The Illusion of Freedom

Clearly, at the root of the dilemma there is the meaning of freedom itself.  Liberal economy gave a false direction to our ideals.  It seemed to approximate the fulfillment of intrinsically utopian expectations.  No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function.  It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone.  Yet this was a result of a market view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relationships with freedom.  The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition.  Vision was limited by the market which “fragmented” life into the producers’ sector that ended when his product reached the market, and the sector of the consumer for whom all goods sprang from the market.  The one derived his income “freely” from the market, the other spent it “freely” there.  Society as a whole remained invisible.  The power of the state was of no account, since the less its power, the smoother the market mechanism would function.  Neither voters, nor owners, neither producers, nor consumer could be held responsible for such brutal restrictions of freedom as were involved in the occurrence of unemployment and destitution.  Any decent individual could imagine himself free from all responsibility for acts of compulsion on the part of a state which he, personally, rejected; or for economic suffering in society from which he, personally, had not benefitted.  He was “paying his way,” was “in nobody’s debt,” and was unentangled in the evil of power and economic value.  His lack of responsibility for them seemed so evident that he denied their reality in the name of his freedom. (266)

Karl Polanyi | The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times


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