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FREEDOM, MEANING AND THE MARKET
BY LENE AUESTAD
everyone seems to agree that freedom is a desirable aim; hence the word «freedom» is one, which is being used and abused all around us. «You are free to choose which colour you want,” states a commercial for sweaters. When a garment is produced in different colours, one would have thought that this fact should be too obvious to be stated. The fact that it is nevertheless emphasised illustrates the state of affairs in which freedom has become so popular that it is used rhetorically in every possible and impossible circumstance. It also serves to exemplify the fact that in most of the contexts in which the word freedom appears, the matters at stake are of very little importance to us.
There is a sense in which we all live in the shadow of Jean-Paul Sartre; the great modern theorist of freedom has had a great impact on the self-conceptions of people alive today. To Sartre, freedom is set apart from happiness, and he can be interpreted as stating that freedom is the only thing, which is valuable in itself. As opposed to an antique conception of the world and human beings according to which realizing one’s human potential is equated with achieving happiness, to Sartre, (who would not use the word potential) acting authentically as a human being is to act freely. While freedom can be conceived of as existing in relation to a concrete good or evil – as an ability to achieve a good or to avoid an evil – freedom after Sartre does not lead to specific goods or to happiness, it even undermines these aims because it allows the agent to see their subjective, contingent and changeable character.
Although it is a misinterpretation of Sartre’s theory to claim that the choices one makes should be such that their outcome is always open to revision, that their consequences should not be lasting and final, lest one limits one’s own freedom, there are places in which he seems to interpret himself in this fashion. This perverted version of Sartre can be seen to resemble the most dominant conception of freedom today, the freedom of the market, which most often is the freedom to make unimportant choices of little consequence. Thus freedom has become divorced from meaning. The result is that we all want freedom, although most of us don’t know why or what for.
i don’t know what freedom is, but I know what the opposite is. It’s being sick without health insurance» says one those asked in C. Fred Alford’s book Rethinking Freedom (2005). The opposite of being free is conceived of as feeling helpless and no one being there to help, of being at the mercy of others who show no mercy. What Alford fails to comment on in relation to this example, is the degree to which this evaluation of helplessness is socially created. How does the fact that a society fails to come to the aid of someone in need shape the individuals’ moral outlook and view of freedom?
Many of the young people Alford asked see freedom as being equivalent with money and power, or as being unimportant compared to money and power. I believe an important part of the explanation of why they think so is one central negative freedom they don’t posses, and that is largely lacking in today’s society, namely freedom from fear. A large number of people live in continuous fear of losing their jobs, they fear the social consequences of becoming ill and not receiving adequate help, they fear having to face a welfare system which is concerned with humiliating one. Facing the welfare system means facing the accusation that one’s position is due to one’ s own incompetence, one’s irresponsible life-style, and that one cheats in order to receive underserved benefits. In short, one fears helplessness combined with the reactions of others who not only fail to sympathise, but also do what they can to induce feelings of guilt and shame.
a lot of people see money and power as a solution that may prevent their own fall. Some of the people interviewed by Alford have no second thoughts about money and power being the desirable thing, others regret that it is so, but still see it as the reality to which they have to accommodate. Thus, the marked has a capacity to provide individual relief, say, rendering better and a lot more expensive health services available (although only to those who are able to pay for it). The problem at a social level arises when a sufficient amount of individuals do so, as they lose interest in maintaining health services as a common good. A public health system shifts from being thought of as existing for everyone, to becoming only for the sake of an unprivileged minority. When Bondevik (the Norwegian prime minister for the Christian party, leading a coalition government) refers to people as «the poor», he reveals this lack of identification. «The poor» are thought of, not as someone who might as easily have been myself had things turned out differently, but as a stigmatized group, whose members one may «feel sorry for», but fails to feel related to. This fragmentation on a social level is accompanied by a lack of trust on the individual level, from which people conclude that they have to provide for themselves because no one else will, – in many cases it is a «regretful egoism» – leading to a shortage of common goods as an unintended consequence.
Also, some of the enthusiasm about the freedom of the marked can be explained as a revolt against higher social groups holding what is seen as too much power in different sectors. (The health-sector can be used as an example again.) The market promises to remove some age-old unequal distributions of power, expressed in the dictum «the customer is always right». Thus it gives an answer to a felt impotence, which would explain the apparent paradox of why so many of those voting for Frp, (the Norwegian populist-liberalist party), are those most likely to suffer from the cuts in the welfare budgets the party proposes. However, although an omnipotent part of the self may want to be «always right», people are also basically communicative beings. Probably, most people would rather have a say in the questions that concern them, feel respected and taken seriously, and be able to influence matters of importance to their lives. Yet when this need is not met, being «always right» may seem an attractive alternative to being overruled and being inferior in a system of unequal power distribution. But the cost of this solution is that everyone is left to rule in their own closed domains which do not touch those of the others. And this lack of communication again results in a loss of meaning.
When fear becomes too prevalent in a society, the society suffers as a result. Knowing that there is a limit to how far one can fall would give people a sense of freedom, which lends itself to be put to a more positive use. Whether one lives in a society that kicks people who lie on the ground or one that supports people who fall down to enable them to realize their potential, does make a large difference to how people evaluate what their freedom is about. Only by creating an environment in which relying on, and depending on, others is not too threatening and not too shameful, can a society provide a safe ground on which people can exercise their freedom. And it is the moral task of any society to provide such a ground.
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