By Chiara Riezzo.
According to free market proponents, the market ought to be based upon voluntary exchange and determined by the interaction between supply and demand without government intervention. In a society that wavers between technological advancements and human retrogression, they argue that the free market enables people to reach “the ultimate freedom” that social institutions are not able to guarantee. Currently, most major developed countries have embraced these free market principles and assumptions. Therefore, most advanced economies have a decentralized structure, allowing individuals and businesses to have full autonomy over the how, when, and where they can spend their money. However, by branding economic freedom as the only means toward reaching “the ultimate freedom”, proponents and its adherents are only telling one side of the story.
This article argues that although economic freedom can be guaranteed by the free market, political and social freedom are not. It challenges free market assumptions by asking the question – “Does making the market freer mean that the people are freer?”
Looking back at history, one can notice how deregulation in the marketplace does not come without consequences. During the first half of the 19th century, important aspects of economic activity, such as wage rates and food prices, were freely manipulated by powerful industrialists to increase their profits. Due to this lack of government regulation, this period saw a marked rise in strikes, riots, crimes, and radical political movements to challenge these capitalist employers. For example, during the period known as “the Gilded Age” in the United States, railroad workers in West Virginia went on strike after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) cut wages for the third time in a year. Known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, this strike spread to several states, including New York and Pennsylvania, with workers protesting for better wages and working conditions. Due to the unrest across the country, about 100 people were killed. This demonstrates how liberal capitalism can be a threat to social order due to its tendency to elevate the interests of the few over the many, thus limiting their social and political freedom.
In addition, by privileging a freer, more open market as the best means of achieving “the ultimate freedom” for people, political leaders run the risk of prioritizing economic development over social progress. A significant example is the African continent that has recently obtained the 22nd and last signature necessary to move forward with the creation of the African market. The creation of a single market is meant to remove tariffs and enhance cross-continental trade. At the same time, specialists say, the free single trade zone would attract more investments to the continent and significantly boost the economy. The project of an African single free market is an ambitious project that would undoubtedly further economic progress. However, it would not improve the standards of living of those people who need basic human rights more than economic freedom. Most people in Africa would still be facing issues that are far more urgent than those related to the market and the economic system: corruption, inequalities, women with no rights, patriarchy, education, water safety standards, etc. In the World Happiness Report, the African countries have the lowest scores and that is because the reality that people live in does not preserve their right to safety and security. Governments prioritise economic development but forget about the victims kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram back in 2014 so that, while families are waiting for their little girls to be brought back home, they can at least enjoy the free market in the meantime.
Furthermore, high economic freedom does not mean that places are immune against internal unrest. For instance, according to the 2019 Index of Economic Freedom World Rankings, Hong Kong earned first place with an overall score of 90.2. However, despite it being the economically freest country in the world, it has seen violent protests going on in the name of complete universal suffrage and justice against police brutality from April and August 2019. This illustrates the perverse paradox through which the free market operates and that the achievement of economic freedom for people should not be prioritized over the need for political and social freedom.
Additionally, while too much focus on economic development can lead to increased inequality and limited social progress, it can also have a psychological impact on society. Because interactions are increasingly more transactional, economic freedom can be easily misunderstood for individual freedom. Therefore, the freedom individuals seek in the 21st century is not purely freedom of choice and action but rather hedonism. Consequently, they end up being slaves of consumerism whose only freedom is that of being able to buy as many goods and products as they like. People in the free market are supposedly free to spend their own money the way they decide but, the truth is, they eventually spend it based on the subtle psychological manipulation exercised by materialism and mass culture.
As this article demonstrates, the degree to which the free market also brings personal freedom to the people is highly questionable. Moreover, it challenges those adherents of the free market religion to reconsider the role that the free market plays in the current social reality. In conclusion, to answer the question this article began with (‘Does making the market freer mean that the people are freer’), I would say that even though the free market proved itself to be key to successful economic development, it does not necessarily make people freer.