There are plenty of things that seem to be my privilege to do. I’m permitted to earn a living and sell my produce; to vote for the party I consider will best govern and do so in my interest; I can think what I’d like to think and say what I’d like to say, and so on. But in reality, many of the freedoms that we champion and consider cornerstones of our society, or cite them when engaged in another frustrating online debate, aren’t real. There are so many exceptions to the rules that the rules really don’t make sense any more. It doesn’t make sense to say, “It’s a free country!” – that’s far too vague.
Freedom must surely be absolute in order to be meaningful. I do not think that we can call a society free if one of its members is a slave, be it one member in one hundred or one member in one hundred thousand. By this standard, we do not live in a free society with a free market economy and the freedom to express ourselves.
Despite all our admiration for it, freedom of speech does not truly exist in the United Kingdom. We do not have the opportunity to speak without any fear of censorship. One can still be censored for comments deemed to be inciting racial or religious hatred. Encouraging people to ‘breach the peace’ will result in bad consequences for the inciter. Not all criticism of individuals or organisations is welcome either: comments deemed to be libel are often the source of several legal cases in court.
Neither are we able to express ourselves freely. Businessmen are not allowed to refuse the employment of individuals based on their race, sex, sexuality, politics or foreign background, regardless of the reasons, good or bad, for their discrimination. Media productions, such as films, must be watched and reviewed by specialists who decide whether the content is suitable for public consumption. Not every film is allowed to be watched, or bought and sold, in our country. Bad taste or poor quality can hamper anything’s publication.
Neither do we live in a society with a free market, as a free market has never existed and never will. There has never been nor will there be a market without regulation. Ensuring that the market is free by keeping government out of the equation as much as possible is a vain mission, which shows that it’s politics, rather than economics, that is one’s motivation. The Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang writes:
Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It’s a political definition.
Some things simply aren’t commodities – votes, school places, friendship; many jobs or commonplace actions (like driving) require licenses. See Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets for more. In a truly free market, we would be able to purchase babies, organs, drugs, people, politicians and friendship. Would you really want that kind of market? Perhaps it’s not truly free for good reasons.
There are things which we are free to say but not without upsetting people. Dinner parties are lovely occasions but not every topic of conversation is welcome. A dating website I quickly consulted lists sex, money, religion, politics, personal health problems, hygiene, embarrassing past moments, comparisons to others and comparisons to other food as off-limits themes. In older times, wealth and class were also dinnertime taboos. But observing what might turn an evening sour is not an expression of a limit to freedom of speech. I’m still able to talk about sex at the dinner table with my family (if I were mad enough).
People can hold their negative opinions against someone because of their race etc. but they cannot express them, not necessarily because they are forbidden to but instead because they are aware of the consequences. Criticism of religion, for example, is something that in a ‘free’ society we are permitted to do, but something that many people, whether sceptical or atheist, choose not to do because they’d rather not upset their religious friends. Sadly the repercussions of such criticism can be more than just a punch, but they tend to come from people who’d rather have criticism outlawed, and so aren’t committed to the freedom to which we are.
But perhaps the limitations upon our freedom are justified with the good intentions with which they were constructed. Would you want to live in a society in which people could say exactly what they liked about you and publish anything they wanted, truthful or libellious, supported or inaccurate? Would you want to live in an economy where children could be employed or you could be bought and become someone’s property?
Yes, freedom is constrained, but for good reasons. On many occasions I would rather my freedom were limited in order for my wellbeing to be realised, and I would wish this upon everyone else. I don’t mind preventing one person from purchasing and owning another person because I believe that slavery is abhorrent and ensuring its ban is more important than the liberty of the individual to own souls as property. Having a minimum wage might be a counterproductive move in the eyes of some economists, but I would rather that there were a basic income upon which people could survive than have a market that allowed £1-an-hour jobs to exist.
I see these limitations as important social advancements, not strangleholds on liberty that need to be removed. Maybe, therefore, we don’t really live in a free society with a free market; but isn’t that a good thing?
Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (London: Penguin, 2012)