Freedom: the Absence of All Obstacles or Only Interpersonal Ones?

The socialists must admit there cannot be any freedom under a socialist system. But they try to obliterate the difference between the servile state and economic freedom by denying that there is any freedom in the mutual exchange of commodities and services on the market. Every market exchange is, in the words of a school of pro-socialist lawyers, “a coercion over other people’s liberty.” There is, in their eyes, no difference worth mentioning between a man’s paying a tax or a fine imposed by a magistrate, or his buying a newspaper or admission to a movie. In each of these cases the man is subject to governing power. He’s not free, for, as professor Hale says, a man’s freedom means “the absence of any obstacle to his use of material goods.”[6] This means: I am not free, because a woman who has knitted a sweater, perhaps as a birthday present for her husband, puts an obstacle to my using it. I myself am restricting all other people’s freedom because I object to their using my toothbrush.

A generation ago all housewives prepared soup by proceeding in accordance with the recipes that they had got from their mothers or from a cookbook. Today many housewives prefer to buy a canned soup, to warm it and to serve it to their family. But, say our learned doctors, the canning corporation is in a position to restrict the housewife’s freedom because, in asking a price for the tin can, it puts an obstacle to her use of it. People who did not enjoy the privilege of being tutored by these eminent teachers, would say that the canned product was turned out by the cannery, and that the corporation in producing it removed the greatest obstacle to a consumer’s getting and using a can, viz., its nonexistence. The mere essence of a product cannot gratify anybody without its existence. But they are wrong, say the doctors. The corporation dominates the housewife, it destroys by its excessive concentrated power over her individual freedom, and it is the duty of the government to prevent such a gross offense.

Why does our housewife buy the canned product rather than cling to the methods of her mother and grandmother? No doubt because she thinks this way of acting is more advantageous for her than the traditional custom. (Ludwig von Mises, “Liberty and Property,” Sec. 5)

I had not thought of this line of argument against socialism before, but after reading it it seems very obvious. Of course, Mises was an expert at explicitly stating simple truths, as is evident from his discovery of the action axiom (the fact that persons act purposefully, using a means to achieve a chosen end).

Although Mises’ point serves as a way to vindicate capitalism even under the socialist definition of freedom, that certainly is no reason to accept such a definition. Human beings always have to deal with objective circumstances. Our environment, the non-human condition with which we live, is a fundamental part of our lives that we only have so much control over. Whether or not interpersonal freedom, the absence of coercion from other human beings, is part of our lives, objective circumstances will always exist. There is no way in principle to remove that. In fact, it is an absurdity to suggest that we could remove “all obstacles”; only God could achieve such an end. But there is a way in principle to remove interpersonal violence.

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Posted on March 17, 2013, in Economics, Ethics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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