Thursday, December 14, 2006

Who Is the Most Genuine Advocate of Individual Freedom in Today’s America?

Individualism, meaning valuing the freedom of the individual to develop to the fullest of his/her own potential and ensuring that the individual can enjoy the full benefits of these efforts, is at the heart of the American belief system. Classical liberals like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek embrace these values. The so-called American ‘conservative’ movement begun in the 1950s also claims to see individual freedom as central to its values. Interestingly, a case can be made that much of what has passed for American radicalism also is based upon belief in the promotion of individual freedom and development. Finally, ‘modern’ liberals too found their belief system upon the bedrock of individual freedom and development.

Obviously there must be important matters upon which these otherwise very different groups disagree. The most fundamental point of disagreement involves very different views of the role of the American state. Perhaps in an ideal world these different groups could agree that the state would play the minimalist role assigned to it by writers like Adam Smith. However, disagreement enters in assessing the historical actions that the American state has actually taken and whether this role fundamentally violated the ideal of laissez faire by repeatedly favoring those with more economic power enabling them to amass undue wealth and power. If one believes the latter then advocacy of laissez faire and opposition to government intervention in the economy at this late date only helps to consolidate the inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity that exist today and thereby stands to undermine the freedom of the majority of contemporary individuals to develop themselves to their fullest potential and enjoy the fruits of these individual exertions.

While pseudo-conservatives like William Buckley and classical liberals like Friedman and Hayek inveigh against the state as the sole threat to individual freedom they completely overlook the massive growth of large corporations as agglomerations of power that can threaten individual liberty. They also apparently overlook the fact that the state has again and again done things to favor centralization of wealth and power in the hands of the American business class. These potential contradictions of laissez faire and threats to the freedom of all individuals do not seem to concern them. (To be fair to Friedman he often has attempted to be consistent by opposing at least some actions of government that favor business or professional classes.)

The contemporary call for minimal government by pseudo-conservatives and classical liberals and their virtually sole emphasis on the threats to individual freedom from the state are conveniently similar to the ideology of privileged classes in the U.S. In other words, modern liberals believe that these individuals’ ideology is not a true defense of individual freedom but a disguised defense of privilege and serve to undermine the freedom of less privileged individuals. This is where the real disagreements lie. The question is: who really is the most genuine advocate of individual freedom in today’s America?

Modern liberals and some individual freedom-loving radicals would argue that when pseudo-conservatives and classical liberals cast the state as virtually the only threat to individual freedom they are overlooking the fact that, unlike large corporations, the state is to some degree responsive to the individual through the vehicle of bi-annual elections. As Charles Perrow has written (Organizing America, p. 8):
Most important for government, however, is the check of democratic control on governmental masters through the electorate. The check is limited, imperfect, and subject to abuse, but there is no democratic control at all in the case of private economic organizations, on which most of us depend for our living. Only governmental regulation can attempt to control private economic organizations. Because governmental organizations are somewhat more responsive to the electorate in democracies, I fear large governmental organizations less than large private ones.
Apologists for corporations might argue that there are checks on corporate power: 1) votes of shareholders to elect boards of directors and 2) votes of consumers in the marketplace. These are specious arguments because any honest study of corporate governance would note that it is the unelected top managers of the corporation that control them; directors are nominated by top management and almost always rubber stamped by shareholders; moreover, directors exercise little significant power over top management. Votes of consumers in the marketplace are utterly different than votes in a democratic election; in the latter case one election can put candidates in office or remove them on a single day and such elections occur regularly at two, four or six year intervals; the purchases of consumers may take much time to have an effect on management, if any, and they do not directly involve anything other than the details of what products are produced and how; if consumers disagree with the political or charitable contributions of management or the company's environmental policy purchase of products is no substitute for democratic elections.

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