Freedom = ƒ(Money)?
Has freedom become a function of money?
No, this question is not new. However it’s one I want to ponder with you—without strict definitions of freedom and liberty *—, because it much seems like something truly terrible has happened over the centuries.
If you have no money, you’re not free. You depend on your peers or your administration for welfare, if they grant you any. While some countries might provide a safety net sufficient for shelter, food, and the meeting of basic needs, they might still take whatever you had left (property and valuables, for example), and you can generally forget about great geographical freedom, for you wouldn’t have the funds to travel quite far.
If you do have money, you can (or should) live to your means. You can buy what you want granted you have the funds for it. Luckily, with many markets with (near) perfect competition, you find a range of products and services that can well suit your needs and tastes. You’re reasonably free.
If you do have even more money, let’s say more than 99% of the people in your country, and particularly in the world, then you do have even more freedom. Exaggerated but not naively, you can buy publishers to express your views; you can influence politicians and lawmakers through your size (if only to keep 1,000 employees in the state); worse, you may literally get away with murder.
Fortunately for us there seems to be only a weak correlation between wealth and weakness of character. But there seems to be a strong one between wealth and freedom.
If that is so, then something astonishing as much as terrifying has happened. We have then more or less completely linked people’s—our—freedom and rights to the possession of money. We have then made something immaterial that should be unalienable contingent on something (still mostly) physical that is rather ephemeral. We have then given up our greatest possession † and enslaved ourselves.
The background and history of this, I don’t care about here. It may be accidental, it may be sinister. I don’t even care about how this connection could absolutely, immediately be broken, either, for the connection would be artificial, wrong, and harmful. For the moment I just wish this to sink in, and for us to ask:
Has freedom become a function of money?
And if so, then we may want to work on regaining our freedom—and not making more money.
* The way I understand the difference between “freedom” and “liberty”—a difference we don’t appear to have in German, with Freiheit—is that “freedom” really refers to positive liberty (here now picking up on how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy handles it, to be free to, whereas “liberty” rather means negative liberty, to be free from). The first ten Google results on the difference all yield different definitions, but if you have the definitive answer or a useful view, please share it. For the sake of this article, by the way, I believe the difference not to matter. It seems that applying other meanings of “freedom,” but also replacing “freedom” with “liberty” would still support the argument I’m making, and lead to the same questions.
† I humbly disagree with Spooner and other great thinkers on that there was something like natural rights or natural freedom. I don’t think there are such rights for in the natural state, there’s no authority granting or enforcing them for us (authority is instrumental in my view of rights—then again, I don’t have a comprehensive picture of political philosophy yet). That in our natural state, we don’t have rights doesn’t lead me to Hobbes-like despair, however: In the model of reality that I subscribe to life is not nearly as brutal as we try to make it.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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