As our current social and economic organization stands, the allocation of power and wealth are highly influenced by the wealthy towards their own benefit, while the poor, individually – or even collectively -, have little to no say on how it gets done. This got me thinking: how different is this allocation criterion from resources being mainly controlled by the physically stronger?

In other words, how does “having more wealth” is a more legitimate criterion for power and benefits than “having more strength”? This problem is part of a more general question: what are the just ways to allocate resources and power in a society? I do not know the answer to this, but I know that R. Nozick and J. Rawls have produced some interesting insights into that matter. I am somewhat acquainted with their work, but I do not wish right now to set myself the task of answering that question. At this moment, I want to talk about liberty.

Standard libertarian discourse takes that if all transactions exhibits no coercion (being therefore voluntary), then we have as much liberty as one can wish for. However, as was seen above, having a smaller amount of wealth (i.e. being poor, or relatively poor) means to have one’s will superseded by the will of the wealthy. It means having a smaller amounts of things one could do, or, as I like to call it, a diminished space of action.

How is this not a constraint on liberty? It is not voluntarily that the poor live in small houses or commute through public transportation every day. They are forced into doing this by economic forces: big houses and comfortable transport methods are only allocated to those who have money, because allocation is determined precisely by those who have money. The will of the poor is ignored.

We need a term for this. I guess we could call it low exertion of the will, which is directly related to a diminished space of action. They are pretty much one and the same: your space of action is smaller if your power to exert your will is smaller. The reason I separated them into two concepts is to emphasize that one, the former, is a constraint on negative liberty, while the other, the latter, is a constraint on positive liberty. I will quote ipsis verbus from Wikipedia:

Negative liberty is primarily concerned with freedom from external restraint, and it contrasts with positive liberty, which is primarily concerned with the possession of the power and resources to fulfill one’s own potential.

At the same time, a poor economic agent has a diminished amount of things he can do, which means that he is not fully autonomous. Maybe I am abusing the concept of positive liberty here, for it seems to be that it requires talking about human flourishing and the development of one’s abilities. I think it is clear that poor economic agents also have a diminished ability to do these kinds of things, so my point still stands.

Here is the sad part: a large space of action, a reasonable ability to exert one’s will, and the pursue and achievement of human flourishing is what life is all about. We are sacrificing these kinds of things in order to preserve the liberty to own, sell, and hire. These are marginal liberties, they are not central to the core of humanhood.

This is the reason I would never defend free markets on principle. I would only defend them if they demonstrated themselves be the best way to attain widespread human flourishing, something which they have not done. Quite the contrary, actually: most research in economics, though still supportive of economic liberalism, is about ways the market fails to deliver. Real-life markets are full of imperfections, which economists call market failures.

I have some interesting comments to do on the debate about increasing the economic pie vs. distributing it more fairly. I will lay them out eventually, but here is a sneak peek to tantalize the reader: (i) Rawls claims that more inequality is only justifiable if it makes the poorest more well-off. (ii) The interest of future human beings matter (this is the reason we care so much about the environment); wouldn’t a faster yearly growth of the economic pie lead to overwhelming benefits in a few centuries, as anyone acquainted with compound interest knows?