To live a full, happy, and purposeful life, a person must be free to express their personality and to further their own interests; to love, speak, sing, fight, have relationships, make art, argue, have sex, see the world, make children, to live and die where, how, and when they please. The richness, complexity, and variety of the human experience is something to be treasured, admired, marveled at, and loved, to anyone who is humanistic, who values their own integrity as an individual and that of others as well. So, to suppress or make laws against any of these expressions of human nature could be viewed as an intolerable oppression, only justified if necessary to protect the freedom of one person from the excesses or oppression of another. People’s freedom should be limited, then, minimally and with great care.
Because I believe in these things, I was attracted for awhile by free market arguments regarding the justice of regulating how people can spend and use their money and property. The main argument goes like this: just as a person should be free to live their lives as they see fit, so they should be able to do whatever they like with their own body and their own property which, by extension, includes their money. This seemed, on the face of it, a fair and reasonable assumption. However, upon inquiry, I discovered so many questionable, harmful, and downright awful consequences of an unfettered free market, that I wondered if I had made a mistake. I found that I had.
Actions that are expressions of personality are not the same sort of thing as spending money. Money does not talk: it buys. Things that one does with wealth, from consuming to spending to hoarding it, impact others in a way that most other personal decisions do not. The personal use of money can be likened to the use of a tool, something like driving a car or shooting a gun. While money can be very useful and very conducive to more fully enjoying one’s liberty, its misuse can, and often does, collide with and limit the freedoms of others once the collective effects of spending decisions affect the wider community. Our short-term decisions on how money is spent, based on our own narrow interests, have an effect on others’ lives in ways that even the most experienced economists still poorly understand and have great difficulty predicting.
So, while immediate economic decisions are in our control, such deciding whether to buy a particular television or brand of food, the flow of money in the economy at large is not. The economy, on this scale, is more comparable to the weather: if we were somehow able to tinker with it like we can the economy, by making a few clouds appear here, redirecting all the wind and rain to one spot over there, or artificially creating some entirely new weather phenomena, we could, in theory, help more crops grow or prevent floods. We could also step back and let the weather freely wreak help or havoc as it will: we could tear down all dams and dykes, stop building storm drains and tornado shelters, stop irrigating fields. Mistakes of over-manipulation and under-regulation can lead to catastrophic effects in the economy as well. Consider the spike in food prices that led to a steep rise in prices, the weakening of economies throughout the world, and mass starvation in the poorest countries in the late twenty-oughts. This was caused by market speculation at a time when the food supply was stable and sufficient to feed everyone, but weakened regulation of the financial market led many to gamble on exotic new financial products. Consider also the high poverty levels and extreme disparity and hoarding of wealth by a few in less regulated economies and in countries with weak or corrupt governments.
So, my mistake was conflating freedom and the vibrant expression of personality with the use of money. The use of money can further these, but it is not necessary to liberty. As light behaves as both a particle and a wave, so we see how money in the marketplace functions both as a tool and a force of nature. In an individual life, it can do so much: obtain food, drink, shelter, those necessary and beautiful things for a full and satisfying life. On a large scale, it can drive innovation, obtain ever higher standards of living for communities, foster the arts, and so much more. But, its large and small scale misuse and misregulation can also have a devastating impact, as we have seen time and time again throughout history. It seems clear, then, that there are times that the free market should be allowed free reign to do its work to improve our lives. It is also clear that careful regulation and public control of money through representative government is necessary to curb our excesses, correct imbalances, and use it to further the interests of society as a whole rather than particular individuals or groups when it’s necessary to achieve a great public good. Throughout history until today, individual greed and short-sighted self-interest ruin so many lives that a market, run well, might have improved. Therefore, we need to place reasonable limits our use of money if we do, in fact, value our own and each others’ liberty.
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