Joseph Stiglitz and the Meaning of Freedom

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was no vaccine in sight and more than a thousand people who had contracted the virus were dying each day in the United States, Joseph Stiglitz, the economics professor and Nobel laureate, was isolating with his wife at home, on the Upper West Side. Stiglitz

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was no vaccine in sight and more than a thousand people who had contracted the virus were dying each day in the United States, Joseph Stiglitz, the economics professor and Nobel laureate, was isolating with his wife at home, on the Upper West Side. Stiglitz, who is now eighty-one, was a high-risk individual, and he followed the government’s guidelines on masking and social distancing scrupulously. Not everyone did, of course, and on the political right there were complaints that the mask mandate, in particular, was an unjustified infringement on individual freedom. Stiglitz strongly disagreed. “I thought it was very clear that this was an example where one person’s freedom is another’s unfreedom,” he told me recently. “Wearing a mask was a very little infringement on one person’s freedom, and not wearing a mask was potentially a large infringement on others.”

It also struck Stiglitz, who had served as chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration, that the experience of the pandemic could provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging examination of the question of freedom and unfreedom, which he had been thinking about from an economic perspective for many years. The result is a new book, “The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society,” in which he seeks to reclaim the concept of freedom for liberals and progressives. “Freedom is an important value that we do and ought to cherish, but it is more complex and more nuanced than the Right’s invocation,” he writes. “The current conservative reading of what freedom means is superficial, misguided, and ideologically motivated. The Right claims to be the defender of freedom, but I’ll show that the way they define the word and pursue it has led to the opposite result, vastly reducing the freedoms of most citizens.”

Stiglitz’s title is a play on “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek’s famous jeremiad against socialism, published in 1944. In making his argument, Stiglitz takes the reader on a broad tour of economic thinking and recent economic history, which encompasses everyone from John Stuart Mill to Hayek and Milton Friedman—the author of the 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom,” which has long been a free-market bible—to Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. The going can get a bit heavy when Stiglitz is explaining some tricky economic concepts, but his essential argument comes across very clearly. It is encapsulated in a quote from Isaiah Berlin, the late Oxford philosopher, which he cites on his first page and returns to repeatedly: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”

Stiglitz begins not with pandemic-era mask mandates but with the American plague of gun violence. He notes that there is a simple reason why the United States has far more gun deaths than other countries do. It has far more guns, and, thanks to a tendentious reading of the Second Amendment by the courts, including the Supreme Court, many Americans now regard owning a gun, or even a closet full of semi-automatic rifles, as a constitutionally protected right. “The rights of one group, gun owners, are placed above what most others would view as a more fundamental right, the right to live,” Stiglitz writes. “To rephrase Isaiah Berlin’s quote . . . ‘Freedom for the gun owners has often meant death to schoolchildren and adults killed in mass shootings.’ ”

Gun violence and the spread of diseases by people who refuse to abide by health guidelines are examples of what economists call externalities, an awkward word that is derived from the fact that certain actions (such as refusing to wear a mask) or market transactions (such as the sale of a gun) can have negative (or positive) consequences to the outside world. “Externalities are everywhere,” Stiglitz writes. The biggest and most famous negative externalities are air pollution and climate change, which derive from the freedom of businesses and individuals to take actions that create harmful emissions. The argument for restricting this freedom, Stiglitz points out, is that doing so will “expand the freedom of people in later generations to exist on a livable planet without having to spend a huge amount of money to adapt to massive changes in climate and sea levels.”

In all these cases, Stiglitz argues, restrictions on behavior are justified by the over-all increase in human welfare and freedom that they produce. In the language of cost-benefit analysis, the costs in terms of infringing on individual freedom of action are much smaller than the societal benefits, so the net benefits are positive. Of course, many gun owners and anti-maskers would argue that this isn’t true. Pointing to the gun-violence figures and to scientific studies showing that masking and social distancing did make a difference to COVID-transmission rates, Stiglitz gives such arguments short shrift, and he insists that the real source of the dispute is a difference in values. “Are there responsible people who really believe that the right to not be inconvenienced by wearing a mask is more important than the right to live?” he asks.

In 2srcsrc2, five years after he left the White House, Stiglitz published “Globalization and Its Discontents,” which was highly critical of the International Monetary Fund, a multilateral lending agency based in Washington. The book’s success—and the Nobel—turned him into a public figure, and, over the years, he followed it up with further titles on the global financial crisis, inequality, the cost of the war in Iraq, and other subjects. As a vocal member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Stiglitz has expressed support for tighter financial regulations, international debt relief, the Green New Deal, and hefty taxes on very high incomes and large agglomerations of wealth.

During our sit-down interview, Stiglitz told me that, for a long time, he had cavilled at the negative conception of freedom used by conservative economists and politicians, which referred primarily to the ability to escape taxation, regulation, and other forms of government compulsion. As an economist accustomed to thinking in theoretical terms, Stiglitz conceived of freedom as expanding “opportunity sets”—the range of options that people can choose from—which are usually bounded, in the final analysis, by individuals’ incomes. Once you reframe freedom in this more positive sense, anything that reduces a person’s range of choices, such as poverty, joblessness, or illness, is a grave restriction on liberty. Conversely, policies that expand people’s opportunities to make choices, such as income-support payments and subsidies for worker training or higher education, enhance freedom.

Adopting this framework in “The Road to Freedom,” Stiglitz reserves his harshest criticisms for the free-market economists, conservative politicians, and business lobbying groups, who, over the past couple of generations, have used arguments about expanding freedom to promote policies that have benefitted rich and powerful interests at the expense of society at large. These policies have included giving tax cuts to wealthy individuals and big corporations, cutting social programs, starving public projects of investment, and liberating industrial and financial corporations from regulatory oversight. Among the ills that have resulted from this conservative agenda, Stiglitz identifies soaring inequality, environmental degradation, the entrenchment of corporate monopolies, the 2srcsrc8 financial crisis, and the rise of dangerous right-wing populists like Donald Trump. These baleful outcomes weren’t ordained by any laws of nature or laws of economics, he says. Rather, they were “a matter of choice, a result of the rules and regulations that had governed our economy. They had been shaped by decades of neoliberalism, and it was neoliberalism that was at fault.”

Stiglitz’s approach to freedom isn’t exactly new, of course. Rousseau famously remarked that “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” In “Development as Freedom,” published in 1999, the Harvard economist and philosopher Amartya Sen argued, in the context of debates about poverty and economic growth in developing economies, that the goal of development should be to expand people’s “capabilities,” which he defined as their opportunities to do things like nourish themselves, get educated, and exercise political freedoms. “The Road to Freedom” falls in this tradition, which includes another noted philosopher, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stiglitz cites Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, delivered in January, 1941, in which the President added freedom from want and freedom from fear to freedom of speech and freedom of worship as fundamental liberties that all people should enjoy.

“A person facing extremes of want and fear is not free,” Stiglitz writes. He describes how, at a high-school reunion, he spoke with former classmates from the city he grew up in—Gary, Indiana, which had once been a thriving center of steel production. “When they graduated from high school, they said, they had planned to get a job at the mill just like their fathers. But with another economic downturn hitting they had no choice—no freedom—but to join the military . . . . Deindustrialization was taking away manufacturing jobs, leaving mainly opportunities that made use of their military training, such as the police force.”

Among the hats Stiglitz wears is one as chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. He doesn’t claim to have a surefire recipe for reviving rusting American steel towns. But in the second half of “The Road to Freedom” he calls for the creation of a “progressive capitalism” that would look nothing like the neoliberal variant he has spent the past two decades excoriating. In this “good society,” the government would employ a full range of tax, spending, and regulatory policies to reduce inequality, rein in corporate power, and develop the sorts of capital that don’t appear in G.D.P. figures or corporate profit-and-loss statements: human capital (education), social capital (norms and institutions that foster trust and coöperation), and natural capital (environmental resources, such as a stable climate and clean air). Not-for-profits and workers’ coöperatives would play a larger role than they do now, particularly in sectors where the profit motive can easily lead to abuses, such as caregiving for the sick and elderly.

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