Power, Freedom, and Economics
For what the "pro-market" viewpoint of mainstream economics emphasizes most importantly of all is the individual freedom that the citizens of a market-based society have. That freedom, when considered in terms of the analysis of power developed in this book, is not inconsistent with the kind of command hierarchical society described here. Freedom, in the pro-market view, is essentially the freedom to choose one's economic relations with other people, entering into and withdrawing from any such relations that one pleases when one pleases. Yet choice is never without limits-there are always constraints of one kind or another--and the freedom to choose must be understood as the equivalent of having choices within the limits of those constraints. Having freedom to choose then is not inconsistent with being subject to power, for power consists in the ability to alter the constraints to which a person is subject in her decisions. Even very great freedon--over an extremely wide range of alternatives within the given set of constraints to which one is subject--does not in itself mean that one is necessarily free from another person's capacity to alter those constraints. Freedom to choose is not freedom from subjection to power.
"Freedom," alternatively, refers to the scope of autonomous action that individuals have, that is, the range of possible activities they may undertake without experiencing interference or impingement by others. "Power," on the other hand, refers to the capacity of a person to alter the scope or range of autonomous action of an individual, or to change the boundaries or parameters of the individual's freedom. If we grant that market systems allow their members an extended scope of autonomous action--obviously a critically important thing in people's ability to fulfill their aspirations and direct their own destinies--that still does not at all preclude that in such systems people are subject to power, nor does it imply that they are necessarily any less subject to power than in other kinds of economic systems or that the power to which they are subject is any less insidious.
And whether capitalist market systems actually do allow people greater freedom to choose is a critical question that is still subject to debate, despite the fact that many, especially mainstream economists, would take it as unquestionable truth. Two very basic, critical points are notable in this regard. First, there are some quite important kinds of things that capitalist market systems are especially poor at providing opportunities for people to choose: Opportunities to consume collective or public consumption goods, as many authors have elaborated, tend to be sorely underprovided in market systems; so too are opportunities to engage in collectively organized production activities, that is, democratically structured workplaces (as I elaborated in an earlier chapter). If capitalist market systems provide an enormous scope of choice of other kinds of things, but do not provide as much scope of choice of these as do other systems, then it cannot be clear that market systems allow unambiguously greater freedom of choice.
Second, there is the problem of distribution: If capitalist systems are, as seems apparent, conducive of greater material inequality than are other systems, then while better-off people may have greater freedom in such systems than in others, those worse off may have less freedom than they would in others. Logically, capitalist market systems cannot then be said to allow unambiguously greater freedom to their subjects: Unless it can be shown conclusively that the general level of affluence such systems create necessarily "trickles down" all the way to those at the bottom of the distribution, those least well-off in capitalism may be worse off---and have accordingly less freedom of choice--than their counterparts in other less affluent economic systems.
Again, however, even if such questions could some how be resolved definitively in favor of capitalist market systems, concluding that such systems do indeed extend people's freedoms by no means allows us to suppose that they therefore provide a world in which there is necessarily less power impinging upon people than in other systems: We could then only conclude that the power relations to which people in market systems are subject impinge upon them, in some sense, more remotely, or in ways more removed from direct and immediate experience.
Nor can it be concluded that whatever power does impinge upon people in capitalism is necessarily any less injurious. That is, again supposing that capitalist systems do unambiguously extend "freedoms" so understood, that still does not make them somehow better, when major structures of domination are as critical in such systems as in other kinds of economies. For the nature of power is such that those subject to it, were they able to effectively choose under more congenial circumstances, would elect not to be subject to it. To put it differently, it could be that, had people a choice in the matter under more congenial circumstances, they might offer to give up some of the expanded freedoms allowed in the capitalist market system, in order to be free of the power structures that are also necessarily associated with it.
That is mainly speculation, of course, at best merely intimating an objective critical evaluation of capitalist market systems. Yet while theorists in the other social sciences routinely take up these and related questions about capitalist societies, mainstream economists, whose field more than any other consists in the study of markets, do not generally venture anywhere near this far. That is the result of their studious avoidance of issues of power: Mainstream economics has contributed next to nothing toward a general understanding of the articulation of capitalist market systems in terms of the power structures intrinsic to them, much less toward a comprehension of the moral and other implications of those structures. So thorough has that avoidance been among economists that it is almost as if a decision had been made somewhere along the line to define the field as devoted to the study of things not involving power, and not to be concerned with any critical perspectives employing that concept. One suspects that a decision to avoid such consequential matters in so august a f'ield may be ideologically rather than scientifically motivated.