How wealthy Americans and corporations have used ‘negative freedom’ to strip rights away from workers

Fastfood workers
Overly promoting freedom of corporations can cause decreases to workers’ rights.

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • In the latest episode, they interviewed Mike Konczal, director of progressive thought at the Roosevelt Institute.
  • Konczal says allowing employers freedom to infringe on workers’ rights creates a dangerous economic imbalance.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The best brief definition of the limits of American freedom is a very old line that’s often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln: “My freedom to swing my fists ends where your nose begins.”

In other words, you can do what you want in America as long as you’re not hurting anyone. So far as rules of thumb go, it’s an elegant one.

And it also serves as a simple illustration of a difficult truth that isn’t often acknowledged in American politics: Freedom is never a zero-sum game.

Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, for example, we’ve established a minimum wage that (most) employers have had to pay. For workers, the minimum wage is an essential freedom to be protected, because it ensures that if they work a full week, they can afford the basic necessities. But for certain vulture capitalists, the minimum wage is a freedom-killing constraint to be derided and overturned. From their perspective, the minimum wage is impeding on their freedom to fatten profit margins by paying starvation wages.

Freedom in the workplace

Freedom isn’t handed down in pure form by some omniscient higher power. It’s determined by legislators, enforced by courts, and influenced by popular opinion. Like most human institutions, the decision of who enjoys more freedom is often rigged toward the most powerful. The last 40 years of outsized corporate influence has marched to the drumbeat of anti-worker laws that restrict the rights of workers to unionize and to keep their home life private. In general, the more freedoms your employers enjoy, the fewer freedoms you enjoy in your workplace.

This week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics” features an interview with Mike Konczal, the director of progressive thought at the Roosevelt Institute. Konczal’s new book, “Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand,” is about the junction between economics and freedom, and how to reclaim some of the freedoms that American workers briefly captured in the middle of the 20th century.

Konczal says the concept of trickle-down economics that ruled over American politics since the 1980s has been informed by the concept of prioritizing negative freedoms over positive freedoms. “Negative freedom is the idea of freedom from the government, and the idea that the government can’t stop you from doing the things you want,” he explained, whereas “positive freedom is associated with a freedom to – a freedom to be able to get health care, or get a good education.”

‘Pro-freedom’ and anti-government

For too long, leaders on the left and right have bought into the libertarian concept that a government’s primary role in protecting freedoms should be to limit government’s power wherever possible. This anti-government stance is the reason why, for instance, the “pro-freedom” argument over the 2nd Amendment has long been to argue for the freedom of those who own the guns, when gun safety advocates could just as logically argue that the freedom of the individual to go to school or participate in public events without fear of being killed in a mass shooting should take precedence.

The popular discourse has for decades been so absorbed with negative freedoms that benefit corporations, Konczal says, that we’ve forgotten to prioritize our individual positive freedoms.

“Is the government making us more or less free with the way the economy is structured?” he said. “I think it’s increasingly less free in the past decades.”

Worker versus employer freedoms

Konczal says the recent debate over secure scheduling laws, which require employers to post employee schedules in advance and pay workers extra for shifts added or canceled at the last minute, are a good example of a positive freedom. Some workers, he said, “don’t start their weeks knowing the hours they’re going to work over the next week.”

If employers aren’t required to tell workers when they will and won’t be working, Konczal asked, “how do you build a robust social life with that kind of stress?” Without the freedom to plan even one day ahead, “it’s tough to start and maintain a family, or to volunteer, or join a bowling league – all the things that we think of as having a rich social life,” he explained.

Once you understand that worker freedoms have been trampled over the last 40 years, you start to see examples everywhere. Consider the Jimmy John workers who were forced to sign agreements that said they couldn’t go to work for another fast food restaurant if they quit, or the janitors who unwittingly signed noncompete clauses. Think of how many people feel trapped in their jobs because they can’t afford to give up the health insurance their employers provide. Can anyone really make the argument that these workers are anywhere near as free as their counterparts in nations with single-payer health care and stronger worker protections?

The economic power imbalance

In order to reestablish freedoms that benefit the individual, Konczal argued that “we need to decommodify spheres of our lives.” A public health care system and free public college would establish a baseline in which everyone has the freedom to pursue the life that they want, and worker protections would allow people to live balanced lives.

And lastly, “we need to do something about the real disparities of wealth and income in this country through very aggressive progressive taxation,” Konczal said.

Freedom can’t exist in a country with the kind of economic power imbalance that exists in America today. Your freedom to swing big bags of money around ends when your fortune risks crushing the livelihoods of millions of working Americans.

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