The endless struggle for ownership of “economic freedom”

The Heritage Foundation recently put out its 2012 Index of Economic Freedom. Like a lot of what Heritage puts out, its annual Index of Economic Freedom is exceedingly strange. Countries are assigned — without any coherent method — scores from 0 to 100 in categories like Labor Freedom, Business Freedom, Government Spending, and Property Rights. As you might predict, governments that follow the right-wing policy prescriptions on business and labor issues are deemed more free, and those that don’t are deemed less free.

Every time Heritage releases this index, it strikes me how extremely important it is for any political movement these days to define its political preferences as being in line with freedom. The word “freedom” has been so overused in so many conflicting ways, that it has basically lost any specific meaning. In the last few decades, the resurgent right-wing has managed to capture the phrase “economic freedom” for its side by using it to describe its platform of laissez-faire capitalism, slashed social spending, and union-busting.

As Mike Konczal wrote a month ago, the phrase “economic freedom” has not always been the exclusive domain of the right-wing. Economic freedom used to be associated with the ability of workers to join unions, to have some control over their workplace, and to resist the coercion inherent in systems where economic insecurity is possible. It is not just early 20th century progressives who forwarded this understanding of economic freedom either.

Anti-capitalists of all sorts have seized upon the idea of economic freedom from the very beginning. Working under a boss that tells you what to do, when to do it, with the constant threat of termination if you do not comply has been historically portrayed as the anti-thesis of economic freedom. Even so-called free laborers were only free in that they had the ability to choose what set of bosses and owners to tell them what to do. Anti-capitalists argued (and still do) that the lingering possibility of being without a job and thus without the means to stay alive is a coercive force that constrains individual freedom not unlike having a gun to your head does.

In addition to the socialists, theorists of distributive justice have occasionally weighed in on the economic freedom debate. Amartya Sen’s pioneering theory of distributive justice for instance — one I am particularly fond of — understands freedoms as substantive opportunities to carry out courses of action that are truly and actually available to somebody, not just formally or legally available. This approach to freedom — tagged the capability approach — understands economic freedom in terms of maximizing the capabilities necessary for the advance of human well-being.

A society with economic freedom then is one in which everyone has the real opportunity — as opposed to merely legal or formal opportunity — to work a job, to have comfortable housing, to be nourished, to be educated, to care for their children, and so on. These are the kinds of economic freedoms that enhance well-being, and thus — under the capability approach — the kinds of freedoms that would be relevant when considering just how much economic freedom a country has.

This of course is totally counter to what Heritage has in mind, and Heritage predictably provides no particular argument in favor of the agenda-driven categories it chooses for its Economic Freedom Index. Doubtlessly, some sort of deontological libertarianism is at its root. But just because the right-wing has strangely captured the phrase in the last few decades, that does not mean it should be conceded over to them. The idea that extreme laissez-faire capitalism can be described as economic freedom is a very new one historically, and one for which there are very convincing reasons to reject.