The need for economic rights

Economic disasters are not inevitable; shouldn’t government do what it can to avoid them?

Nick Woomer

Many like to talk about how the United States is the freest nation on Earth. I’ve always found this to be among the more annoying patriotic platitudes for a lot of reasons, but three seem paramount:

First, it’s not at all clear this is true. (Are Canada, Great Britain, Germany or Sweden really less free? OK, fine, it’s illegal to sell Nazi paraphernalia in Germany, but come on Ö )

Second, “the United States is the freest nation on Earth!” is usually declared with so much conviction that you’d think every other country of the world is governed by a ruthless dictator such as Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. In fact, given the rampant ignorance of many (as evidenced by the answers Jay Leno gets from regular-looking folks to rudimentary questions on his “Jaywalking” segments) it’s entirely possible that a sizable minority in our country actually believes the United States is the world’s sole democracy.

Finally, when the affirmation that the United States is the world’s freest nation is viewed charitably, it comes across as a statement not just about the strength of our civil liberties but about the “freedom” inherent in the “free market” U.S. economy.

There are countries whose economies are even less regulated than the United States’ – where, if you have the money, you can buy anything you want (and I do mean anything). But if you define freedom in the John Locke, Ayn Rand, negative-rights sense – as many do – a cogent case can be made that civil liberties are guaranteed by lack of economic interference from the government and that makes the United States the freest nation on earth.

“Freedom,” however, is a nebulous, constantly changing concept that often means different things to different people. So it’s a good idea to ask just how much freedom the United States’ “free market” promotes, and to the extent that it promotes freedom, what kind of freedom is it?

We talk about the economy like we talk about the weather – as if the billions of human exchanges that make up the global economy were wholly uncontrollable, like rain or jet streams. Recall coverage of the stock market’s roller coaster ride last week – it was talked about as if a natural disaster had struck a major city rather than as a more human phenomenon, such as a stampede at a concert, a school shooting or a terrorist attack.

When we hear about stampedes, school shootings or terrorist attacks, there’s an acknowledgment that even though these events are tragic and pretty unpredictable, they are still preventable and that we can and should take proactive measures to eradicate or minimize them. You almost never hear such talk about the economy or economic disasters like mass layoffs – such events are always discussed in a “that’s sad, but inevitable” kind of way.

Because the economy is the product of human activity and thus capable to being controlled to some extent – and because the economy affects all our lives in profound ways – shouldn’t we take measures to tame it, make it more predictable and responsive to human needs?

It’s hard to underestimate how much the economy affects all of our lives. Economic conditions affect scarcity of resources, and scarcity of resources determine where you live, what kind of job you take, whether you can afford to get an education, whether you can afford to have children and innumerable other things about you. In a very real way, we are all at the mercy of the economy – we only have as much freedom as the economy allows us to have.

Of course, the very wealthy – who happen to own a large portion of the U.S. economy – are, by definition, not as affected by the scarcity of resources, and so, economic conditions don’t affect how the wealthy live their lives nearly as much as they affect the rest of us. So how much real freedom one has is a function of how much money one has, how easy it is for one to withstand “economic storms.” If you’re very poor, economic conditions could very well determine whether you starve to death. If you’re very rich, economic conditions don’t affect you in significant ways at all.

U.S. policy-makers have made a choice to let the economy largely run itself. This choice is mostly an ideological one – based on the paradoxical notion that freedom is best promoted by relinquishing popular, democratic intervention in, and control over, the economy. For these ideologues, freedom equals subjection to the most nuanced whims of the market.

We should reject this notion. Freedom for the vast majority of us means that we should all be entitled to live at a certain level of comfort in spite of how the economy is doing: We should be guaranteed access to health care, to decent unemployment compensation, to be able to retire at a certain age and to have a say in our workplaces. We could have all of that, and more, if we demanded it from our government.

The United States has a long way to go before it becomes the freest nation on Earth for the average citizen.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]