Free Stuff for Free People

It’s an election year! And you know what that means: public displays of wackadoo as American politics sinks to new lows. But there has been some interesting philosophical wrangling, as Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race as the first successful avowed socialist to enter a presidential race since Eugene V. Debs. He introduced what for the United States are radical ideas: universal health care, tuition-less college, and a living wage. These are ideas that have been taken for granted elsewhere. Yet it has led to an avalanche of memes about “freeloading” and “free stuff”. That’s too bad, because “free stuff” is necessary for a free society.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Property is power granted by the state that gives the owner of a thing the legal right to constrain the actions of non-owners regarding that thing. Every property right is state coercion against non-owners.

This is made worse by two additional factors about property. First, it is endlessly accumulative. There is no end to the wealth that people are able to acquire. The result is that the state is primarily at the service of those with the most property. And I don’t mean that wealthy people have more political influence. Because ownership means being able to call upon the state to control others, the state is literally at the service of property owners. In fact, the accumulation of wealth could not occur without the modern state there to protect it.

Second, property is not restricted to a limited domain of objects. In the United States, it took a horrific war to end the practice of owning people. At the same time, exceptions to property rights have steadily eroded. Feudal societies recognized various common property rights, mostly revolving around subsistent use. For example, the commoners of medieval England had the right of “estovers”, the right to take wood from any woodlands, regardless of ownership, or piscary, the right to subsistence fishing. Yet now property rights are conceived as being without such exceptions, regardless of people’s needs.

A maximally free society would have no property rights. People would take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. However, we cannot will such a world into existence. But if we care about the freedom of the individual, then we must ease the restrictions of existing property rights. This is achieved by one of two ways.

First, we give people money. In a world of private property rights, the lack of money is a lack of freedom. If I don’t have money, I can’t get on the bus and ride across town, I can’t take food from the store, I can’t rent or buy shelter – no matter how much I want to or need to. Money is the primary means in a commercial society of accessing objects locked behind the invisible bars of property.

This is true regardless of why I don’t have money. I may be destitute from illness or I may be a gentleman grifter. It doesn’t matter. If we care about the freedom of human beings among modern property rights, then we have a political, coercible obligation to give them money.

Second, we can modify the means of distribution. We could give everyone the money they need to buy necessities. Then they could go and buy their own health insurance. The problem there is economic – the nature of the commodity causes most people to be priced out of their markets. This has been shown to be true for free markets in private pensions, for-profit insurances, and other forms of finance, as well as natural monopolies in transportation, communications, and utilities. That’s why so many of these goods and services are decommodified (taken off the market) in most countries. Access to them is not based on a price determined by supply and demand.

This is the actual nature of most of our “free stuff”, both the free stuff we already have, and the free stuff that we want. We are shifting the means of access from rationing by price to rationing by other means. Private, for-profit health insurance means that access to health care is rationed by how much you can pay, which is driving more and more people out of the market as costs increase. Universal health insurance means that health care is distributed by the medical necessity of the care, as determined by the doctor and patient. Private college means you go to college if you can afford it, and you have the academic qualifications. “Free” public college means that you only need the academic qualifications.

Between the two scenarios above, one private and rationed by price, and the other public and rationed by need, which gives more freedom to the individual? Because public goods are distributed by means other than price, they deliver more freedom to the individual. I have more freedom when I can see any doctor that I like because health care is guaranteed regardless, then when a private insurer tells me I can only see doctors in my ‘network’. I have more freedom when I can attend college when I have only to demonstrate my competence rather than both competence and payment.

Property itself is state coercion. If we care about freedom, then we must adopt means of reducing the restrictions of property against its non-owners. A system of taxation and transfers expand the freedom of those without by providing them with public money. And, as citizens, we have the fundamental obligation to defend the freedom of one another. Thus we owe our tax money to others. Also, an expansion of public goods expands freedom by distributing goods in a manner besides price – for example, universal health insurance distributes care according to medical necessity. All of this assumes that we genuinely care about freedom, and that we don’t just use it as a buzzword or shibboleth. That seems to be in short supply these days.

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