A “Free market equals a Free human” is a nice catchy phrase. It implies that there’s no burden of regulation, no government interference, no one sitting in a far away office telling you what you can and can’t do with your life. While it might seem like something recently coined, the phrase was actually invented in the aftermath of the Great Depression as a means to push against newly minted government regulations on businesses (see Kevin Kruse’ “One Nation Under God“).
The sentiment is alive and well today, even if it is decades old. Politicians and pundits alike are adamant about a strict free market: anything short of an unbridled economy is socialist and should be avoided at all costs, goes the talking point. We aren’t free if the government is imposing its will upon the people and their businesses.
Truth is, this notion really gets twisted.
I am all for capitalism. The idea that demand drives supply and prices and wages while at the same time the competition enables innovation, creativity and iPhones seems fairly logical. As a fiction writer, I absolutely appreciate the competition aspect in keeping me a sharp writer with new twists. I find the marketing arena exciting and even fun. I greatly enjoy the ability to set my own prices as a self-published author. I am happy to be able to choose Dutch Bros. over Starbucks, Jeeps over Explorers, and Sling TV over Charter as a consumer.
Yet. The reality of the free market gospel is that it gives corporations freedom to manipulate interest rates, freedom to drive up foreign exchange rates, freedom to create economic bubbles. Consider the market crash of 2007. With the invention of wiley animals such as CDO’s and derivative markets, investors were able to create a bubble that not only busted, it hobbled the housing industry for years (consumers still feel the effects of inflated home prices), and very neatly enabled a large shift in wealth distribution upwards, sounding an air-raid-worthy alarm for the US middle class.
The consequence of such ‘freedom’ was a monumental chasm of wealth disparity such that the majority who once thought themselves ‘free humans’ because they exist within a ‘free market’ system were no longer free, but shackled with debt and very few resources.
Perhaps a free market doesn’t equate to a free human after all.
There’s an agreement we all have that certain things just aren’t advantageous to a viable society; theft, murder, and money scams are regulated and deemed illegal precisely because of the damaging affect they pose to a peaceful way of life that’s necessary if we want to progress as a species. We all accept this premise to be true and in that we understand that we aren’t free to do whatever we want. It is time we extrapolate that idea into the intangible realm of economics. If SCOTUS can rule that a corporation is a person, then that person should be subject to rules and regulations that prevent them from harming society, just like the rest of us. That is the reality of a free market.