September 15. A reader asks what I think about a certain ideology in economics, which claims to believe in "free markets". I think the whole concept is a lie. First, "freedom" is the perfect propaganda word: its meaning is vague, we have strong feelings about it, and it is value-loaded. Nobody will stand up and say "I am against freedom." So if you're clever with words, you can control the minds of people who are not paying attention, by convincing them that "freedom" means what you say it means. And if you apply "freedom" to economics, it gets even more confusing.
Among the many things that "freedom" can mean, two big ones are absence of constraint and absence of coercion. These two things are not only different -- they're opposite. Constraint means you want to do something but you're not permitted; coercion means you don't want to do something but you're forced. Now, if one person is powerful and another person is weak, can you guess which definition of freedom is most important to each of them? And have you ever met a libertarian living in poverty? "Economic freedom" has been defined by the economically powerful as absence of constraint, so they can control the economically weak. In response, the weak use a weak word: fairness. "Unfair" is the complaint of losers. Instead, the economically weak should claim Freedom, and explicitly define it as lack of coercion.
If freedom is lack of coercion, then a free market is one in which no one is permitted to buy the labor of someone who needs money.
So if you need money, and no one is permitted to buy your labor, then how do you get money? This leads to a thought experiment: if someone has no money, and the only job is working at a bank, then which economy is more free, one in which they have to work at the bank, or one in which they can rob the bank? So-called "libertarians" would favor the first economy, even though the individual in question is more constrained. So "economic freedom" doesn't even mean lack of constraint! It means the weak are constrained from taking advantage of the strong, but the strong are not constrained from taking advantage of the weak. This is economic authoritarianism, and to think that some people believe this and call themselves anarchists.
Would I prefer an economy in which people who need money are permitted to take from institutions that have money, rather than being employed by those institutions? Of course! But it would never actually happen that way. In practice, to have a free economy in which freedom means lack of coercion, we have to set it up so that nobody needs money: everything we need is provided unconditionally, and money is for what we don't need but merely desire. Look around at how little we need and how much we desire, and you'll see that this rule still permits a vast and thriving economy.
The catch is: what system provides everything we need, and how do we prevent this system itself from becoming coercive? I don't know! I happily admit that an adequate human society is generations in the future and will require ideas that nobody has thought of yet.