causes the whole negative liberty/positive liberty freedom-from/freedom-to distinction to kind of break down. For instance, when Martin Shkreli’s pharmaceutical company hiked the price of a life-saving drug from $13 to $750, people could be driven into poverty to pay to survive. They are certainly not free to act but they are also not free from the consequences of self-interested corporate decision-makers.

Here’s another example. If we take platforms like Facebook and Twitter, there is an argument to be made that they make us more free. Look at all the things you can post! The magazine I work for, Current Affairs, has built an audience in large part because of Facebook and Twitter. We post our articles there, people share them, people read them. Complete freedom. Voluntary transactions. Wonderful. But it’s also the case that as almost all information starts flowing through these monopolistic corporate platforms that are the only game in town, you become dependent on them and they serve as completely unaccountable decision-makers about which speech is acceptable. If Mark Zuckerberg were to wake up one morning and decided that he didn’t like what was printed in Current Affairs, that he wanted to bump us down the algorithm, it could destroy our business, because we’re dependent on people finding out about us through these platforms.

Conservatives often complain that their free speech is being restricted by this or that social media platform. And on the one hand, it’s ironic, because they’re the ones who believe corporations should be able to do whatever they please in a free market. But on the other hand, they’re not wrong that this is what you get when corporations become gatekeepers. You get “private tyrannies”—institutions whose decisions have major consequences in the world, but that ordinary people do not get a vote in. You can choose whether or not to use Facebook, but you don’t get to vote on who you think should be in charge of Facebook. And in a situation where everyone is using Facebook, and your business depends on it, the binary choice of whether or not to participate doesn’t mean very much.

I wasn’t very sad to see Alex Jones kicked off YouTube, but I do think it’s concerning that this is a domain operating completely without any established principles of law. When the government places restrictions on speech, there is a First Amendment, and there is a huge body of caselaw, and the Supreme Court decides whether a particular restriction falls into one of the accepted categories of things that can be prohibited. And there are arguments, and there are opinions issued, and you can read them. This does not happen when a company restricts speech: You are informed of the decision and given no reasons behind it beyond Violating The Terms of Service. There is no appeal. They owe you no explanation.

Corporate power can therefore operate very similarly to that of a Kafkaesque dictatorial government. And on the one hand, we might say, “Well, but that doesn’t matter so much, because the government are the ones with the power to actually arrest you, and that’s the kind of freedom I care about.” But as more domains become more heavily privatized, it matters a lot more. Facebook and Amazon are building their own company towns, and within their territory, they will have privatized security services, and those services will have the capacity to detain you. And they will say, of course, “Well, you freely consented to come here.” But we don’t let that excuse fly in any other town: “Well, you freely entered our town, therefore your free speech rights don’t apply.” But with private governments, there is no transparency, no democracy, no guaranteed rights of any kind.

This is one reason that it’s very important to talk about democracy and freedom together. Democracy is when ordinary people get to participate in government decision-making, it’s not done by unelected autocrats. And one definition of freedom that has been proposed is that “freedom is participation in power,” that is that freedom and democracy should be considered either the same thing or closely tied. And we can see what this would mean when we think about the company town versus the democratic town. In the company town, the rules are made from above, in the democratic town they’re made from below. And the difference between those two places is that one is free and the other is not. You are free when you help make the rules that bind you. Wikipedia, for instance, is a far freer platform than the others in a certain way, because the users actually deliberate together over decisions. There are still rules, but those rules are discussed and enforced through democratic processes. There are appeals. It’s all completely transparent. Because people are part of a community decision-making process, they are freer.

Saying that participation is freedom raises a number of problems still. If the group makes a bad decision, over your objections, are you free because you participated? The fear with democracy is always “tyranny of the majority,” though I think for the most part this can be mitigated by robust procedural impediments to trampling on dissidents. (With a Bill of Rights, for instance.) There is no such thing as perfect freedom, but the ability to control your circumstances and be part of the political and economic decisions that affect you seems an important precondition of liberty.

I define myself as part of the “libertarian socialist” political tradition, and I think the philosophy of libertarian socialism is very valuable in helping us think about what a sound conception of freedom would be. Libertarian socialism seems an oxymoron in the United States, where the libertarians are supposedly about freedom and socialists are about equality, and libertarians hate government and socialists like government. How can these two ideas even be reconciled, aren’t they polar opposites? But they’re not opposites at all. Libertarian socialists have recognized that without equality, there is no freedom, because some people will have the power to tyrannize over others and make decisions for them. But without freedom, there can also be no equality—so, for instance, in an authoritarian “socialist” regime, authorities may say they are restricting freedom to promote equality, but they’re actually not doing that at all, because the society is deeply unequal. It has a hierarchy, with unelected bureaucrats ruling over everybody else. Equality and freedom aren’t just words, they’re conditions, and they’re either present or not. The great anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin captured this idea well in a famous quote: “liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice and socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” Free market liberty means being ruled over by corporations, fake socialist liberty means being ruled over by authoritarian governments. Both of these alternatives must be rejected, and the reason I have always been drawn to anarchists like Bakunin is that they couldn’t decide which they hated more: capitalism or the government. And what they wanted was authentic popular rule.

I want to end by getting out of the realm of theory and back towards a very small concrete example of how freedom works and what it means to either have it or not. I live in New Orleans at the moment, and I have lived in New Orleans twice. The first time I lived there, I had no money. This time, I have a job and a decent income. And what is remarkable to me is that it has felt like living in two different cities. The lack of money changed the entire experience of living in the place. I could not go anywhere, because you don’t realize until you don’t have money that everything costs money. I was counting how many bananas I could afford at the grocery store, and constantly in fear of having my card declined. Now, I go to the grocery store, fill my basket, and don’t even think about how much things cost. I buy as many bananas as I damn well please. And New Orleans, for me, has become a freer place. I can go where I want, do what I want, because I have the actual capacity. Money and security have made this possible, as well as the fact that I have a job where I don’t have a boss. I can take an afternoon off without asking anybody’s permission, I can work from home in my underpants and nobody can stop me. It’s an incredible feeling of liberty, to know that you have many different meaningful options. The freedom we want for everyone is the kind of freedom possessed today by the boss. 

When you have this kind of freedom, it’s easy to forget what it feels like not to have it. I only experienced a very minor and temporary lack of money, mostly due to bad planning. For many, many people the situation is chronic. It should be obvious that poverty reduces your freedom to act, that living in a city where you cannot afford to do anything, counting your change for the bus, is a wholly different experience to walking through the world as Jeff Bezos, knowing that you could literally point at anything you see and own it. The implication of this, though, is that things like the black-white wealth gap, where white families tend to own ten times as much as black families, are also gaps in freedom. This is why I think it’s so urgent for people on the left to fight to redistribute wealth more equitably, because concentrated wealth is concentrated liberty, where some people are able to do whatever they please and others can only choose among the few meager choices they are offered. Social democratic programs do not just build greater “equity,” but give us the liberty to actually pursue our happiness. The right should not be allowed to lay claim to the word freedom, because their vision for it is superficial and perverse. The left conception of freedom is not just fairer, but is richer and more true to real-world experience. Having fairer and more equal society is not in tension with having a free society. It is a free society.

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