As we turn attention to the future beyond the crisis, we find ourselves confronted with difficult choices. One of the most challenging questions involves the meaning and implications of “perfect freedom” as articulated by Patrick Henry, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others.
Americans have held fiercely to the ideal of “perfect freedom” from the beginning. As Patrick Henry famously said, “Perfect freedom is as necessary to the health and vigor of commerce as it is to the health and vigor of citizenship.”
Those following this blog have, I expect, given thought to the limits to freedom we experience in our personal lives. We live in a reality defined by limitation and constraint, and similar complications confront the nation.
If we are committed to ‘perfect freedom’ in principle, how can we fault business leaders for maximizing profits by moving jobs overseas or mechanizing assembly lines or in using any other means absent of fraud?
What else can we expect? And, how can any alternative possibly be legislated with fairness or practical effect?
In his classic 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” Milton Friedman wrote that “few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible. This is a fundamentally subversive doctrine. If businessmen do have a social responsibility other than making maximum profits for stockholders, how are they to know what it is? Can self-selected private individuals decide what the social interest is? Can they decide how great a burden they are justified in placing on themselves or their stockholders to serve that social interest?”
The pure simplicity of this principle seems as reasonable today as it did in an earlier era. To require that businesses divide their loyalties would not only constrain the productive economy, but open a plethora of ethical inconsistencies and confusion.
Yet, today we find ourselves facing the overwhelming consequences of structural economic change brought about, in effect, by free enterprise. The jobs we had are gone for good. Incomes have stagnated – at best. The American economy has lost much of its productive capacity. Perhaps most significantly, many of us have lost our means for living with self-respect.
And, as we have seen, the functional integrity of free markets has been abandoned to the self-centered interests of predatory institutions. Money and economic power now flow in the virtual reality of electronic networks, largely independent of the productive economy. The new network economy is global, while jobs and people, community and responsibility, remain locally constrained in the real world.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. A consistent commitment to free enterprise will require that we adjust to a profoundly re-ordered world. We must rethink our economic lives, and our attitudes.
Making an income influences our sense of self-respect and well-being. Unemployment and poverty are not simply insufficiencies of income. They have a debilitating impact on individual freedom, initiative, and capacity.
Poverty is more than a regrettable misfortune. It is a blight on liberty. And, it inflicts a serious drag on the productive economy.
Local communities can choose to overcome this costly barrier. Individuals with practical experience can share knowledge and skills, assisting others to step out of our old lives to learn new skills, both physical and organizational.
Each of us can look around, think creatively, and take initiative. We need to empower one another, cooperate where there are needs to be met, and build local businesses that address local needs. We can network with people in nearby communities to share ideas and resources, to find (or offer) informal training, and to expand our horizons.
Let’s reach out and test our limits. The road to freedom is built with vision, principle, and responsibility.
Locally and regionally-based economies will need to be reconstructed, transcending the chaos around us and surmounting the stumbling blocks thrown up by government and big business.
Americans are smart, industrious, and resourceful. We can rise to the challenge and free one another from the shackles of limited perspective and inadequate skills.
This is a choice that is ours to make.
Next week: When we are on our own.