#OccupyWallStreet calls for freedom for themselves, drudgery for others

October 4, 2011

Mike Konczal on Rortybomb has asked people on the Occupy Wall Street protest to define freedom. The definitions they choose are simultaneously interesting and terrifying. Before we get onto the ‘terrifying’ bit, there are several quite sensible definitions, particularly this one:

Eight:  ”Realization of human potentiality.”

It’s pretty broad, but I would similarly broadly agree. Freedom means the freedom to reach your potential, however you define it; to not be constrained by circumstances of birth, by lack of access to knowledge or by things over which you have no control, such as your health. This freedom does not yet exist for everyone, but I’d argue its achievement is a clear liberal* goal.

However, some of the definitions ask for freedom from reality:

Two:  ”Revolution means freedom from necessity.”

Six:  ”Freedom means freedom from necessity, freedom to do what you want without having to sell yourself in order to survive.  Freedom to express who you are through whatever you want to do without any forces stopping you.”

Ten:  “I think that freedom is your ability to carry out what you want to do.  It’s not just about your social freedom, it is also about economic freedom.  If you are always working for a boss, you don’t have freedom either.  Freedom is always that you’re emancipated from your physical necessities and your mental baggage.”

What these definitions miss is that someone, somewhere, always has to be thinking about physical necessities. We can’t all be artists, because we’d starve to death. Someone needs to farm. Someone needs to deliver healthcare. Someone needs to get rid of the shit.

A society in which we are free from necessity is an impossible society; someone somewhere needs to take account of the necessities. If the people taking part in the Wall Street occupation genuinely believe such a thing to be possible, then they are calling for the slavery of others in order to remove the need for themselves to consider necessity, because that is what is required for such a thing to be the case.

The only fair way of distributing necessity within a society is for everyone to experience it. It is only through confrontation with the demands of necessity that we can identify effective ways of living in the world. Necessity breeds judgement, breeds character, and – above all – breeds virtue.

If the only call of the occupiers was for the rich to experience necessity themselves in the form of taxes, I could understand it. As it is, anyone calling for freedom from necessity is themselves an enemy of freedom.

*not in the American sense, in the actual sense.


3 Responses to “#OccupyWallStreet calls for freedom for themselves, drudgery for others”

  1. On what, exactly, do you base your implicit assertion that there aren’t people who won’t freely (or more likely, out of desire for the potential profits of doing so) pursue provision of those necessities? The very nature of markets suggest that if you allow people more freedom to choose whether or not to be farmers, then the profits available from farming will adjust naturally to attract enough farmers to the trade. It might mean that the nominal price of food is a bit higher than we see it being now, such that the work actually represents a profit to the people going into that field, but there’s no reason to believe that no one would do the job at any price if the threat of starvation wasn’t used to extort them into doing in at an overall loss. (And the nominal price wouldn’t matter given that we’d be providing people freedom by supporting that price at a societal level and because all other income would scale up from that honest pricing such that it more actively reflected its basic value to society based on the relative desirability of other lines of employment)

    • Adam Bell said

      I am a bit puzzled by this response. If you want to give people stuff for free, why bother with a market? Are you talking about having a State buyer for foodstuffs? Is this some kind of Citizens’ Income thing?

      I’m guessing your broader point is that if people have enough money to buy necessities for themselves without working, farmers will still be able to make a profit and so be incentivised to produce. The bit you’re missing is that the profit of those farmers will need to ploughed straight back into the ‘Citizen’s Income’ to pay for the food they’re producing, in an amusingly inverted version of the Oblong argument from the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The more Citizens you have versus Farmers, the less incentive anyone has to do any work. Unless you actively work to minimise the number of Citizens, you’re always going to encounter this incentive problem.

      • No, the profit those farmers make will go to buy the things that those citizens are producing, and so on, as is nature of the market. There will be some need to use taxes to regulate the overall money supply, prevent productive resources from being monopolized and idled, and maintain the value of money as the token of exchange, but it doesn’t follow that the entire profit of farmers will somehow disappear in the process short an extremely pathological tax process.

        The more citizens you have, the more potential income there exists for farmers (especially as technology and specialization serve to increase the output of any given farmer such that they can supply a greater portion of the other citizens) in turn they use the credit accumulated as profit from that production to pay other citizens to produce things that they want (since there are many, many more goods than just food in the economy) and the more the velocity continues through such purchases, the more citizens you support, and the less need there is to recall those credit markers to prevent stagnation and hoarding.

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