Freedom and the Free Market
8th February 2016

“Freeeeeedooooooommmm” – Braveheart

This post discusses ‘Freedom’, which is actually quite complex (because there are multiple conflicting aspects to it), and then discusses how Free the (so-called) Free Market is.

It’s a fairly long post, but it’s in sections. Battle that short attention span if you think it’s worth it.


Freedom is Complicated

Imagine a society in which there is complete freedom. Ah. You can’t. Though you might not have realised it yet. This is because the concept of ‘freedom’ which we have is not one which can increase, as such; rather, it’s a tension between different types of freedom. It’s a bit strange really – but it is rarely properly understood in journalism.

(There may be other models of discussing freedom; I’m using the one with positive vs negative, from Isaiah Berlin.)


Starting with: Negative Freedom

What we usually view as ‘freedom’ is being able to do what you want, in the sense that nobody is going to stop you doing it. Smoke weed, drive as fast as you want (without a seatbelt), not pay taxes, own a gun, build a huge house without planning permission, and so on. The libertarian version of ‘freedom’. This is negative freedom, the freedom which is concerned with not being interfered with from outside.

This version of freedom is usually done as ‘freedom from the government’, so the examples I gave earlier are all about laws.

But wait: what about freedom from other people? If John has the complete freedom to own a gun (and also to do whatever he wants with it), then this gives him an ability to kill other people. Immediately, we see that John’s freedom to kill anyone interferes with Abe’s freedom to not be killed. Yes, John could own a gun and still not be allowed to kill people, but this is a limit on ‘ownership’ (because ownership includes using something), and in any case, John’s owning a gun makes Abe at risk from being shot by it (because, as you might have noticed, people don’t follow all of the laws).

Both of these are ‘negative’ freedoms, but they are slightly different: John’s is between him and the government (‘vertical’ relationship citizen-state); Abe is between him and John (a ‘horizontal’ relationship between citizens). These are in direct conflict. Another example is that if people are free to smoke in public, then I am not free from breathing in their smoke (the flipside being that if my freedom to breath unpolluted air is protected, they are not free to smoke).

So with those quick example it is obvious that there cannot be unlimited freedom, because the freedoms are all conflicting with each other.

And this is the case with all freedoms. The freedom of assembly, for example, which is about citizens being allowed to assemble. Usually this means that the government cannot stop people congregating together (as might be done if certain religious or political groups are banned from meeting). But it also must mean that an assembly can exclude people, that religious group C can exclude religious group P from its meeting, otherwise religious group C cannot really meet together (this would matter if group P kept trying to interfere with group C). So within freedom of assembly, group P’s freedom is limited because they can be excluded from group C’s meetings – or otherwise, group C’s freedom to assemble is compromised because they can’t actually meet as a group unless C is excluded.

At some point while studying German constitutional law, I saw that all freedoms (in the form of rights in the constitution) are conflicting with each other. Freedom of speech is limited in that we cannot discuss how to make bombs (terrorism offences) and we cannot try to tell people to kill certain people (hate speech), which are to protect the freedom to live. Privacy, a sort of freedom of self, comes up against free speech (defamation, for example, or printing stories about people’s private lives). Freedom to own property is really about excluding people from other places: in terms of land, free movement would mean no limits on going anywhere, which would mean nobody could own a house.

So yes, it’s all messy and complicated, and there is no way to maximise freedom because freedom is in conflict with freedom. But so far that’s only looking at the ‘negative freedom’ conception, showing that there must be vertical limits on freedom to ensure horizontal freedom (ie, in order to protect people from each other, the government must limit what people can do).


Now for: Positive Freedom

A different take on freedom looks at positive freedom. Negative freedom is the one that has prevailed in political and cultural thought, that’s what we’re used to, but I think that positive freedom is the more important one and the one we should be striving for in progress.

Whereas Negative Freedom was a ‘freedom from interference’ (external limitations), Positive Freedom is about empowerment and the ability to do things. Negative Freedom looks at ‘technicality’ or theoretical possibility; Positive Freedom looks at reality and actual ability.

My favourite example is that of being teleported into an empty desert. There are zero limits to your freedom in a negative sense: you can do whatever you want to and go whereever you want to – the libertarian dream! But you can’t actually ‘do’ much: you are in a desert, for a start, so you can’t go swimming. You were teleported there alone, so you can’t talk to. You have a gun with you and are really angry, but there is nobody else to shoot. Oh, and unless you find some water and shelter and food, you will die quite soon. So you aren’t really ‘free’ in a positive sense, not just because it isn’t an advantageous situation but because there is nothing you can positively do.

That’s a bit of a silly example, so I’ll give some real ones. Say you own a car and have a driving license, and there is nobody stopping you from going anywhere (such as parents or somebody kidnapping you) – so you are fully free in the negative sense of there not being anything external limiting you – but unless you have petrol and there are some sort of roads and infrastructure, you can’t actually use the car and go anywhere. Merely owning a car does not make you free. Or perhaps you are a refugee and you wish to flee an evil barbarian horde, and the neighbouring country is a safe haven for refugees: unless you have sufficient provisions for the journey and know where you are going, you aren’t positively free to actually do it. For a third example: somebody who is addicted to a drug or suffering from a severe depression is not being limited externally in any way, but there is a huge deficit in their positive freedom because there could be a great many things that they can’t actually do.

Perhaps another way of phrasing it is that negative freedom is looking at the options people have and positive freedom is about their ability to make use of the options.

So far, so good, and this looks just like a better version of freedom than the ‘negative’ conception. I’ll admit that I’m not sure whether ‘positive freedom’ is an updated version of ‘negative freedom’ – because perhaps if you are looking at a positive ability to do things, this includes not only lack of enabling factors (in above examples, petrol or food or knowing where to go) but also limits on it (a threat of imprisonment because you don’t have a driving license, or an angry parent who has grounded you). But my feeling is that they are different lenses to look at freedom in, with different benefits and weaknesses: negative freedom highlights external limits far better than positive freedom, if we were discussing wealthy and knowledgable people living in a dictatorial regime.

There aren’t tensions and conflicts between different positive freedoms in the same way as between negative freedoms, but there can still be practical conflicts: not everyone can go to the fireworks in London because there isn’t enough space, not everyone can spend all of their time playing computer games because someone has to grow, prepare, cook and serve them food.

A fully-realised positive freedom conception could be what is described as ‘The American Dream’ (though in reality, America is not the best place for the American Dream), that anyone who works hard at it is able to do whatever they want. Better places for it are Scandinavian countries – measured in terms of social mobility – because more services are provided by the state. If the government provides people with good education and healthcare then they are better able to have the freedom to do things.


Tension between Positive and Negative Freedom Conceptions?

Perhaps positive freedom is not as directly in tension with negative freedom as I could show above with Abe and John, negative freedoms competing against each other. But there are still tensions.

Sometimes, you have to limit people’s negative freedom to give positive freedom. Say, for example, that children like to just watch television, because it’s addictive and instant reward and appeals to short-term happiness. Parents instead limit their TV time and get them to do hobbies like music or sport. The child has more positive freedom. The discipline and structure (in protecting them from flashy shiny children’s TV programmes) enables them to do more.

Perhaps another area of conflict might be that to enable certain activities, others have to be limited. So you aren’t allowed to play football in the street in order to make it possible for cars to drive through it.

A more pressing tension follows on from where the previous section left of, which I’ll discuss with the example of education provision. Say there is a problem with wealth inequality (there definitely is in this country!), where some people in society are born into rich families and others into poor ones. Say the rich ones have more ability to educate their children: send them to better schools, pay for tutors and holidays and other activities, whereas the poor ones cannot. At the end of their education, the ones born rich find it easier to get certain jobs and earn more money. There is no difference in their negative freedom, nobody is stopping the poor kids from becoming doctors and astronauts and entrepeneurs… but it is much harder for the poor kids to do. The rich kids have a much greater positive freedom in this sense.

To remedy this, the government could provide high-quality education for all. This (in theory) provides the poor kids with the same opportunity (and so positive freedom) as the rich kids – if the quality is the same. (In reality, the state doesn’t usually provide the same standard as what rich people can pay for). To make it fully equal, perhaps you have to ban people from going outside the state school system – limiting their freedom in the negative sense in order to equalise their positive freedoms. So that could be a tension.

That issue aside though, how does the state provide this education? One method (though not the only method, it is the common one) is by taxation. Taxation can be seen (and rightly so) as a limit on your negative freedom. You earn some money, but some of it gets taken by the government (income tax). You want to buy something from somebody else, but you have to pay 20% of the price you pay to the government (VAT).

And so the postive freedom from the education is provided for by limiting freedoms via taxation. And further, if people have less money (because some goes to the government in tax), then this is a loss of some of their positive freedom too, because they are less able to do things because they have less money (though the impact of this is much less for people with lots of money already).

This is the same for many things provided by the state – healthcare (in the UK, for now at least), infrastructure, military defence, and so on.

Currently, the government employs enough people in schools to enable this – but what if there weren’t enough teachers? The government could respond by forcing people to be teachers, which would limit the freedom of these people by requiring them to be teachers. Sounds a bit of an extreme example – but that’s how conscription works in the military!

Note: I’m not going to discuss socialism further. While it could be part of this discussion, it’s a different sort of discussion, about political values and economic realities, whereas I want to stick to discussing freedom for now. And also because any public service provided by the state is a form of ‘socialism’, but instead it’s a misunderstood dirty word thrown around political discussions.


Onto the “Free” Market

What I really wanted to talk about is ‘the free market’, but there was a lot of foundation to cover with discussing ‘freedom’. The discussion above shows that ‘freedom’ is a complex thing.

Yet when the language of ‘free market’ is used, it is talking solely about the ability of businesses to do what they want without limits. The focus is the vertical negative freedom. So when there is some form of government regulation, this is viewed as going against the “free” market (and this usually comes from a political/economic view that an unconstrained market is the best for everyone).

I’ll leave the political/economic view alone for now… though the “trickle-down theory” has been shown to be a myth and growing inequality has been proven… and the people who espouse that view tend to be the ones who benefit from it…

We can see what sort of ‘freedoms’ are desired by a ‘free market’ by looking at the sort of government regulations that exist. Contract law is a start – businesses are bound to fulfil contracts, they don’t have the ‘freedom’ to not live up to an agreement they have made (or at least, they have to pay compensation when they don’t). This includes employment contracts, especially when the government creates a load of regulations which protect employees from their employers (because, definitely since the decline of unions, the employer has much more power than individual employees!): there is a minimum wage; employers must not discriminate against employees (Equality Acts); they must provide a minimum amount of holiday; they may not require employees to work more than a certain amount per week; they cannot fire them at will (in most of America, they can!); they cannot bully or harrass or physically assault employees. There are certain minimum quality standards which must be provided for most products (one that comes to mind is that it must be of sufficient quality to last at least six months). And there are various environmental regulatory regimes which mean that businesses aren’t allowed to pollute in some ways, such as emptying chemicals or sewage into rivers or putting more than a certain amount of various gases into the air.

So a fully free market (in the way that this phrase is meant) would not have any of these constrains and would have all of these freedoms. Perhaps you think I’ve taken this too far, so I’ll give substantiate some of these claims. There are commentators who argue against a minimum wage and claim that it forces business to may more than labour is worth (this ‘worth’ is determined by the market, which is partly determined by how able businesses are to exploit workers by forcing wages down) and that it means that low-value workers can’t get a job.

In the UK, the banking system is still somewhat unregulated – despite some calls for more regulation following the 2008 crashes… It’s somewhat absurd. The press is also quite unregulated – despite an inquiry commissioned by the Government (the Leveson inquiry) to have a look at it, the Government simply ignored most of the recommendations – meaning among other things that they are quite free to lie to the public without much consequence (such as the Sun reporting that 1 in 5 muslims are sympathetic to Jihad, though that wasn’t asked and it was no different to non-muslim reponses, Corbyn slurs, and many Daily Mail stories with made up stats on immigration and benefits stats).

If we look abroad at how business is conducted in other countries – including by many of the corporations which operate in this country – we see that in the worst examples, employees are paid very little money and routinely abused. Workers who try to organise against this, such as by trying to form unions, are tortured and murdered (and this is in the supply chain of clothes we buy in this country). Much of our clothing is made by workers paid pennies per hour and in factories which are quite unsafe – see for example this fire.

A quick rebuttal of sweatshop apologism, which says that “well at least they have a job”, meaning that they have chosen to work for 10p per hour instead of 5p per hour; which ignores that 10p per hour can’t buy them enough food for the week, and that it isn’t a real choice to work or starve, and that part of the reason the wage is low is because it got lowered by the powerful employers and the people trying to organise unions are murdered and corporations pay the governments to create zones without the usual labour regulation.

So the key part of what the ‘free market’ demands in its freedom is the freedom to exploit people, to conduct business in ways which are not acceptable to our society (lies and intimidation and murder), and to damage the environment in which they exist.

Using the understandings of freedom we have discussed earlier, it could be seen that part of the reason that the businesses freedoms are limited (limits by government on what they can do) is to protect the freedoms of their employees and of society as a whole. This is the same clash of freedom as shown earlier, that full freedom for one means a lack of freedom for another; in particular, this is corporations’ freedom being limited vertically in order to protect others horizontally.
Side-Note on Globalisation

The approach here – where language is co-opted to frame the narrative in a way which favours the dominant power strucuture, where freedom in a free market is framed around the freedom of the corporation to do what it wishes – is analogous to the way that the language of ‘globalisation’ is used. You might not have realised this either – as is common with many words in political discourse which are thrown around but not explained. We hear the word a lot, the global economy and so on, but what does it mean? It means that business and economics is more interwoven across the world: but only in the ability to conduct business. The freedoms that have been ‘globalised’ are the freedoms beneficial to corporations and money: establishing companies/corporations; moving goods and money between different countries; importing and exporting goods. Yet the people remain as un-globalised as ever: the borders exist still, and people cannot move where they want. If you live in an area with low wages, you cannot leave to a place with higher wages; you must stay where you are and be exploited. This isn’t really globalisation in a full sense – we aren’t really becoming more global as a community, it’s just the globalisation of business.


What about a ‘positive freedom’ conception of the free market?

A full analysis of this would be interesting, though that would be a lot of work, so just a few thoughts here.

The most important thing is that this is the lens through which we should approach the market, instead of the ‘free from’ negative conception. This is used because of the normative underpinning which is roughly something like “the most important thing is ‘the economy’ doing well and the best way for the economy to do well is to allow business to be left to do its thing” – this is ‘neoliberalism’, from the Thatcher and Reagen era, which was taken up by New Labour and carried on by the Conservative Party.

(Of course, there are many flaws in this… by measuring GDP as a whole it misses out on distribution and inequality; it assumes that £££ is the same as well-being, which is obviously not true; and it only looks at £££, so things that are not monetised are not factored in. On that last point: to some degree this seems to be the purpose of capitalism, to replace social interactions with financial ones… This is too tangential.)

Looking at the labour market in particular. As discussed above, the ‘free market’ is really about the freedom to exploit. This is usually discussed in the language of being “competitive” – if you pay your workers less, then you can have lower prices and compete better with other companies and countries – or in the language of “flexibility”, whereby a flexible labour force means that companies can fire and hire with ease and require people to move around the country to where employment exists.

If you are poor, you are easier to exploit. When somebody offers them a low-paid job, they have no choice but to take it – because otherwise they starve, or lose their house, or whatever. An absurdly high number of workers are living without much savings, paycheck to paycheck, which means that they get stuck in the jobs they are in. You can’t take time out and retrain in a different area, or even try to find a company that will treat you better. The way that so-called “benefits” (to my mind, incorrectly called because social security is not a benefit but something deserved) for Job Seekers Allowance work is that you have to take jobs, or else payments are taken away from you. So many graduates get stuck in this: they have no real choice but to find a job quickly, and once you are stuck in the job it’s hard to change job. Perhaps you want to work in a particular area long-term, but short-term have to take something else, then you get kind-of stuck. In many areas it’s absurd, with expectations and requirements for internships that are unpaid, especially in creative sectors.

I am lucky at the moment and not in that position: I’ve graduated university and was able to move home to live with my parents, who provide me with somewhere to live, some food to eat, laundry services, and on occasion a car I can use to get around. From this empowerment, it means that I can take my time and choose what I do (for the record, I have earned some money freelancing as a parkour coach and as a research assistant for a couple of professors at Oxford, but it wouldn’t have been quite enough money for me to live self-sufficiently). I have had more leisure time to relax, read more, and write more.

So this is how the labour market works in a ‘free market’: people are free to be exploited. This is why at present, many people work for below the ‘living wage’ (the wage at which somebody earns enough to afford a comfortable life: in London, around £9.30 or so, to afford rent and food and travel costs and have some left over). It’s clearly not enough money for a decent life, but they have no choice.

I’ve felt for awhile that this is why homelessness (and low benefits) is allowed to exist. If we were serious on a “war on poverty” (instead of political rhetoric or co-opting this language into a neoliberal agenda like the current government is). We could (and should), if we wanted, pay to make sure that nobody is homeless. South Africa’s constitution includes a right to housing; Utah has a programme which gives homeless people a house (no strings attached) – as it happens, they do this because it is actually cheaper to provide them with a small apartment than it is to deal with the social costs (in the UK: mostly in NHS costs and policing costs).

What I would love to have is a “free market” where the workers have a great deal of freedom in a positive sense. In this, everybody would have what I have: the freedom to choose to work, when to work, and what work to do. This is the positive freedom version of the ‘free market’, where nobody (including the circumstance of needing money) is forcing you to work, and everybody is sufficiently empowered to have more choice. (There are of course practical limits as discussed above: not everybody can be a professional footballer, and certain industries might require more intelligent people than others, a priority being nuclear safety).

In the past there was much less mobility, with feudalism and serfdom and slavery, and without state education and healthcare so that poor people were stuck as poor people. So hooray that we have progressed from that! But it could certainly be more free, and that’s what matters: by changing to a positive freedom lens to look at the labour market, we can discuss how to progress.

How do we get this sort of free market? A good education system is a start, as discussed above. There is still a lot of inequality in the UK for this, many schools are not as good as others (both among state schools and with private schools). There is money available to go to university, though if you also have to work to get you through that puts you at a disadvantage, but only for undergraduate level: if you want to study further, then you need a scholarship or family money.

Similarly, a state-funded health service like the NHS is great: in contrast in America, where health insurance is often part of the job (either directly through an employee plan, or indirectly because you need the money to pay for it), people are much more bound into their jobs, making changing job or being more choosy about jobs tougher.

Something else that could be done which would improve our ‘freedom’ would be a citizen’s income. whereby everybody in the country gets given enough money to live off by default, so that nobody has to work. Then people only work when they want to – or at least, people are more able to survive without work, instead of the current necessity of working to get money to survive, so people are more empowered and less pressured in their decisions.

(Citizens income is also known as Basic Income, Universal Basic Income, Citizens Wage, and so on)

No doubt to many the idea of a citizen’s income is absurd, and it goes very much against the capitalist fabric of society and protestant work ethic that we have. People object that then everybody would just live ‘sponging off the system’, among other objections. People might work less! Who would do all the jobs that nobody wants to do! (Subtext: when poor people aren’t required to do it by circumstance). It runs counter to the ‘free market’ of business exploitation of workers, by giving would-be workers much more agency and freedom in choosing whether to work, which is why it is so attacked.

I could carry on writing more about such an idea – in fact, an earlier draft of this had more, but was removed in editing – but that is a different topic for a different post. As it happens, I didn’t invent the idea and there is much written about it, including some pilot trials in various cities, elsewhere. This post was about discussing what freedom is and having a think about what the ‘free market’ means, and that has been completed; Universal Basic Income is a different topic to this, though it is of course helped by this better understanding of the “free market”.

That discussion was just for the labour market – partly because it’s easier to look at people’s freedom in a market where people are what is rented – but it could be done in general too. A ‘positive freedom’ market approach might do more to look at things like social mobility, how much choice people have in their jobs, how able people are to move around geographically, people’s access to education and healthcare and childcare, access to sport and leisure facilities, quality of life, and things like environmental factors (such as air quality, access to nature, and so on). This is quite different to the current ‘neoliberal’ approach, which (as said above) focuses on GDP as the most important thing and measurement of how well ‘the economy’ is doing, which gets confused (or at least, doesn’t bother testing its assumptions) by assuming that if lots of money is involved in business transactions we are all better off, or by current standard economic thinking that simply equates our ‘welfare’ with how much money we have. Economics can well be adapted to look at what I’m discussing here – how best to allocate resources to make us all better off – it just isn’t the current focus.

I’ll leave it there for now.



This post touched upon many different topics, such as homelessness and sweatshops and environmental pollution, and economics is interwoven throughout. While in many places I might have wanted to expand more and explain what I meant, I did not do this because that would interupt the narrative of this topic. If anything interests you further, or you’d like me to explain myself or give more evidence, then please feel free to google it yourself or ask me a question about it, preferably in the comments below. Feedback on this writing is, as always, greatly appreciated, as long as it is either positive or constructive.



Comments – constructive please – very welcome, especially as I’ve not studied any of this philosophy stuff properly…