Not Without Economic Freedom

It is not unusual for those who say they are concerned about freedom and rights to also disparage markets and private property, or even to promote outright socialism. Freedom, however, does not mean the purported rights to such things as health care, education, or even food or water. It doesn’t mean only being allowed to say what you want. It means the liberty to make choices for yourself, the absence of coercion, the ability to act without compulsion. Universal rights are those that one individual can enjoy without violating the same for others.

Everyone, universally, can have the right to defend his or her own life, liberty, and property without violating the same rights for any other individual in society. Murder or physical injury violates the rights of at least one person to his or her life. Slavery and coercion violate one’s right to liberty. Theft and fraud violate rights to property. In each of these cases, the individual has a right to defend against them, and to delegate such protection to others. Everyone can state his or her own opinion without violating anyone else’s rights, at least when threats of violence and coercion are absent, even if those opinions are offensive. Individuals are floating in a sea of rights, but “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins,” in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

People tend to segregate economic rights from other rights, assuming that once you are in the economic or commercial realm, you automatically give up certain of your rights. This happens in a lot of nominally free but still oppressive countries, but even in America, the courts have presumed that commercial speech and transactions do not carry the same constitutional protections as do personal interactions. Those courts are wrong. Freedom involves every realm of life, and, in fact, political interference that such an attitude allows and even encourages is the fundamental cause of many of the problems in the economies and societies all around the world.

Of course it is not right for businesses to use fraud, force, or coercion in their commercial transactions. Since the owners are individuals, though, they should be held to the same standards that all other individuals are. Even though corporations are separate legal entities, a corporation or business is nothing more than ownership of assets, jointly or individually. Business people, including corporate managers, who are directly responsible for violating rights should be subject to the same penalties as individuals who did the same, including restitution for the damage done and even jail time, if appropriate.

Hong Kong is now in a state of turmoil, with millions of protesters fearing the increasing encroachment of Mainland China into their affairs. For decades, Hong Kong, though it has not been a sovereign nation, has been the most economically free region in the world, according to various relevant reports. It is a bastion of trade and markets and has a high per-capita income. There is a fairly strong correlation between economic freedom and the standard of living, with the poor in free countries better off than the population at large in unfree countries.

Even the Nordic countries that serve for some as examples of socialist utopias, though they have a sizable welfare state, have a fairly high level of economic freedom, with most of the actual transactions occurring in private market settings. They are not socialist or centrally planned to any significant extent. Conversely, nations with low economic freedom, with lack of protection of property rights, and with an unchained, unregulated, and imposing government apparatus tend to be those where all other rights are also violated. In time, without economic freedom, there will be no freedom. They go hand in hand.

Follow Dan McLaughlin at daniel-mclaughlin.com