The Freedom to Starve

It is typically conceded that a starving man is not free, and this marks the alleged defining flaw of a free market, the commoditization of labor. The contention is that the relationship between employers and employees is really no different than the relationship between muggers and their victims: obey or die. Typically, market opponents raise this objection to the classical liberal meaning of freedom as the negation of physical force from interpersonal relationships. They contend that meaningful freedom must also include the material means to act on that freedom.

But the anti-market conception of freedom is only recognizing the “yoke of external nature,” as anarcho-communist Mikhail Bakunin called it. Or like Wesley Bertrand on a recent “Complete Liberty” podcast said, “Life is the freedom to starve.” This yoke cannot be removed so long as we are alive. It is the everlasting condition underlying every action we make: to live or die, to improve our material condition or suffer. To say that a starving man is not free is to reverse cause and effect. Consumption only becomes possible after production. It is only through production that an individual can provide for his well-being. A starving man has fewer opportunities to take advantage of his freedom, but also at no other time is his freedom of more value. Without it, his mind would be paralyzed to think, ensuring his destruction.

The root conflict between my understanding of liberty and someone like Bakunin, for example, is I believe that indirect and direct physical force are the only means of violating someone’s rights. All libertarians committed to non-aggression would agree that if a starving man is prevented by physical force from engaging in productive action, then he is not free. Bakunin is correct that the right to liberty is only of significance in the realm of interpersonal relationships, but I contend that that the only way of impeding someone’s rights is by force. We can be victims of our neighbor’s irrationality or bigotry. But so long as that injustice is not manifested in the unauthorized use or abuse of another’s rightly controlled property or person, the damage is psychological and not physical. We remain free to use our minds and the products of our mind as we see fit. We remain free to use the property in question to inform others of the injustice we received.

For those of political power, freedom is an outright threat to the existence of their power. That is because its origin is vested in violence and sought through favoritism, so the static quantity of its influence must increasingly become cartelized into fewer and fewer hands. That system can distribute wealth, but it cannot create it. Their power extents only so far as they can project authority over others or convince others they too can benefit from that power. For those of economic power, they are insulated from the harsh realities of tyrannical governments and can position themselves to profit from partnering with the state. So it is natural for the two to protect each of their interests. One has a legal monopoly on coercion, but not the ability to create wealth of its own. The other has wealth, but not supposed the authority to initiate the use of physical force.

It is important not to forget that political and economic interests acquire power from fundamentally different sources. The former confiscates wealth and subjugates individuals as a matter of course, while the latter serves to disperse power through mutually beneficial exchange (to the degree it does not cling to political power). Economic power, when not acquired by physical force, is a product of the limitless creative process, consensual regulation, market competition, and organized labor.

Confusing the two as one in the same leads to the support for less liberty and less opportunity. An example of this is the famed anarchist Noam Chomsky, who actively supports the expansion of state control. While justly viewing the state as a tool of domination and privilege, he looks to the state for protection from the same interests he believes are manipulating it in their favor.

In an interview, he said:

I’m not in favour of people being in cages. On the other hand I think people ought to be in cages if there’s a sabre-toothed tiger wandering around outside and if they go out of the cage the sabre-toothed tiger will kill them. … And there is a cage, namely the state, which to some extent is under popular control. The cage is protecting people from predatory tyrannies so there is a temporary need to maintain the cage, and even to extend the cage.

Under a banner of protecting people from the infringement of political privilege, Chomsky has become a tool of entrenched political interests. It is also not lost on me that economic power disparities can be seized upon and manipulated in favor of one side of an exchange more than another. No political model can guarantee that people will act justly. But one can minimize the consequences of injustice and promote the occurrence of mutually positive interactions. To do this, a just society would need a widespread recognition for private property rights, but that is not sufficient to ensure that freedom would have much meaning. Here, I agree with Bakunin that individuals are only capable of achieving emancipation once they have recognized their same humanity in others. As Mary Ruwart said in “Healing Our World,” when we seek to control others, we find ourself the one controlled.

As a practical matter, a lasting libertarian society would more likely come about by a widespread cultural shift of accepting the choices of others, treating others equally as individuals, and becoming less obedient to oppressors. Most people do not become libertarians out of a duty to the non-aggression principle. They are attracted to the sense of justice and fairness inherent in equal liberty.

A free market would be a more abundant society and would radically expand the scope of economic opportunity. It would also be more efficient at helping the disabled and poor, who are often the most devastated victims of political favoritism. Without the expense of tax collection and tax compliance, together which gobble up two-thirds of welfare revenue received, those in need would experience dramatic increases in charity. It should go without saying that when I am talking about the free market, I am not apologizing for economic conditions as they exists now in America or elsewhere. I am working analytically to explain the economic consequences of an unhampered market process. To the extent that an unhampered market existed, one could expect these consequences to follow.

A practiced and still principled way of promoting a libertarian society is by addressing people’s legitimate concerns of what would happen to the less fortunate in a free society. Direct action, like mutual aid, social ostracism, and counter-economics, should be potent models to demonstrate the validity of equal liberty while also challenging the status quo. The downside of charity is that it tends to be a short-lived solution, so I do believe mutual aid would be a better way of promoting social harmony and overcoming the root cause of despair — if we are going to be free, not by vote, but as a matter of virtue.

Image credit: couchmedia, with a Creative Commons license