This essay is about liberty. As background I will provide a brief summary of the conclusions of the first essay in this “Invisible Hand” series which examined the physical object nature of our money and some of the unfortunate consequences of that nature.
All money in history (and pre-history) has been considered to be or to represent physical objects such as a basket of grain, a cow, a coin, or a paper bill. Today most money is in computer accounts and though it zips around the world from account to account at almost the speed of light, it still is treated as if it were a physical object of some sort. Because we treat money as if it were a physical object, anything which is true of physical objects in general will also be true of money. This obvious point is ignored by economists and others who talk and write about money, even though it is the most important truth about money. The importance of the physical object nature of money cannot be overstated. What follows are some consequences of that physical object nature.
First, money is like other physical objects in that it can be taken from its owner against the owner’s will by force, fraud, or stealth and it can be lost or destroyed. This means that you need to suspect almost everyone of trying to get your money by fair means or foul.
Second, money must be amoral because all inanimate physical objects are amoral. Even animals are amoral in that they have neither an ethical sense nor morality, especially when they are used as commodity money. You can use your physical object money for anything, good or bad.
Third, the money supply is independent of the supply of goods and services for sale because the supply of one physical object is independent of the supply of other objects.
Fourth, money falsely simulates a zero-sum game in monetary transactions because the money gained by one party must be lost by some other party or parties. Money makes us think that other people can gain money at our expense and that we can only gain money at their expense. It makes us treat others as if they were competitors, rivals, opponents, or even enemies.
Fifth, money is almost impossible for a society or nation to control. In every nation that attempts to limit, regulate, or tax trade a black market comes to exist; and organized crime flourishes in all nations.
Sixth, money transactions are two-party interactions. Two-party interaction is inherently unstable because if one party gets an advantage in power such as having more money, the stronger party can use that power to gain still more advantages. This is particularly true of money. The old saying “them as has, gets” is true. Possession of money does make getting more money quite a lot easier. Naturally, the weaker party in such two-party interaction will eventually want to end the interaction. Thus the relationship is unstable.
So keeping that review in mind, let’s consider liberty.
As usual I turn to Wikipedia. I figure that will provide us with something of a consensus as to meanings for the concepts we take up and it’s a source you can check for yourself if you suspect that I am misrepresenting something. Remember that I do make mistakes from time to time.
The short definition of liberty given is QUOTE “the quality individuals have to control their own actions.” UNQUOTE I don’t like that word “quality” there. I would prefer something like power or ability or capacity. We could even use for our definition “that state of being in which individuals have control of their own actions.” Naturally the word “control” is crucial here and the various meanings and considerations in that concept will give a wide variety of understandings to the concept of liberty.
Now one understanding of “control” would be an absolute in which the body is so physically constrained that movement is severely limited or the contractions of the muscles are at the whim of some other person. So a person locked in a box or a person whose spine is severed or something like the situation in the Heinlein novel “Puppet Masters” would be required to say that one did not have liberty. By such an extreme understanding of control, virtually everyone is always at liberty, even slaves. So we’ll throw out that kind of “control” for our purposes.
At the other extreme, we can say that control by someone else is at the level of influence such as is exerted by advertising. If we get a one percent increase in sales as a result of an ad we could say that the advertisers exerted control over the public. But that kind of influence is so common as to be pointless. I hold the door for a lady and she thanks me. I made her thank me by holding the door for her so I controlled her actions. Or I extend my hand for a shake when meeting someone for the first time and control their response thereby, getting them to extend their hand. Sure we can influence the behavior of others in such a manner but that would seem to deny liberty to everyone no matter what powers they may have. So we need some understanding of control that is somewhere in between these extremes.
I suggest that the idea of force is the most appropriate dimension to use to distinguish control from lack of control. Of course, there are many degrees and types of force that can be exerted in a social relationship. One extreme is death or threat of death. One could also include the inflicting of physical pain as a next level just below death or the threat of death. At the other extreme, we could say a minimum force would be something like an angry look or a sharp word. There’s also the possibility of indirect force as in a person who will lose medical insurance for her family unless she keeps her job. A threat to fire such a person would be to threaten her with the chance of serious injury or death in the event of expensive medical need. One could picture such a mother whose child has an expensive medical condition being unable to afford treatment without that insurance. These indirect forms of force are the very kind of force that we are looking for. There are “in the middle” in terms of control.
Next we must consider the source of the agency which attempts to exert control. If we limit our consideration to government as the agency denying liberty, then we ignore slavery. So I suggest that we extend our consideration to include any agency attempting to control us. That would include the state, Church, corporations, organizations like the KKK, spouses, organized crime, and school bullies among others. In each of these cases, the victim whose liberty has been denied may be exposed to literal physical force – or may be vulnerable to some other threat. I think that we can agree that denial of liberty always comes about through the action of some threat, as in extortion or blackmail. Being denied dessert after dinner, however, would hardly be considered application of force.
Thus “control of their own actions” will refer to the absence of threats on the part of others to gain obedience. Note that self-defense or defense of one’s property is not an attempt to gain obedience for the purposes of this discussion. Police use of force to stop an assault is not denial of liberty.
As Wikipedia also says QUOTE “Different concepts of liberty articulate the relationship of individuals to society in different ways.” UNQUOTE We will explore some of those ways.
First will be negative liberty, defined as QUOTE “… freedoms of individuals from outside compulsion or coercion…” UNQUOTE This conception of liberty is said to be the predominant view of libertarians which is why it’s first to be considered. This definition fits very well with the points just made about control.
One notes right away that this definition is from the point of view of the individual. Nothing wrong with that. But it does suggest that liberty is a possession of, and a property of, the individual. Now I would contend that an individual may indeed live or reside in a condition of liberty in which the individual is not subject to coercion or compulsion; but this is a description of the individual’s environment, context, or circumstances, not a description of the individual. I would contend that a focus on rights to be free of coercion or compulsion is misguided. I contend that it is never in the power of the individual living in the context of a society to have liberty unless the society grants that freedom. As John Locke writes:
QUOTE “Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.” UNQUOTE
So liberty is a description of a context, a circumstance, a social environment, a situation, and is not a description of any individual. The individual cannot prevent others from attempting to change the circumstances in which that individual lives. The individual can act to frustrate such attempts but there is no guarantee that the individual will have success in that endeavor. In fact, I would contend that liberty has been a very unnatural and unusual situation for human beings since the rise of agriculture.
As we pointed out in our examination of slavery, agricultural economies typically involve slavery. For the rest of the population, persons are free only in the sense that they are not slaves. But they do not have liberty in the negative liberty sense favored by libertarians. For one thing, the vast majority of people in such economies are taxed or are compelled to work the land. Children are coerced if they don’t do their chores on the farm. Wives are coerced to work as well as to bear and care for children. Soldiers are commanded under threat of corporeal punishment. The state rules by coercion. Even the Church punishes those who do not obey.
Liberty is, therefore, not a natural right that each person possesses regardless of their station in life. Liberty is but a dream which humanity may one day attain.
There is also a complementary or mirror image conceptualization of liberty called “positive liberty.” Whereas negative liberty emphasizes the lack of compulsion and coercion, positive liberty emphasizes having the means or opportunity to do things, to fulfill one’s potential. This is a much less clear concept. It includes such things as classism, sexism, and racism as being inhibitors of liberty. It emphasizes internal constraints though it also recognizes external constraints. Positive liberty is far more difficult to detect since it is internal to the mind. One’s upbringing in the society will inevitably create constraints and inhibitions. Without those things one would behave as do babies and toddlers. So this kind of liberty is a matter of degree rather than being any kind of absolute. One can imagine a society functioning with complete negative liberty but it is impossible to imagine a society functioning with complete positive liberty. Therefore it’s difficult to know when one is at or near the optimum with positive liberty. Too much and too little are both harmful.
Next let’s look at civil liberties defined by Wikipedia as QUOTE “personal guarantees and freedoms that the government cannot abridge, either by law or by judicial interpretation.” UNQUOTE Right away we have a problem here. Since history shows that government can abridge both by law and by judicial interpretation any and all freedoms, this would appear to be a null category, a concept of something which cannot exist. When one examines the rights listed in the article however, one gets the idea that civil liberties are a wish list of things which people think government should not do and a few things government should do. But this conceptualization of liberty adds nothing to our understanding of liberty as it is lived.
Frédéric Bastiat writes in “The Law”, QUOTE “…each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.” UNQUOTE
This is basically meaningless. What good is a “natural right” if no one acknowledges it? With respect to what does one have a right? The whole context seems dominated by the “from God” phrase as if God would see to it that some behavior is special and cannot be opposed. But we know that though people certainly do attempt to defend their persons, their liberty, and their property they are usually quite unsuccessful. People are killed and physically abused quite frequently, especially women and children. Liberty is rare indeed. And property is being taken or destroyed against the will of its owner all the time. So what’s the use of this natural right? It does no good.
John Stuart Mill writes: QUOTE “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” UNQUOTE
But again, this is a description of a desired state or condition. It is not a description of observed reality. This is what Mill would like to be the case rather than the situation in which Mill lived. Of course Mill also says that this standard may be ignored when it is not useful. Many peoples/nations/cultures appear to Mill to not merit or deserve freedom.
Mill also discusses three basic liberties: 1. Freedom of thought and emotion, which include freedom of speech and the expression of feeling. 2. Freedom to pursue tastes if doing so harms no one else. 3. Freedom to unite to pursue some end, if voluntary and harming no one else. (Like fraternities, one presumes.) These liberties Mill approves… for the right people… most of the time.
You may have noticed that I don’t seem to accept authority very well. Please extend me the courtesy of thinking for yourself. Don’t accept what I say as true just because I happen to be writing this essay. Just as I don’t accept anyone’s authority to think for me, I refuse to think for you. If you find what I write to be sensible and correct, look for errors before you accept it. Remember that “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable state to be in especially on most issues as deep and complex as these. Don’t try to make me an authority.
As is my habit in this series of essays I will now turn my attention to the relationship between liberty and the physical object nature of money as we know it. From our previous presentations on slavery, poverty, gold, and war the connection between the denial of liberty and physical object money (henceforth abbreviated as POM) would appear to be very strong.
POM provides a powerful motive to control the actions of others. Controlling the behavior of another person allows one to gain some or all of that person’s money, because money can be taken from its owner against that owner’s will. Also, in order to defend ourselves and our property we would like to control the actions of our opponents, our competitors, our rivals, and our enemies. The zero-sum nature of POM transactions gives the false impression that everyone else is an opponent, a competitor, a rival, or an enemy. So because we desire to both gain POM and avoid losing POM, we are motivated to seek to control the actions of others.
But there are many ways of controlling the behavior of others which do not involve coercion or compulsion, ways which do not involve the use of force or fraud. We need an explanation for why force and fraud are so often selected as the means of controlling the behavior of others.
We first demonstrate that POM is capable of being used to institute force and fraud against other people. We have noted that POM is amoral. It can be used for any purpose whether good or evil. Therefore, POM can be used with the intent to apply force or to deceive even when these are bad things to do. POM is also uncontrollable so the society which employs POM will not be able to control its use. People cannot be prevented from using POM for evil ends such as force and fraud. Therefore, based on these two considerations we can see that people will be able to use POM to institute force and fraud against other people. Force and fraud are available options in a POM economy for the control of other people.
This brings us to the concept of “the job,” of hiring people, of employment. If one has a job, one has agreed; perhaps even in a formal, written contract, to obey someone else in exchange for money. I can offer you money for your obedience. In this way I can hire your physical strength, your expertise, and your abilities of all sorts. This greatly expands my power in the world.
Is that power to hire a coercive power? It is a trade which it would appear is voluntary on both sides. That doesn’t sound like coercion. But once hired, the ending of employment is considered by most people to be very much like a threat. There are some fortunate people who don’t need the job they have or who can quickly and easily get other work. But as the unemployment statistics over the last 7-8 years have shown, there are many for whom losing their jobs has been catastrophic.
So does a threat to cut off one’s income constitute coercive control? What are the likely consequences of losing one’s job? An increased risk of death is one of the consequences. Increased likelihood of illness. Increased likelihood that one’s children will be untreated if they become ill. You see, losing one’s job is not just an inconvenience for most people. But is that threat and those changes of odds sufficient to make it coercion?
I contend that most people consider a threat of firing or laying-off to be coercion: It feels like coercion to them. They look at their life situation, their responsibilities, their financial assets and liabilities and they see loss of a job as really bad news. I contend that they will do almost anything their boss asks them to do in order to keep that job, even if what they are asked to do will harm others. But this is just one point. Remember that one can be hired to apply physical force to coerce others, as in the protection rackets.
Now as to why people would choose to use force and fraud even when other options for controlling behavior are available:
People choose their actions, to the extent that they are rational in such choices; based upon their understanding and beliefs about the situation, or context in which they find themselves. As illustration consider the following. In 1850 a white southerner would very likely act to preserve the institution of slavery in his state because of his context. He, himself, was not a slave and would never be made a slave given the situation as he understood it. A slave from the same region would act to end the institution of slavery in his state because of his context. He was being abused and coerced and was quite without liberty and he believed that situation would continue so long as he was a slave. Both are men living in the same region and in the same culture. But they have different circumstances and therefore choose to act differently.
The physical object nature of money has a powerful influence upon how people view their situation, upon their beliefs about their circumstances. The false simulation of a zero-sum game provided by POM leads people to believe that other people will attempt to take advantage of them, that if one attempts to pursue some objective, other people will resist. Therefore, the false simulation tells each person in a POM interaction that the other person will not willingly cooperate, but will cooperate only when compelled to do so. Thus the need for slave drivers. When one person acts on that false belief, the other parties to that interaction have no choice but to believe that such actions are due to animosity, opposition, rivalry, or something akin thereto; and react in kind. Each party resorts to force and/or fraud both to gain an advantage and/or to avoid some loss. I cite as an example the TV show from the early 1950s titled “I Love Lucy”. The show was extremely popular as a situation comedy. The wife, Lucy, was a stay-at-home wife of a prosperous band leader, Ricky. Ricky had the power because he controlled the family money… but also by virtue of being the husband in a traditional family. Lucy in each show wanted something, usually money, or wanted to do something and Ricky would say “No.” So Lucy would use deception. Ricky and Lucy had a two-party interaction with one party using force to control the other’s behavior and the other using fraud as a defense mechanism. The disasters that resulted were supposed to be funny. I suggest that if Ricky had loved Lucy he would not have used force to control her behavior. I further suggest that if Lucy had loved Ricky, she would not have attempted to deceive him. But then the show would not have been funny. We use coercion because we think that is the only thing that will work given the situation.
The two-party nature of POM interaction allows the concentration of power in the economy. Such concentrations of power prevent the weaker parties from being able to defend themselves from the force and fraud efforts on the part of the powerful parties, and the result is that the weaker parties lose their liberty. The powerful can use POM to create institutions which protect and enhance their advantages over the weak. In practice this means using government, the center of the most concentrated power, to apply physical force in support of their desire to control the weak. Thus, the law gives considerable power to those who have large amounts of money.
The conclusion is that a POM economy will naturally and spontaneously move toward restriction of and elimination of any liberty which may exist regardless of whether the government participates in that restriction or not.
Well that’s kind of depressing. But then if you‘ve studied history, you may have noticed that history itself is kind of depressing. History is littered with totalitarian governments, dictatorships, absolute rulers, slavery, oppression, wars, exploitation of the weak, and the use of force. Even cultural history which ignores the wars reveals oppression. The idea that the man is supposed to rule his household is very common in agricultural societies meaning that women are not to have liberty in those societies. Even religions have similar histories with few exceptions. Isn’t there anything which could give one hope of a better life in times to come?
Sure there is. Why do you think I keep bringing the conversation around to non-POM? Compare how non-POM affects interaction.
We mentioned that POM provides everyone with powerful motives to control the behavior of others. Do such motives exist with non-POM? Let’s see. With non-POM you cannot take money from others against their will and they can’t take your money against your will. So you don’t have to do anything to prevent loss of your money. Do we have enemies with non-POM? With POM the false zero-sum game simulation makes us treat each other as enemies. That’s the reverse of the non-POM emphasis on interactions being win/win or lose/lose. With non-POM everyone wants what’s best for you. Everyone else will try to help you and avoid harming you. With non-POM you have no economic enemies. You may have a rival for the hand of that pretty girl but that’s a whole different matter. The only way you can gain with non-POM is to help others gain. If others lose, you lose, too.
So that eliminates one big source of motivation to control the actions of others.
What about the ways of controlling the actions of others. How does non-POM relate to force and fraud? Well, force harms people, so with non-POM one could get paid for preventing the use of force and one could get paid for preventing fraud. In fact, anyone who prevents harm to others gets paid for doing so. Anyone who uses force or fraud to harm others will lose possible future income. In other words, the use of force and fraud is far more difficult with a non-POM, though not impossible. Non-POM is moral, so it cannot be used to harm others. That greatly reduces the scope of what one can accomplish in force and fraud. You can’t hire someone to help you apply force or commit fraud. Non-POM is easily controlled unlike POM.
Next, economic transactions with non-POM are three-party interactions. As such, one cannot use an advantage gained to obtain still further advantage, because whether you are A, B, or C you will always be vulnerable to one of the other two no matter how great your advantage over one of them may be. That’s the beauty of the A has power over B, which has power over C, which has power over A, three-party relationship. It’s the old game of rock, paper, and scissors all over again.
What about rights with a non-POM? I didn’t express much approval of those classical authors and philosophers when they talked about rights earlier. I pointed out that just because you wanted such a thing or affirmed that rights were real and ordained by God didn’t mean that anyone else would allow you such rights. Well with non-POM you don’t really need rights. There’s no government to speak of; and the last thing a government official would want to do is try to take your property, your life, or your liberty. That would not only be resisted by any observers but would cost that official almost all future income for years. In other words, non-POM is based on true, pure, completely free markets so there is absolutely no threat to you. All property is owned strictly by individuals and is private.
Of course, along with liberty and the right to do whatever you want with your property, comes a similar amount of responsibility for the consequences of what you do with your property. I don’t see any conflict between responsibility and rights… though you may disagree. I have a right to use my hammer to strike anything I like but I also have a responsibility to avoid harming anyone else, either in their persons or their property, when I do so. Freedom without responsibility is license which non-POM prevents. With non-POM one cannot escape responsibility. Each person is responsible for the consequences of their actions, like it or not.
So let’s visit in the home of Ricky and Lucy once again after the economy has adopted a non-POM. Ricky is still a band leader and still has a good income. But Lucy cannot get money from Ricky. He is unable to give her money. But then, she doesn’t need money to get along. She can get basic necessities without using money. She also earns her own money by taking care of her husband. If she wants more money than that, she can do things to benefit others besides her husband. She needs no one’s permission to earn money in that way. Her benefiting others costs no one money. So Lucy is independent of Ricky in every meaningful way. He has only his physical strength advantage. He cannot harm her by denying her access to money. If Ricky threatens her, she can leave since she in no way needs him. If Ricky threatens her she can call on everyone else to help her because anyone who helps earns money thereby.
So even at the level of husband and wife, there is liberty with non-POM. No one is dependent upon any other individual, there’s virtually no government, and no organization has the ability to use force to gain compliance. People work with each other rather than for the boss or employer. There is simply no aspect of the society or economy which provides opportunity to control someone else for self-aggrandizement.
With non-POM it’s liberty, like it or not.