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What is Freedom?

January 27, 2011

In its quest for scientific objectivity and prestige, economics has tended to shy away from normative evaluations. Paul Krugman may favor a generous welfare state, and Thomas Sowell unfettered competition, but both economists imagine themselves to be simply describing the world as it is — as do their peers. Hence, Krugman and his saltwater peers assume that “the facts have a liberal bias,” and freshwater economists do just the opposite.

In previous posts, I have insisted that factual assertions are always value-laden. (As does Thomas Stork in this excellent discussion of the role “power and institutions” play in determining wages.) It would appear that at least one economist agrees: Harvard business professor Edward L. Glaeser, who identifies “human freedom” as the moral core of the economics discipline, and who cites Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill as examples of economists who saw freedom as “a fundamental good, a thing to be valued for itself.”

In elaborating this point, Glaeser runs into the same problem his Enlightenment predecessors did: defining freedom. If it is true that economists assume that freedom of choice is “the fundamental objective of public policy,” shouldn’t they at least establish what that objective entails?

Apparently not:

Economists’ fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program. A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution, which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its emphasis on anticyclical public spending.

Many regulations can even be seen as force for freedom, like financial rules that help give all investors the freedom to invest in stocks by trying to level the playing field.

Freedom might mean wealth redistribution and regulation of the financial sector, but it might not. Despite having quoted John Stuart Mill as saying that “the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it,” Glaeser now acknowledges that freedom is compatible with “increasing one person’s choices at the expense” of another. Mill gave us a definition of freedom that — however flawed — is at least clear-cut. Glaeser allows freedom to become a balancing act, but does not profess to know how or whether it should be performed.

When it comes to “human interaction and trade,” however, Glaeser reverts to Mill’s definition of freedom, understood within a distinctly neoliberal framework. For Glaeser and other economists (including Krugman!), it is simply misguided to argue that the choices of a sweatshop worker ought to be increased at the expense of the choices of a Nike, Walmart, or Starbucks. Somehow, in the case of NAFTA and other trade agreements, freedom does imply a particular policy program.

But why? Is freedom not possible apart from competition within a capitalist system? Were the small farmers of Mexico unfree before their country opened its borders to American corn? Is freedom $1.00 per hour at a Maquiladora? Is it becoming an undocumented worker in a foreign land just to survive?

Is choosing capitalism freedom?

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