Do free markets produce free people?
The answer to this has historically been assumed to be yes in capitalist societies like the United States. The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is essentially lifted from liberal philosopher John Locke’s claim that all have the right to life, liberty and property – thus, a connection supposedly exists between liberty and property.
Organizations like Freedom House even state outright that the right to own private property is a precondition for a country to be considered free.
Socialists have always claimed that this assumption is false, that in reality, private property is incompatible with human freedom. It doesn’t take much looking around at the state of the U.S. and western Europe – the bastions of global capitalism – to see that the socialists are right.
Take, for example, our First Amendment, which guarantees that the government will make no laws curbing the freedom of speech or the press. But it is the government’s laws upholding the right to private property that makes the First Amendment’s promise null and void. Private control of capital and the need to accumulate profit undermine freedom of speech and press.
A good portion of adult life is spent in the workplace, where freedom of speech does not exist. Most states have “at-will” employment laws, meaning that an employer can fire a worker for any reason or for no reason at all. Workers can and have been fired for criticizing the company for which they work on social media, criticizing their employer and even running for political office.
Moreover, free expression is often prohibited as well in the workplace. How you dress and present yourself is not determined by you, but by your employer.
The workplace under capitalism is the most authoritarian of institutions, wherein one must submit to the will of the capitalist in order to survive. And survival is what is on the table – a society which does not ensure housing, healthcare or food has made sure of this. Work is, therefore, not voluntary, but coercive.
The so-called free market also means that a free press is an impossibility. Capitalist competition has a tendency toward monopoly, and this is no exception where news is concerned. All over the country, for-profit media has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, leaving news deserts – communities lacking a local news source – all around.
For the press to exist under capitalism, it must be profitable, because despite journalists’ claim that their first loyalty is to the public, the press must first answer to shareholders and advertisers. To deny this fact would be utopian. A journalist cannot serve the public at all if the lights have been turned off.
To be competitive, the news must be profitable; if the news isn’t competitive, it dies. What good is a law protecting a free press if there is no press in your community?
So, free speech and a free press are out. But a society fueled by profit limits freedom in many other ways as well. The U.S., for example, does not provide universal free healthcare. If you’re someone who is poor and gets sick, you only have the freedom to die.
Poor people who are ill have their freedoms limited unnecessarily. Sickness can prevent someone from going to work, enjoying their hobbies, having a social life, and in our society, only money can repair this. Truly, how free can a poor person be if they live in a society that can cure their sickness but actively and intentionally leaves them to suffer?
To be free also means being able to one day stop working when we’re old. Capitalist society despises the elderly. Over a million French citizens are struggling at this very moment to prevent their government from raising the retirement age – they know all too well the indifference the capitalists feel for the old. Americans know this too. Millions of our own citizens work well into their 70s and 80s because they cannot afford to retire.
And so, despite the assumptions of liberal philosophers and government shills like Freedom House, a capitalist society is not the same as a free society. If the latter is something we’re interested in, then we must loosen ourselves from the chains of a world driven by competition and profit, avarice and self-interest. Capitalism must die so that freedom may be born.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a junior studying journalism and political science.