Freedom, capital function as parts of a whole system

Let’s pretend for a moment that we are taking the SATs, just for fun – because we all know what a good time that test is. Analogies were a particular kick in pants, so here’s one: Economics is to politics as capital is to __________?

If you said freedom, you were right – at least by my way of thinking; the smart folks at Educational Testing Service might have another idea. Here’s mine.

At some level, each and every policy that is considered – let alone implemented – is analyzed for its economic effects. Sometimes this is explicit, such as with monetary policy or tax rates. More often, it is a bit more nuanced.

Environmental regulations, for instance, have an economic effect, but so do the scenarios those regulations are trying to correct. There would be less incentive to impose restrictions on air pollution if breathing dirty air did not have significant negative externalities that society must bear along with the individuals affected by pollutants.

Striking the right balance between costs and benefits does not come easy, really ever, and in large part that might be because of the ideology described in the “economics is to politics” analogy.

Under that rubric, politics and policies that result from them are designed to generate, perpetuate, protect and elevate freedom above all other concepts. That notion provides a built-in check on government’s function: It should only be empowered to the extent that is furthering the freedom of those governed. Sounds pretty good – until you spend a little time unpacking what freedom really means.

Merriam-Webster offers a surprisingly long list of definitions: “1: the quality or state of being free: as a) the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b) liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another: independence; c) the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous; d) ease, facility; e) the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken; f) improper familiarity; g) boldness of conception or execution; h: unrestricted use; 2: a) a political right; b) franchise, privilege.”

Many of these definitions assume that those who possess freedom do so in a vacuum; that the very act of being free fails to consider whether that freedom affects others in a way that might impinge on their freedoms.

It forgets that humans are social beings and that freedom must defined in terms of community, and therefore consider the notion of responsibility as well.

Unfettered freedom is simply not realistic outside of one’s own head. The very fact that government is charged with providing and protecting freedom illustrates the point that freedom is a bit more complex than doing whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it.

So then there is the corollary: economics and capital. The idea that the former is designed to generate as much of the latter as possible, regardless of consequence is enshrined in our thinking and our politics, and heavily influences our policies. But as with freedom, capital comes with some responsibilities, too. Amassing it is fine, provided that doing so does not come at the expense of others’ attempts at the same.

Ensuring that such a bargain is struck requires recognition that economics and politics – and the pursuits that they each engender – are systemic, contextual and complicated. Accordingly, it is easy to demand freedom: to earn, to save, to spend, to worship, to work, to not work, to receive health care, to not receive health care; but it is impossible to deliver each of those freedoms (or manifestations of capital) without compromising someone else’s counterbalancing demand.

Yes, economics is about money, but it also about keeping systems whole and functioning – take a look at Europe for a timely example of how challenging it is to respond to cultural differences united under a single currency, but which lack a unified monetary policy. So, too, is politics and its resultant policy about freedom – at least in our rhetorical and electoral system. But it is also about community.

This is true whether at the local, state or national levels, and recognizing it – to say nothing of responding to it – requires courageous leadership. It is true that codifying into policy a vision for the future, regardless of the particular issue, will curtail some freedoms. Establishing a social safety net, a military presence or a shaping community development through planning each requires tradeoffs, sacrifices and investment. Each requires action.

Failing to take that action does not mean increased freedom for individuals or more money in their pockets. It does, however, mean less trust and less community. There is little good that can come from that trajectory.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.