Economic Vs. Civil Liberties

Aeon J. Skoble,

Release Date
September 21, 2011


Civil Liberties

Which are more important, economic liberties or civil liberties? The conventional view portrays conservatives as caring more about economic liberties than civil liberties. Liberals, on the other hand, are conventionally viewed as caring about civil liberties more than economic liberties. To Prof. Aeon Skoble, this distinction between economic and civil liberties is fictitious. The influence of market exchanges and civil liberties on one another is inseparable.

Economic Vs. Civil Liberties
The stereotype is that conservatives understand how economic liberty works and don’t care as much for civil liberties, and that the liberals care about civil liberties but don’t really care much about economic freedom or know really how free market economies are supposed to work. The truth is there’s no real distinction between civil liberties and economic liberties. They’re one and the same, and it’s a mistake to try to separate them out and defend one at the expense of the other. What does it mean to have freedom of choice or freedom of conscience if I don’t have the physical freedom to make a transaction that brings that choice into reality?
For example, let’s say that you have a publishing company. You want the freedom to be able to publish what you want. But what does it mean to say that you have the freedom to publish what you want if there’s restrictions on what sorts of printed material can be bought and sold? Your right to read is tied to other people’s right to publish. You don’t have the right to seek information if the information isn’t allowed to come into existence in the first place.
By the same token, if I have the right to publish anything I want, but some of the ideas I publish are punishable by death, then I really don’t have a substantial right to publish whatever I want. So this is an example of how economic liberty, if we think of it from the point of view of buying and selling printed matter, is connected very intimately to your individual liberty of conscience in choosing what to read, what to think, what to believe.
Here’s another example. Let’s say that I choose to become an attorney, but I live in a society in which people with brown hair are not permitted to become attorneys. I don’t really have the choice to go into that profession. My personal freedom to choose is limited by the transactional freedom that I’m not permitted to work in a given profession. If I don’t have the freedom to work in the profession that I choose, then it doesn’t make sense to say that I have the right to choose a profession.
When we make transactions in the economic realm, we are putting into physical reality in the social setting the choices that we make. So if I don’t have the freedom to transact, then my freedom of choice is hollow and abstraction. By the same token, a market economy with no restrictions on trade wouldn’t have much value at all if we weren’t allowed to have freedom of conscience, if we weren’t allowed to read what we wanted to read or say what we wanted to say. So the reality is there’s no distinction between civil liberties and economic liberties at all. Economic liberties simply are the physical social manifestations of the freedom of choice or freedom of conscience that we take so seriously.