Liberty to do what?
from Peter Radford
Continuing my peon to Judt: he reminds us of Condorcet’s fear:
“Liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than the necessary condition for the security of financial operations.”
How many times do we come across, in this avid nation of ours, some foolish comment that our social policies must not restrict commerce? How many times do we hear some politician arguing that we must become more business friendly? We scarcely can move an inch without tripping over someone cajoling us with fears that limitations on liberty are actually limitations on prosperity. As if prosperous was purely an arithmetic reference and had no qualitative content.
This is Condorcet’s fear alive and well. We seem to have reduced liberty to some small prop for the making of profit. Liberty is simply, in this ghostly shadow of what it once was, a veil behind which profits can be amassed without reference to the fabric of society as whole. And certainly without reference to any larger interest than that of the individual, or individuals, engaged in making that profit.
The invasion of the economic lexicon and way of thinking into domains where it has absolutely no right being is to blame for this diminution of our liberty. Or at least the severe limits placed on our understanding of what liberty means.
It was not always thus.
The war to gain liberty and to free ourselves from the oppression of ancient prejudice, tradition, and the burden of paternalist governance was not waged so that we could make a quick buck. It was to enable us all to have rights. It was a war to assert the right to have those rights. In that sense it is ongoing even today as successive groups manage to achieve such rights and join the rest of us in equal citizenship.
Being free to make that assertion is what liberty is in its more expansive and richer meaning.
Étienne Balibar puts it this way:
“It is always a struggle, and moreover a legitimacy of struggle, what Rancière calls the ‘the part of those who have no part’ which confers a universal signification on the demand of those who had been kept outside the common good or general will to be counted.”
This is not some petty attribute of a free market. It is a fundamental state of the human condition. It extends all the way to the roots of how we live and view each other. Placing a limit on liberty as if it were simply an enabling of market exchange is to gut the concept of its true content and replace it with a shill for capitalist aggrandizement.
Which is why we ought to search for the causes of this distortion: where did the idea of liberty get so reduced?
The answer, I suggest for our purposes, sits squarely within the libertarian screeds that pour forth from Chicago. This is, at first sight, a contradiction. How, after all did the generations that followed people like Hayek, pervert liberty so much that it now is a pseudonym for free market economics?
Well, they misunderstood it.
Being so obsessed with removing government from our lives because they imagined they had discovered the secrets of market power, and rejecting any and all notions of such heresies as market failures, they attacked remorselessly to undo concepts of society that were not ciphers for the market. After all, having discovered the eternal truths of market power, they could hardly acknowledge any rival sources of social organization. So, like cuckoos, they had to toss those rivals from the nest.
And in so doing they eliminated alternative or grander meanings for liberty.
Thus armed they invaded all corners: in the hands of zealots like Gary Becker economic analysis bullied aside previous explanations for all sorts of relationships. In his own words:
“I believe that people make rational decisions and that they look ahead to the consequences of their decisions. They are affected by incentives. You can take markets, rationality, and incentives and illuminate issues involving race, education, and the family.”
Liberty is reduced in Becker’s hands to nothing more than the ability to be rational within the boundaries of some optimization problem, limited of course, by a set of constraints.
It is one of the great ironies of modern thought that the libertarian Milton Friedman, whose intellectual fingerprints are all over this diminution of the meaning of liberty, chose to enter the profession of economics because he wanted to do something relevant. As he explained it:
“Becoming an economist seemed more relevant to the burning issues of the day than becoming an applied mathematician or an actuary.”
But the result of his zealotry and that of his heirs has been to reduce economics exactly to a kind of applied mathematics. Why? Because that is the only way in which they could ‘prove’ the superior efficacy of markets as allocative devices. As opposed, let’s say, to the government.
In other words, not only has the entire Chicago tradition eroded the notion of liberty to a bare stub of its former self, but it has failed by its own — or rather Friedman’s — measure of relevance. It ended up being applied math dressed up differently.
That society lost the concept of liberty along the way is a stain Chicago will have to bear until it repents. Which I doubt will be any time soon.