Freedom isn’t free

One of the straw men I’d best dispense with at the outset is the one that conflates the freedom of markets with the freedom of democracy. I know no one sensible actually subscribes to the position I’m about to critique, but I feel like some version of it underlies a lot of our assumptions when we talk about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, so here goes.

Free markets and democracy are often understood as going hand in hand, but in fact there’s a fundamental incompatibility between them, or at least a fundamental tension. The freedom of free markets involves surrendering collective outcomes to the operation of the invisible hand. While this frees individual economic activity from government regulation, it puts collective outcomes at the mercy of the logic of the market. A form of control is given up. This control is at the heart of a certain vision of democracy, of which I happen to be fond: that it involves citizens intentionally making collective decisions that effectively shape the conditions of their lives (I know, laughably quaint, right?). Do you see the tension? Either you give up on the prospect of intentional collective action, or you admit that market logic isn’t infallible and instead should sometimes be contradicted for the public good, to generate a more democratic outcome. A lot of people may be willing to take the first option; stubbornly, in my heart I’m not one of them.

Like I said, a bit of a straw man I’m tilting against here, but I think it’s important to sound a note of skepticism about free-market fundamentalism. There are all kinds of problems with the positions I’ve laid out here, like the distinction between positive and negative versions of liberty in the work of Isaiah Berlin, which I’ll get to at some point if I know what’s good for me. But for now, let me posit as a baseline for much of what’s to come a feeling, a suspicion, a stubborn refusal to accept that markets and democracy are naturally compatible. Whether or not philanthropy is a corrective or an accomplice to this tension is one of the things I’ll explore in this blog.


Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Freedom isn’t free”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Too many things, too many things Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works « Freedom isn’t free […]

  2. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Throw another stone in the river, Paul Carttar Says:

    […] implications of the boom for our understanding of the relationship between markets and democracy. As I’ve been saying, the two aren’t inexorably linked (an insight I owe to Jeff Weintraub from a political […]

  3. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Isn’t It Ironic? On “Democratic Capitalism” Says:

    […] I’ve written about, and I owe this insight to my mentor Jeff Weintraub, in one respect democracy and the […]

Leave a Reply