Is Freedom Really Free? I: Walking Away, Research Time, 11/07/2017

I’m not going to continue with that last thread of ideas I was writing about Milton Friedman’s writing last week. Two reasons. One, after taking a few days off from writing about it, I realized it wasn’t the best way to start a longer train of thought. So I’m starting from a more fundamental and stimulating angle today.

The second reason? I hated that title I gave it.

Friedman’s insightful introductory remarks about the nature of contracts are a great way to begin. That conception of the freely entered contract between two equals is at the heart of so much new liberal and libertarian rhetoric today.

I’d hear it from my wacky libertarian trolls, my first long-running window into the world of the far-right internet. Reading this passage of Friedman, I remembered what C & G told me, because it seemed to come directly from the big man’s pages.

What people love about America is their freedom!
The fundamental bond of any economic relationship is the contract between two people doing business. It could be between a business owner and a worker, between two or more business owners, between a business and a client or customer. Whatever. All economic activity flows from these relationships.

Those relationships of contract formation are the core bonds of business itself. They come to be, says Friedman, as two private individuals reaching an agreement. Such an agreement is morally right if the contracting individuals are free.

Now, what do we mean by freedom? That’s not just a word you can appeal to without a fair idea of the concept itself.

Friedman uses freedom in the context of the conditions of contract formation. When two individuals are negotiating a contract, at any moment up to the signature that locks them both into their promises, they can walk away.

Freedom is the right to exit. That’s universalized over a lot of moral judgments new liberals and libertarians make about economic and business relationships.

Do you dislike your job? Do you feel that your boss mistreats you? Are you not paid what you think you should be? Do you find the conditions now more dangerous than when you agreed to work there? Then walk away from it.

The right to walk away – for the modern dogmatic libertarian, many new liberals, and quite a few traditional liberals – renders any of the protections that workers’ movements have gained people moot.

More details on the silliness of a frictionless, perfectly logical vision
of the world can be found at the link, on paragraph 107.
You want a minimum standard wage? Health insurance? Safety protections? Reasonable hours? Vacation time? Maternity or paternity leave? Then don’t force your current employer to give them to you if he doesn’t want to provide them. Leave, and try to negotiate it somewhere else. The right of exit trumps all else.

It seems perfectly reasonable when you’re only thinking about it in the abstract, through pure reason alone. But once the messy contingencies of the real world leak into this clean, frictionless vision, its logic begins to break down. This way of thinking faces problems that it actually can’t grapple with, so can only wave them away.

Think about some situations where you can’t really walk away from a job. Most of them amount to not being able to walk straight into an alternative job and risking destitution otherwise.

Maybe there’s a recession and there are far more job-seekers than positions. Maybe you’re in a low-paying sector and you don’t have the savings to support yourself while you look for a better opportunity. Maybe you can’t afford retraining and there are no free or loan-supported avenues for it.

In all those situations and any others along similar lines, the right of exit still exists, but it’s a terrible idea. The material conditions of a contract's writing smashes the balance between signatories for it to be a truly free agreement. If a person has the power to let another starve, then the one with power holds the other in his fist.

Even if you’re starving to death, my old libertarian friends used to tell me, you still have your freedom. But must you accept death as the price of freedom?

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