Those Americans who ardently supported economic freedom, limited government, and individual rights long before 2009 and the rise of the Tea Party have enjoyed an unexpected glimmer of hope in American culture since then, with a large portion of America sounding more and more like the country it was founded to be. In the fast-paced political environment of the last few years, it is often difficult to believe, looking back, that it has been only two and a half years since the midterm elections that brought the coalition to Congress and commenced the tooth-and-nail row between the legislative and executive branches that has waged ever since.
Like untrained soldiers, the Tea Party has had to learn struggle through waging it, picking up lessons and techniques along the way. All things considered, it has been strikingly successful. But while the struggle for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets has made impressive headway, it continues to leave room for improvement—especially in the establishment of intellectual arguments to support its many causes. Indeed, one of the most important, fundamental points that the movement has yet to articulate is a simple one: economic freedom is political freedom; freedom and free markets are inextricable.
That such a clear and basic idea has yet to penetrate popular debates demonstrates the extent to which we, as a country, have come to passively accept some unspoken, undefined difference between economic activity and all other human action. If the US federal government treated speech, privacy (though this one is getting close), or any other right recognized in the Constitution to the immense system of regulatory and punitive actions that it subjects economic activity, one would see indignant, moral opposition on an unprecedented scale in this country.
Imagine, if you will, a news outlet that hires as many of the most prodigious, prolific, and analytical reporters and editorialists as money can buy. Breaking all of the top stories, attracting the most expert interview subjects for commentary, and publishing the most provocative, hard-hitting opinion pieces in the country, the news service becomes a cultural pace-setter—not through government subsidy, sponsorship, or favoritism, but simply through the consistent choice of a nationwide audience that chooses, day after day, to look to its publications for the issues and ideas of their day.
This news service, however, has made a fatal mistake. It has rubbed certain individuals in high places in the wrong way. Other intellectuals, philosophers, academics, journalists, editorialists, analysts, and book authors have begun to feel that their intellectual influences are not permeating the culture. Though they remain employed and financially successful, they feel that their ideas have come to comprise a smaller share of the culture every year. This alone would not be a mistake on the part of the news service, of course—except that it operates in a country that firmly believes that no one source of ideas should be too influential, and that there must be a balance struck in the culture between this company’s ideas and those of the plaintiffs.
The government where this company is based, responding to these complaints, assesses the situation and agrees with their grievances. It coins a new term to describe the news services actions: “anti-cultural.“ It commissions a Ministry of Culture to ensure that the news service divests itself of certain ideas to preserve a balance throughout society. It must agree to be less creative, less analytical, and produce fewer ideas per author employed.
Its magazines, the government rules, cannot include both news reportage and analysis. Its news stories must be free of integration or context, and its editorials should not reference concrete facts, as to have both in the same piece of writing would be too influential and unfair to those who only have opinions without facts or facts without opinions.
It must likewise take care in how it comments on the ideas and reportage of other publications. If they are too much in agreement and complement one another’s arguments with separate facts and points of analysis, this is deemed anti-cultural collusion. If they are in voracious disagreement and the news service offers blistering criticisms of ideas presented by an author or academic, disproving his claims point-by-point in unrelenting logical analysis, this is deemed anti-cultural competition. The Ministry of Culture finally deems it necessary to impose a permanent monitor inside larger news services’ and publishers’ offices, ready to observe and advise on any idea still in development before it can ever be released to the public.
The result: over time, the culture becomes more evenly composed of different influences. Rational and irrational arguments are given equal weight. The culture becomes a mixed hodge-podge of contradictory influences. Uncertainty prevails. Those who begin to sound too convincing are paid extra scrutiny. Publishers and book authors exist in a climate of fear without any clear or objective standard for what might be deemed anti-cultural, so they opt to play it safe and shelve their best arguments and ideas. The initial plaintiffs and the government, however, declare victory, proclaiming the resulting intellectual diversity to be a sign of cultural progress and prosperity, all at the expense of a few individual ideas that were too compelling for anyone’s good. Their victory is complete.
If the process described in this scenario appears abusive, tyrannical, and an abhorrent violation of the freedom of speech and of the press, know this: every standard applied to speech above is currently applied to economic activity through the moral aberration of the US Department of Justice’s antitrust division. Replace the ‘Ministry of Culture’ with the antitrust system and ‘anti-cultural’ with ‘anti-competitive’ and the story is, in simplified form, a true one.
Similar scenarios can be imagined, along with the riotous responses that would no doubt follow them, in applying existing economic regulations to what are broadly recognized and valued in the United States, across the political spectrum, as fundamental political rights.
What if the government insisted upon the privilege to search only 15-28% of your property each year, depending on how much property you possess? What if bail requirements were subject to review by a congressionally appointed panel with no mandated schedule for reaching a decision? What if the requirement of government providing a ‘speedy trial’ was not judged on an individual basis, but rather on the average time in which a defendant was brought before a court, with detention times subject to redistribution between those deemed to have more time to spare and others considered more in need of their freedom? Whatever ones views on gun control (and it is a subject with room for rational disagreement), the idea that a weapon can (rightly) be purchased subject to a mere background check, but that a financial company is subject at all times to between four and seven regulatory agencies for buying and selling stock is absurd.[i]
That American culture uncritically accepts such policies in some areas and rejects them in others points to a fundamental error that pervades both right and left in our country: the conception of economic activity as distinct and categorically different from all other forms of human action.
What is economic action? At its most fundamental, it consists of two active processes: production and trade. Production is the creative combination of existing materials into a final good that is, by virtue of that process, worth more than the inputs used to create it. Trade is, in essence, an exchange of property rights to two or more entities, be they material goods or media of exchange (i.e. money). Both are, in a capitalist system, the result of the voluntary agreements of individuals, each perceiving the good they receive in trade to be of greater value than that which they paid for it. They are win-win processes for all parties involved. There is nothing fundamentally dangerous or threatening to them. No act of force is involved in such activity. To the contrary, the resulting system is the greatest, most life-giving process in the history of human civilization.
Why, then, do those who would never accept such abrogation of rights to speech, privacy, religion, arms, and a fair and speedy trial constantly accept the same violations of the rights of property and trade? Why do such violations go unchallenged, even unquestioned by those who champion the sanctity of other rights? The answer is twofold: conceptual and moral.
First is an uncritical acceptance by most of a distorted, dog-eat-dog idea of capitalism. This entails the belief that wealth is a static quantity (a “pie”, as it is often called) that is not produced, only redistributed and fought for among various claimants. It treats each man’s interests as fundamentally inimical to others and his survival and success as occurring at the cost of others’ failures. The result is a perception of society’s wealthy and successful individuals as the fiercest, most brutal, and rapacious among us, more eager to maim and kill than those less prosperous.
This characterization of business should readily appear absurd to anyone who has worked extensively in any business or trading environment and thought even semi-conscientiously of what it was they were doing. Had they, they would see that trade is a patently win-win venture in which no party would participate unless he stood to gain. It is not coercive or manipulative in nature. It demands not savagery or brutality from individuals, but reason—the unflappable, unceasing application of reason to their every need and desire, integrating every successive bit of information to their existing knowledge and allowing that knowledge—and only knowledge—to guide them in the utilization of their resources toward the achievement of an ultimate sum: profit. And yet, therein lies the second cause for our culture’s treatment of economic activity as distinct from and more nefarious than all others.
In truth, the brutal characterization of capitalism as a zero-sum battle between rival packs of wolves, a perpetual conflict in which some must lose for others to win, is not an innocent misconception. It is an attempt to pawn off the idea that there is anything necessary or practical about the moral prescriptions of the most life-destroying system of ethics ever devised: the morality of altruism.
To quote Ayn Rand,
“The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.”[ii]
Trade and capitalism are fundamentally inimical to altruism. The conception of mutual cooperation to mutual gain flies in the face of the altruist notion of the good as demanding sacrifice and loss. Trade is a necessarily selfish, self-seeking activity in which each party pursues his own well-being and improvement. What’s more: it cannot be practiced otherwise. To do so is to seek immediate economic ruin, surrendering all of one’s values to someone—anyone—for the sake of achieving the altruist ideal of self-destruction.
What greater compliment, what higher honor could one pay to a social system than to say that it so fundamentally contradicts the practice of human sacrifice and destruction that the two cannot successfully coexist in the same society? One or the other must go.
Most Americans still lack the intellectual and moral arguments to fully value the life-giving virtues of capitalism, the freedom and unprecedented standard of living it has provided them, or the fact that for the 99% of human history prior to its inception, their expected lifespan was roughly thirty years of hardship, illness, and poverty. Still, there are an increasing number of individuals who object to the current moral and political climate. With varying degrees of consistency, they advocate such concepts as ‘economic freedom’ and ‘economic rights.’ To be sure, these are viable, noble causes and those who promote them are well intentioned. The terms themselves, however, tend to obscure rather than reveal the nature of the values they describe.
Freedom is a political concept. It refers to the capacity to act without obstruction—that is: to act by one’s own will without fear of forcible restriction or punishment. Other types of freedom are commonly referred to in popular speech: ‘intellectual freedom’, ‘academic freedom’, ‘journalistic freedom’, ‘reproductive freedom’, etc. Each, however, is simply an application of political freedom to specific contexts of action. The freedoms themselves have no fundamental difference between them. Each consists of the explicit recognition by the state of the individual rights of citizens to act in a given capacity without interference or intimidation.
As they are commonly used, ‘economic freedom’ and ‘economic rights’ describe the freedom to pursue one’s economic well-being, unhindered by coercive actions of the state to direct or restrict economic activity. The freedom itself, however, is not literally economic freedom, but political freedom to gain and/or keep one’s values in whatever peaceable, rights-respecting way one chooses—be it through speech, worship, self-defense, economic activity, or any other human endeavor. It is the freedom to act on one’s own terms, by one’s own mind, applied to the processes of production and trade.
There is no demonstrable quality of ‘economic freedom’ and ‘economic rights’ that distinguishes them as fundamentally different from any other political freedom or right. If one upholds the principle of individual rights in the areas popularly extolled (if inconsistently upheld) by both ends of the American political spectrum, it is a natural consequence to do so in economics. They must learn to look upon regulations of industry as they do regulations of speech: with an unyielding moral condemnation. And they must never fail to point out their opponents not only as enemies of economic freedom, but of its primary: political freedom.
If Tea Party groups, libertarians, capitalists, or any advocates of limited government seek to defend economic activity against regulation, taxation, and controls, it is precisely on these terms that they must fight: extolling the productive virtues of capitalism and refusing to accept that there can be a freedom without free markets. They must reject the arbitrary assumption that economic activity is, in some inexplicable and mystical way, categorically different from any other form of human activity and subject to a separate moral standard. And if those who currently profess support for ‘economic freedom’ wish to be successful in their advocacy, it is precisely on these terms that it must argue, revealing such freedom as the natural and direct product of our political liberties—and true, complete political liberty as consisting of nothing less.