The Case Against Freedom, Part V: Slavery Is Freedom

Robert Kuttner, professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School and senior fellow of the think tank Demos, believes that libertarians suffer from a delusion. He claims that the market is incompetent to price certain problems, and must be tightly controlled by government to prevent excess and abuse.

In a piece written for The American Prospect, where he serves as co-founder and co-editor, Kuttner submits examples which he believes demonstrate market failure. We rebutted his analysis in parts one and two of this series. Unsurprisingly, Kuttner’s assertions arise from a Marxist worldview wherein natural disparities in both wealth and knowledge require government activism to equalize “power.” We explored a couple of the fatal flaws of that perspective in part three. Most recently, we addressed the proper role of government in the market.

To close out the series, let’s take a look at the foundation upon which Kuttner builds his case against freedom. In Orwellian fashion, he attacks liberty by redefining it:

In the idealized libertarian world, individuals are “free to choose”—never mind that some are born with far more resources with which to choose than others…

Beyond assuming away inherited disparities, the Hayek-Friedman equation of markets and freedom leaves out the role of government in promoting affirmative liberties. A young person from a poor family who does not need to incur crippling debt to attend university is a freer person. A low-income mother who cannot afford to pay the doctor attains a new degree of freedom when she and her children are covered by Medicaid. A worker who might be compelled to choose between his job and his physical safety becomes freer if government health and safety regulations are enforced. The employee of a big-box store who can take paid family leave when a child gets sick is freer than one whose entire life is at the whim of the boss; likewise a worker with a union contract that provides protection from arbitrary dismissal or theft of wages. An elderly person saved from destitution by a government-organized Social Security pension has a lot more liberty than one bagging groceries at age 80 to make ends meet, or one choosing between supper and filling a prescription. An aspiring homeowner who doesn’t need to spend countless hours making sure that the mortgage won’t explode is freer to spend leisure time on other activities if government is certifying which financial products are sound and is prohibiting other kinds.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Yes, we do get the idea. Rather then deal with liberty as such, Kuttner would prefer to conflate it with resources.

Liberty is not the capacity to act as you wish or get what you want when you want it. Liberty offers life free from coercion. Kuttner’s attempt to portray liberty as resources ignores the manner in which resources comes into existence. Someone has to produce the products and services, provide the healthcare, earn the money, pick the cotton. Someone has to work. To the extent the beneficiary of that work is not the person doing it, we have slavery.

Indeed, Kuttner’s version of freedom stands as a rationalization for slavery. Plantation owners in the pre-Civil War south enjoyed “a new degree of freedom” on the backs of their slaves. If we define freedom as Kuttner suggests, as the capacity to enjoy that produced by others, than one man’s “freedom” requires another man’s chains.

Kuttner’s cited “affirmative liberties” place claims upon the lives of others. Negative liberties, which are the only legitimate sort, demand only that you “don’t tread on me.” So-called affirmative liberties demand that people be tread upon.

True to form, Kuttner rests his case against freedom on an appeal to envy. Generally, he stokes envy against those who have more. Particularly, he incites contempt for those who inherited what they have.

To paraphrase him, Kuttner argues that freedom doesn’t work because we have not each begun from the same starting block. Some have wealthier parents, lighter skin, better schools. The market does not handicap for such advantages, and therefore proves unfair.

Like the broader envy toward those with more wealth, inheritance envy ignores the means by which wealth comes into existence. Someone created it. Whoever that was, they own it. What difference does it make to the rest of us whether a wealth creator blows their earnings or passes it onto an heir? How does that affect our capacity to do what we must to create our own wealth?

If we take one point away from our time in Kuttner’s mind, it should be that slavery has not been abolished. Slavery lives. More than that, it thrives in the academy, in the culture, and most especially in our government. The notion that some men should labor so that others may benefit has never died. It’s merely been repackaged from an overt institution of human chattel to a more politically correct contempt for those who succeed.