Economic freedom is an essential element of free-market capitalism. This description often gives it a character of being associated only with the market, and therefore, it is quite different from other forms of freedom. The “liberals” of today attach far more importance to freedom of speech, of resistance, of the press and many similar flowery concepts, and that economic freedom is somehow secondary or a luxury that applies only to the market. They contend that these esoteric freedoms can be protected and enhanced even when economic freedom can be put to jeopardy. The liberals and others don’t realise the true meaning of economic freedom – which when recognised would fundamentally alter their beliefs – and cause them to jettison all their mushy sloganeering.
The meaning of economic freedom is that the individual chooses how he integrates (and interacts) with other members of society. He is free to choose his economic activity and free to do what he wants to do. In this sense, freedom exists in the context of societal life. It is societal freedom but is unlike the other freedoms that activist liberal thinkers of today advance, which are varieties within the umbrella of social freedom.
The confusion with economic freedom is that it is associated with “markets”. There is an illusion of the market being a physical place for transactions, rather than recognising it as a process with certain characteristics. When we discern that where there is no "market" in some sphere of societal life, we realize that there is a complete intervention of the government in that sphere. The government supremacy in a market means that primarily there is no economic freedom for individuals, and secondarily, all other illusory mushy freedoms are not available in the true sense too. The government through the law-making apparatus may signal that it stands "strongly" behind those other illusory freedoms, but that freedom now exists only on paper.
The origins of the law
In fact, the law has now become a perverted tool to interfere with and abridge people’s liberties. The law as it was originally intended exists only in bits and pieces. Today, the law has become a collective force (which by definition it was intended to be) of the nation to perpetrate avarice and greed of the ruling “class” rather than being a check for such behaviour within sections of the society. To understand this better, we need to trace the origins of the law.
Individuals were thrust into nature with certain faculties. Those faculties provide him with the necessary means for living. He has been bestowed with these faculties and has been entrusted to support, develop and perfect those faculties by discursive action. To realise those objectives, he must nurture his environment, assimilate, and appropriate them for his exclusive use. The protection of his physical body is - needless to reiterate - a basic prerequisite. His physical existence, his mental faculties, and his assimilative propensity together create personality, liberty and property as the fundamental pillars of prior law. This is the purest definition of a man in a societal context. He derives the three rights not from a man-made law, but from nature or God. In contrast, he made laws with these three tenets. The laws exist to protect each individual his primary rights which are, to repeat, personality, liberty and property.
Beyond not just calling it rights, these are the fundamental elements of life on earth, each of which is interconnected and the trampling of one means the trampling of his very existence granted to him by nature or God.
Since individually, he has the right to protect his elemental prerequisites, collectively, he may organize to protect it with a greater degree of assurance. The collective right is only a summation of individual rights and nothing exists beyond such original objective. Just as an individual cannot encroach another person, his liberty or his property, a collective common force cannot, by using law as its reason, encroach upon a person, his liberty or his property.
Men didn’t collectivize to destroy certain men’s equal rights. He assimilated only to ensure greater protection through the collective defence of his individual rights.
This is the meaning of economic freedom as well. It allows the individual to choose his career, his preferred set of activities and leaves it to his sole decision as to how he wishes to participate and integrate with society. In an interventionist society, or a society fully transitioned to socialism by such gradual interventions [read an earlier post on this aspect - Interventionism and the Slide to Socialism], the individual’s choice of activities is decreed by the government. The government can decide what he sells, where he sells, at what price, to whom etc. It can also order the individual to leave the country for reasons other than commerce such as for his holding on to divergent political beliefs. Here one can see the interconnected nature of his prior rights being affected. By geographically delimiting an individual, his personality and liberty has been trampled, which will, in turn, affect the “property” element of his life.
This interconnectedness is precisely the lacuna with arguing with single rights concocted by liberal thinking. For instance, consider freedom of the press. A government can claim that it has only restricted one "superfluous" right, namely freedom of the press if it owns all the printing presses in the country. Instead, steadfast adherence to the three elements of life would see no such trampling of rights, and all esoteric rights will naturally co-exist. A society which focuses on winning piece-meal rights will never achieve equal rights if the fundamental rights are not protected.
Freedom in the context of an economy
The freedom that a man has in a societal context i.e., economic freedom isn’t equal to the blissful garden of Eden existence. Freedom works within the framework of society’s economic workings. In the remote ages, individuals when didn’t live in societies, it doesn’t mean he had complete freedom compared to men who lived within the confines of society in later times. The ancient man was constantly under the threat of attack from stronger fellow human beings. He simply became subservient to the stronger man or got killed. This is why Rousseau’s ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains’ only sounds good on paper but doesn’t stand practical scrutiny. Man isn’t born free. A child requires many years of nurture to integrate with other human beings. And the integration he achieves comes with benefits; such as protection from other superior men and use of collective force to protect his prior elements of life.
In a market economy, individuals serve each other. A man depends on others as much as the others depend on him. Although the worker is subservient to his employer within the factory, he is supreme in his role as a consumer. In a market, consumers are the king. The previous post [The Debates in Capitalism] supports arguments that debunk the wage theory proposed by the Marxists. There is no single person who is the ultimate “boss” answerable to none. A business owner’s secretary, or his children, might fantasize that he is supreme and all people are answerable to him and that he has, over time, achieved a stature where he is answerable to none. While his enterprise may be commendable, it is a myth that he is answerable to none. The day consumers stop patronising his products, his preeminent position will wither away. The consumers dictate orders that the owner must obey.
This is the only “constraint” regarding economic freedom: which is the constant work necessary to serve fellow citizens in society. Utopian freedom of man doesn’t exist, except in the minds of intellectual socialists. The faculty bestowed on man by nature or God must be cultivated. For this, his personality, liberty and his property must be unabashedly protected. He collectivized to frame laws only to maintain an unabridged stream of elements necessary for a fulfilling existence.
Instead, today, laws have become a tool for abridging one man’s property and enhancing another’s. It is being used as a weapon to scale down the liberty of few so that others enjoy untrammelled benefits. The liberal’s idea of pushing forward nice-sounding “rights” will only result in destroying the fundamental faculties bestowed upon man. To protect mankind, a re-pledge to protect his three elements viz., personality, liberty and property would be imperative.