Freedom for whom?

I’ve been thinking about this old post of Corey Robin’s in relation to the recent developments in Indiana. In 2012 campaigners in Washington, including both leftists and libertarians, won a major victory and secured the legalization of marijuana. The first person to legally purchase it was promptly fired – having fought for marijuana legalization in the name of “freedom”, many libertarians would also defend the “freedom” of an employer to fire someone under these circumstances.

So what does “freedom” really mean? Is a person free to consume marijuana voluntarily without fear of persecution or termination from work, it being legalized on the grounds of extending liberty? I think in contemporary political discourse we often fall into the trap of thinking that the so-called “left/right divide” is a division about equality versus freedom, with the left championing the former and the right the latter. This just isn’t the case. The question isn’t about whether we emphasize *more* freedom or *more* equality. It’s about understanding that the two are deeply interrelated, and that “freedom” without equality is license and not liberty.

The central question of democratic politics isn’t about balancing this or that amount of freedom against this or that level of equality. It’s about whether we want a society in which employers are “free” to exploit their workforce; shareholders are “free” to lay waste to entire communities by relocating to where labour is cheaper at the drop of a hat; shop owners are “free” to persecute someone because their sexual identity makes them uncomfortable or conflicts with their private religious beliefs – or one in which people are free from alienating work and poorly-paid jobs; free to develop their capacities and use their time towards voluntarily chosen ends; free to exist without fear of persecution or poverty; and free to love or have sex with whoever they damn well please.

The central question, in order words, is: freedom for whom?


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