"I am convinced that the freedom-of-choice principle is so woven into human existence that any effort to curtail it is an attempt to curtail life itself. To lose our freedom to choose is to lose our humanity."
Personal freedom of choice is an important aspect of the case for limited government. To the extent that responsibility for self is surrendered to or usurped by government—to the extent that one loses freedom of choice—the individual is thereby diminished. The freedom to choose is part of the very essence of man.
An assault on the peaceful exercise of free choice has been the consequence of most government programs. Whether advocated by conservatives, present-day liberals, or doctrinaire Marxists, all government activity rests on the power to coerce. It removes decision-making power from the individual and vests it in the hands of the state. This is an awesome power, best left in the hands of the many, acting voluntarily, than concentrated in the hands of those few who would compel obedience.
The greatest assault on free choice has taken place in the economic sphere, especially in our roles as consumer, worker, and businessman. This is due to the subtle and roundabout manner in which the assault has taken place. Those quick to defend the concept of free choice in the area of civil liberty often fail to recognize that the concept extends to economic liberty as well. Free choice is free choice, whether it involves the exercise of religion, the press, or speech, or whether it involves the expenditure of money or the investment of capital. Unfortunately, most businessmen are as guilty of the failure to recognize this as are the self-proclaimed protectors of civil liberties.
Economic Liberty at Stake
When making the case against government regulation, our arguments should not rest solely on cost/ benefit analysis or economic efficiency. Rather, the question comes down ultimately to whether individuals—reporters, ministers, artists, consumers, workers, or businessmen—are entitled to exercise peacefully their freedom of choice. We must recognize that freedom of choice is not exclusively an issue involving civil liberty—the concept pertains to economic liberty as well.
The assault on free choice is easily recognized when it involves civil liberty or where laws specifically prohibit certain activities. For instance, laws which prohibit church attendance, require the use of motorcycle helmets or safety belts, outlaw gambling or ban the sale of laetrile and other drugs clearly limit the exercise of free choice by individuals. That such laws restrict the peaceful exercise of free choice is difficult to deny. However, government regulations aimed at protecting or regulating consumers, workers, and businessmen likewise restrict free choice, but do so in a manner difficult to diagnose. Perhaps if as much emphasis were placed on the case for free choice in the economic sphere as is expressed on behalf of civil liberty, businessmen would have greater success defeating harmful restrictions of their freedom. Furthermore, it is just as important to acknowledge that all restrictions on businessmen ultimately curtail the free choice of consumers. As Ludwig von Mises has written, “The market economy—capitalism—is a social system of consumers’ supremacy.” In a free market, consumers, by buying or abstaining from buying, are the primary influence on a profit-seeking businessman. Restricting free choice inhibits the businessman’s ability to serve consumers.
The assault on free choice in economic affairs has been possible primarily because of an incomplete concept of freedom and an ignorance of the true nature of government. A clear definition of freedom reveals the coercive nature of government activity. Freedom is the absence of coercion—force or the threat of force—in peaceful activities. Free choice, therefore, is the absence of coercion in the peaceful exercise of choice. With a proper understanding of freedom and the nature of government it is possible to examine recent government programs, recognize the presence of coercion, and consequently understand the danger which threatens the survival of the free-dom-of-choice principle.
One of the most recent examples of the assault on free choice is the demand for protection against the influx of foreign automobiles. In an effort to protect the owners of American automobile companies and the jobs of American workers, various proposals have been made to limit or regulate the importation of foreign automobiles. Such a regulation would strike at the very heart of the free-choice principle. It would deny American consumers the freedom to choose what type of automobile they wish to drive. It is an anti-consumer, anti-free choice proposal. The American consumer would be as much of a victim of such a restriction as the Japanese producer.
Similarly, all restrictions on free trade curtail free choice. They take the decision-making power away from individuals and vest it in the hands of the state. The consumer is denied the freedom to choose how to spend his money.
A more subtle assault on free choice occurs in the area of employment. Often under the guise of”fairness” or “social justice,” legislation is passed which substitutes compulsion for voluntary cooperation and free choice. But it is neither fair nor just to prohibit a worker from freely choosing whether to accept a specific wage offer. Our minimum wage laws deny a worker the choice of selling his labor for less than a politically mandated wage rate. The government intervenes and denies both the employer and the worker the freedom to choose mutually acceptable terms of their voluntary and peaceful relationship. Passing laws which arbitrarily set “proper” pay levels increases conflict in society and shifts decision-making power away from willing buyers and sellers of services over to politicians and special interest groups.
During the 1980 election campaigns, candidates for national of-rice were loudly proclaiming their undying commitment to social security. To suggest that saving for retirement be voluntary was considered one of the worst possible political blunders. This is an indication of how far we’ve wandered from the principles upon which this nation was founded. It has become a politi cal death wish to argue that citizens should be allowed free choice to decide how much—if anything—they wish to save from their weekly paycheck. Whatever happened to the individual’s unalienable right to his life, liberty and property? Compulsion seems to have become a more cherished principle than free choice.
Another area where the role of free choice is often overlooked concerns profits. In a free market, profit and loss derive from consumers exercising their free choice. The consumer is sovereign. He decides whether to buy a Chrysler or a Toyota; to purchase from Mobil, Exxon, or Shell, or to take the bus to work. Both profits and losses are primarily a result of the exercise of free choice by consumers. Ultimately, consumers determine which producers will be rewarded and which will fail.
Assaults on free choice take the form of coercion and conflict. The basis of relationships among individuals becomes compulsion rather than voluntary cooperation.
When wage rates are determined by mutual agreement of employer and employee, jobs open up for all who want to work. Likewise, allowing free choice to determine profit and loss maximizes consumer satisfaction. Allowing individuals free choice to save for their retirement is an effective means to security in old age. And allowing free choice in trade means increased harmony among nations and a higher standard of living for all people of the world.
Freedom of choice is a prerequisite of moral behavior. Herbert Spencer observed that “the ultimate effect of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” Abridging freedom of choice, even the freedom to make mistakes, will create a world of fools and failing enterprises.
It is important that we respect the freedom-of-choice principle. Governments, whose proper role is to defend this concept, have far too often been the violator of it. The idea that people will be better off if their freedom to choose is restricted is absurd. It leads to the tyranny of 1984 and Brave New World. As Aldous Huxley warned in the latter book:
“Government by clubs and firing squads, by artificial famine, mass imprisonment and mass deportation, is not merely inhumane—it is demonstrably inefficient. A really totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive or political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”
Upholding the freedom to choose is the alternative to such servitude. A two-pronged approach is necessary. Businessmen must emphasize the role of free choice when defending their profits or opposing government interventions. And those quick to proclaim the importance of free choice in the realm of civil liberty—if they desire consistency—must defend a businessman’s exercise of free choice. Together these forces can guarantee an increase of freedom throughout society.
Roger Ream is director of seminars of The Foundation for Economic Education.