Notes on Freedom: Part 2

This week we met to talk about economic freedom, based on the following documents:

  • An essay by Hayek on the use of knowledge in society, and how this determines that decentralized, market-based pricing, rather than a centrally planned economy, is the best economic system
  • The first part of the Trap, a documentary by Adam Curtis on how politicians used post-war economic ideas like game theory to build a more stable world order based on individualism and mutually assured destruction
  • A blog post, also by Adam Curtis, which argues that most think tanks are a right-wing invention to manipulate the public opinion into perpetuating the economic and political status quo, thus stifling the development of alternative systems and ideas

We began the discussion with individual freedom and collective freedom:

  • There is an important difference between individual freedom and collective freedom—the Soviet Union aimed to maximise collective freedom, at the expense of individual freedoms. Ultimately it failed because it suppressed private property, assuming that working for the greater good, rather than one’s individual goals, was motivating enough.
  • In our societies, competition and private property create powerful incentives to work. They also automatically filter out poor performers, in a similar fashion to natural evolution. Some noted that communism and fascism were very similar, with the difference that fascism would not prioritise the curtailment of individual freedoms.

From here we moved on to regulation:

  • Freedom for companies could be compared to freedom for individuals: it needs to be regulated for the greater good. If we let a company become a monopoly on the market, it results in less freedom for its competitors and for the customers. However some of us were not particularly worried about monopolies, past or present, remarking that they usually die off anyway after a few years or decades, like Microsoft did after the 90s. Others argued that this was like saying that Eastern Europe shouldn’t worry about its successive conquerors, since they would eventually leave to be replaced by others.
  • In some cases, monopolies are the most efficient way to get investments in long term; capital intensive projects, for example in the military, space exploration or research
  • There was also mention of pace layers, the idea that different areas of civilization evolve at different paces (for example fashion moves much faster than infrastructure, which is itself faster than culture), mutually influence each other, and all together guarantee the stability and health of society

We then spoke a bit about Hayek:

  • Hayek says that economic theory is not political, and that the differences in economic theories are usually due to methodology. However he published this essay in 1945, a few decades before economics became political with the advent of Reagan and Thatcher. In 1945, the idea that markets were efficient was not widely accepted among politicians, who generally preferred some amount of central planning. Some of us found that Hayek’s essay was very underwhelming, with little thought-provoking content, whereas others defended it, arguing that the ideas in it were very novel for the time.
  • In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek argues that you can’t have political freedom without economic freedom. This started a discussion on the relationship between the two, whether one preceded the other, or was indeed a necessary condition for it. Economic freedom seems to be a necessary condition for political freedom, as Hayek argues, but it can’t be the only one, as demonstrated by China.

We moved on to issues of economic freedom:

  • Does a low salary provide enough economic freedom? On the one hand, it restricts our choices in terms of consumption, housing, travel, etc. On the other hand, living conditions are the best they’ve ever been (as Pinker argues in Enlightenment Now), so we may be freer than ever (free from diseases, extreme poverty, etc.), and even a low paying job still gives us immense freedom of expression, compared to history.
  • It feels that with higher living standards, and ever-improving technology, we also have higher standards for freedom. Coming back to the Soviet Union: was there ever innovation in consumer goods? Lysenko was celebrated as an innovator in agriculture in the Soviet Union, but his innovations were actually fabricated.
  • There is a debate about whether communism is flawed by design, or whether it failed because it was implemented too early, or imperfectly. For Orwell, the problem with communism in the Soviet Union was probably centralisation: in Homage to Catalonia, he witnesses the anarcho-syndicalism (a decentralized form of communism) implemented in Spain in the 30s and deems it an effective way to organise a society. However with decentralized production and decision-making, it would be very difficult to scale, and produce cheaply and efficiently. It also may only be capable of functioning in a resource-rich area.

We looked at the production of art:

  • We talked briefly about the funding of the arts: counter-intuitively, great art was often funded by « benevolent dictators », not by democratic states (today some of the boldest modern architectural buildings are found in Kazakhstan). In private philanthropy, at least, goals are clear, whereas public funding can be very political.
  • We also discussed the conflicted relationship between consumerist capitalism, which releases ever better products that make our life easier, and freedom. For some of us it feels like the constant release of new products create demand, which then becomes an essential need, in an never-ending cycle, so that soon we don’t seem to be able to live without things that didn’t even exist 15 years ago, like smartphones.

From here we moved on to talking about progress in the arts and elsewhere:

  • What are the conditions for real artistic or scientific progress? It seems that having access to high education, few constraints and a lot of free time are some of the conditions that lead to breakthroughs. Vicars and nobility enjoyed these conditions before the XXth century. Examples of modern environments that offer these conditions: academia, military research, or venture capital. Money is not the always the main incentive: competition and prestige are sometimes more important, as in academia. Despite being billionaires, Bill Gates and other tech leaders keep innovating, they might be the nobility of the XXIth century.
  • Why isn’t there a new Mozart every 5 minutes, given the huge increase in population and presumably better education? Out of the top 10 classical music composers, 5 lived in Vienna in and were active during the same years, which is surely not a coincidence. The network effect probably plays an important role. So does financial sponsorship and patrons. Equally, an artist can start with commercial music, and then have enough financial cushion to move on to more experimental, innovative art, like the Beatles did.
  • We debated whether artists produced art to meet the demand of their time, or whether they created art because they had an inner drive, an inspiration to do so. Kafka, Van Gogh, and Rimbaud didn’t really care whether their art was disseminated, but most artists did. It’s much harder to disregard market demand when art is your only source of income.
  • Time is a great filter: some people refuse to engage with modern film or art, because it hasn’t been filtered yet. It may also account for the impression that earlier eras produced better thinking and art.

We discussed how constraints affect art:

  • We also discussed the impact of constraints on the quality of art. Sometimes great artistic output arises in times of great constraints. Some of us noted that films were probably better on average during the Hays code, than afterwards (but it doesn’t mean that Saudi films should be the best). However, in the comics book world, the best characters were invented during the Comics Code period, but the best stories came out after the code was relaxed.
  • It used to be much easier to get funding for films, partly because they were much cheaper to make, so production companies were less risk-averse: Welles got a contract and funding to make two films (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) with no previous experience in film-making. Today, television series seem to attract funding and produce some great shows, probably because they need less commitment than films, so allow for more risk taking
  • Some of us said that the necessary conditions for great art are present (higher education, time), but people don’t make the effort to read more and learn more
  • We concluded that we don’t know for certain what leads to the creation of great art.

We ended the meeting by pondering whether there was a failure to engage with alternative economic and political propositions today, other than the dominant proposition of open market capitalism

Some of us pointed out that the XIXth and XXth century were full of very bad ideologies, and that after all socialism is still alive and strong today. Furthermore, Keynesianism became stronger after the 2008 crisis, and was implemented in many countries through huge public funding packages. More worryingly, populist alternative propositions are on the rise, that threaten our democratic, liberal foundations, as evidenced by Trump every day.

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