This may come as a surprise to you but everyone likes freedom. If you are not surprised then you might understand my frustration when I hear people using the word “freedom” to imply that their political opponents like slavery. However what exactly is meant by “freedom” is rather contentious and because of this the frequent libertarian claim that a minimal state with strictly enforced rules of private property and contracts will maximize individual freedom is at least initially unclear.
If by freedom you mean the ability to engage in whatever activity you like so long as you consent to it, and it doesn’t immediately harm anyone else, then yes in all likelihood libertarianism does actually provide the most freedom and similarly libertarian ideas provide you the most freedom from taxation (especially if you are wealthy). However if your conception of freedom involves safety from violations of your freedom be they private or public, the economic freedom that is having equality of opportunity, the freedom to not be discriminated against or not having to depend on the caprice of private charity when you find yourself in hard times then libertarian policies will not likely enhance your freedom.
Yet this is not a distinction I often hear made when discussing the freedom-enhancing abilities libertarian policies are supposed to have. The oft-made claim by libertarians is more akin to libertarian policies maximizing freedom in all of these areas, at least in the long run. One term which never leaves the discussion is coercion, which, according to libertarians, is the means by which any state is forced to operate. If you refuse to obey their policies they show up with guns! On the other hand, as Milton Friedman would say, in the free market individuals are “free to choose” which companies they will buy from and work for. If you don’t like the policies your boss has, you can work somewhere else. If you don’t like the quality of services at your local grocer, you can get your vegetables at another store. It’s this freedom which exists in the market which is supposed to be the ultimate path to our liberation and accordingly it’s this claim that I centrally take aim at here.
Take first the example of the freedom of workers. As was brilliantly pointed out over at Crooked Timber, in practice, in the “at-will” employment conditions favored by libertarians and largely implemented in the U.S., bosses grossly infringe on the freedom of their workers.* Private workers have no “right to not be fired without good reason” and they are told everything from when exactly they can or can’t pee to which political candidates they shall donate money to.** Far from being free, workers are in essence signing a blank contract that stipulates “you shall do whatever your boss says you shall do” on threat of being fired. The retort that the workers are free to leave and work elsewhere, falls flat. That freedom to leave is no more proof of workers’ freedom at work than it would be proof of the freedom of citizens in a dictatorship with a neighboring country which would accept any refugees that chose to leave. The fact that workers have signed contracts they can leave doesn’t mean they are free while they are in them nor does it mean they weren’t coerced with something other than explicit threat of violence.
…freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom.
More generally it should be noted that coercion, like most other things, comes in degrees and this is especially true if their is no public social safety net, as most libertarians would have it. If I am starving to death and you offer me $10,000 for my kidney it’s true that you didn’t threaten me but it’s hardly fair to say my choice was free in any meaningful sense. Unless there is a legitimate alternative to what is being proposed which preserves the basic human rights of all parties involved, one can’t say that all rules or contracts agreed to, no matter the circumstances, were truly free. Of course, where we draw the line as to what is fair or binding will be a value judgment but it’s just not true to say the elimination of the welfare state necessarily increases freedom given that some will be forced into extremely weak bargaining positions if that were to happen. Moreover eliminating the possibility of signing certain contracts, like the ability to sell yourself into slavery, is actually freedom preserving not only because you can’t be coerced into a situation where you might do it but also because it removes significant room for abuse.***
At best libertarian policies deliver one kind of freedom, the freedom to sign any contract you like and have your property rights forcefully defended, at the expense of others, like the freedom to not be put into extremely poor bargaining positions and freedom at work. Again libertarians can argue that this freedom of contract and property rights, or not being taxed, is more valuable than these other conceptions of freedom but what they can not argue with evidential support is that the minimum state they favor guarantees freedom in all these areas.
*The linked post from Crooked Timber is essential reading for anyone engaged in the libertarian vs. liberal debate or interested in worker’s rights under those different philosophies
**Perhaps most damning for me, some companies even banish people from criticizing religion on their personal blogs. And here I though I was merely doing this for free, while I may be in fact actively decreasing my income prospects.
***Though many libertarians reject the right to sell yourself into slavery, others don’t and I think it legitimately follows from their principle of self-ownership. No matter I can hardly imagine the horror of having courts decide which slavery contracts are legitimate, and which are kidnappings, and whether or not a first moment of consent could grant, say, a ten-year enslavement.