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Freedom and Capitalism


For Americans, it seems that freedom and capitalism have, at some point in our history, become interchangeable concepts. There is no freedom without the ability to own and control capital, and capital that cannot be used as its owner wishes cannot be considered freedom. But is this really right?

You’ve probably guessed already that the answer is “no.” But it’s why that matters. How did we come to link these ideas together, and what purpose does it serve?

The relationship between capital and freedom is woven into the founding of our country. The grievances of the British colonists centered mostly around tax policy. The British government demanding taxes without giving the colonists a say in Parliament ultimately started a revolution (or rebellion, if you prefer) that resulted in the colonies’ independence. We all know this part.

What may be less well known is the extent to which freedom, in early America, depended on wealth, and wealth was represented mostly by land–capital. Prior to 1856, in many states only white male landowners could vote. Some states allowed landless white men to vote, and a few even franchised free slaves. All black men got the right to vote in 1870, though _in practice _this right was not meaningfully protected in the South until 1964. Women won the right to vote in 1920. But even today, there are constant efforts to keep particular kinds of people from voting, and it’s worth understanding why that is and what relationship it has to our capitalist history.

If you will, try to follow the logic as I connect the dots. In the US, most crimes are victimless (drug possession, etc.) or are against property rather than people. People are punished for these crimes essentially because they disrupt the social order. Part of that order is, unsurprisingly, protecting private property. If property is not aggressively protected by the authorities, then it is unsafe–and if it is unsafe, it loses its value, which obviously goes against everything capitalists buy property for.

This is not terribly objectionable, as far as it goes. People should generally be free to own a house, some land, a car, personal possessions, and so forth. But in a society with growing economic inequality, increasingly dysfunctional government, disenfranchisement of the economically powerless, and harsh penalties for what amount to crimes against capital, it becomes clear that what touts itself as a culture of freedom comes with a great big asterisk: only those with capital need apply.

It would be bad enough if that was the extent of our two-tiered society, but it gets worse. The criminal justice system, though it harshly punishes people who are mostly poor and who commit crimes mainly out of material desperation or as a consequence of mental illness, at the same time treats affluent defendants with kid gloves, and rarely holds capitalists accountable for their abuses of power at all. A man who steals food can go to prison for years; a CEO who enriches himself by destroying a company and vaporizing the livelihoods of thousands of people has committed no crime at all, in the eyes of the law. And those job losses have real consequences: depression, substance abuse, suicide, families broken apart and traumatized. That those harms are inflicted in the pursuit of profit (the only purpose of capital) somehow eliminates moral culpability.

Rather than being natural companions, freedom and capitalism have had a relationship fraught with tension. Capitalism, almost by definition, deprives people of freedom. Land owned by one person means it is inaccessible and unusable by others, unless the owner permits it. Again, this doesn’t have to be a problem–there’s plenty of land, and most people would have no use for a dozen acres of their own. What matters is that an appropriate balance be struck between the rights of capitalists (and their capital) and everyone else. Events were trending in that direction a century or so ago, when workers organized, formed unions, and fought for better workplace conditions and a 40-hour work week. Capitalists largely resisted this, and even had the government beat, imprison, and kill people on their behalf, but progress was made. The results spoke for themselves: the economy boomed and most workers saw tremendous benefits. It put home ownership and other trappings of personal financial success within reach for more people than ever. There were a lot of reasons for this (including the unique circumstances of the post-World War II boom), but it would be difficult to argue that the same results would’ve been remotely possible in an alternate history where workers were still continually downtrodden and abused. Paying people well and treating them with respect, it turns out, works pretty nicely.

But as the global economy opened up and technology marched on, many companies found it cheaper and easier to employ workers in other countries–workers who would tolerate less pay and more maltreatment. A global race to the bottom has been great for capitalists, who get to keep more for themselves, a relative improvement for people in countries jobs have migrated to, but a disaster for those who’ve seen their living standards stagnate or decline and their prospects diminish. How “free” are people who can no longer find jobs to support themselves and their families? As the joke goes, at least they are free to starve.

If one tier of society enjoys much greater freedom–freedom of movement, freedom of commerce, freedom from consequences–than another tier, how can that society be considered free at all? Worse yet, the collapse of most communist and socialist regimes has given the impression that there is no alternative to liberal, democratic capitalism. Much of what occurred under communist regimes is indefensible and inhumane, but when they existed they encouraged not just economic competition but political competition. The only way democratic, capitalist countries could keep a leg up was by offering welfare states–programs to help and care for workers, the sick, the poor. While mostly politically repressive, communist countries raised the living standards of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, and capitalist countries were forced to take similar measures to avoid the open revolt of the working classes. Well before the Cold War had begun in earnest, Franklin Roosevelt proposed the New Deal at least in part because American workers, made desperate by the Great Depression, posed the very real threat of a communist revolution.

This is the real danger of capitalists who rig democratic–supposedly freedom-oriented–governments to suit their needs above all others. Getting right down to it, “freedom” remains a relative, circumstantial construct. The wealthy always have more de facto freedom than the poor. Disabled people have less freedom in practice than able-bodied people do. Not all of these inequities can be resolved through public policy, but a culture that values freedom–truly values it, rather than merely paying lip service to it–owes itself a genuine, ongoing effort to ensure that the wants of capitalists do not override the needs of everyone else. To do otherwise is to slowly murder that society, as the potential and well-being of the majority is drained away, into the pockets of those who have the power to flee to greener pastures once the wounds become fatal.

Freedom isn’t worth much to the dead.