Freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of definitions

Cross-posted from the LIFT economy blog

What does it mean to feel free to live the life we want to? What are the implications for broadening our definition of liberty to include the freedom from domination? Such an expansion could provide a theoretical foundation for next economy ideas.

Philosophers identified (at least) three different kinds of freedoms:

  • The freedom to act without interference, which Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty
  • The freedom to fully realize oneself or positive liberty
  • The freedom to live without domination, defined as absence of social or political dependence, another negative liberty, uncovered by Quentin Skinner.


The laws of the Western world tend to use the non-interference freedom, making that version of freedom more familiar to us. These laws enable us to live without the interference of thieves and murders, for example, or the intrusive eye of the government. Positive liberty can underlie visions of a different world: We don’t just want to survive, we want social support for our thriving. Dependency, the result of not having the third form of freedom, can have dramatic impacts on people because they might begin to self-censor their actions trying to avoid disturbing the dependence relationship. This, then, can lead to servility – hopeless submissiveness – a state of the population that we can more likely avoided when we are not dominated.

The two concepts of negative liberties have different implications in today’s monetary profit-driven economy, suggesting that the idea of non-interference might be more consistent with an economic system of limited ownership, like capitalism. Some might joke around “wage-slavery,” claiming it describes how large corporations work. With a little analysis, we can describe the situation of employees in corporations in a way that sheds more light on this claim. Many of us work in the private sector to earn money. We likely use this money to purchase goods and services that meet our basic survival needs – food and shelter – and, hopefully, also make our lives more comfortable. Many buy a house and then buy more goods to furnish the house. Our lives chuck along just fine until – suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we lose our job. What feels to us like an arbitrary decision could be explained to us as corporate realignment. In such an economic environment, can we still consider ourselves free or might we call this a life that more characteristic of servitude?

To answer this question, it is helpful to look at the conception of non-domination liberty in more detail. This liberty entails not being dependent on others and not being dominated by someone who has power over our lives. Dependence and domination are not necessarily the same. A young child dependends on an adult caregiver but that caregiver does not have to dominate the child. A caregiver might influence a child gently, without imposing absolute control. Thus, dependence does not necessarily imply domination.

We might lose our sense of liberty “by the mere knowledge that we are living in dependence on the goodwill of others,” according to Skinner. Most states in the US have at-will employment, which basically allows a company to let go of an employee at any time without cause. This makes any employee dependent on the goodwill of their employer who has great power over them. Thus, at-will employment satisfies one characteristic of this negative liberty concept: Dependence.

While an employee is dependent on their employer, the domination is not as obvious, especially when corporations try to look democratic and participatory. However, the corporate hierarchy is not democratic – CEOs are not elected by employees, for example. CEOs can make decisions that impact thousands of people without having consulted those people. They have power over those people. Hence, the second characteristic of this negative liberty is also met: Domination.

The claim that corporations look like modern day serfdoms depends on the negative liberty concept we adopt. If freedom means the absence of domination, employees are not free. However, if we argue that non-interference marks the hallmark of liberty, employees are free, which tends to be more consistent with how we view the economic system in most Western nations, especially the United States. Employees consider themselves free because nobody directly interferes with their lives. They cannot point to an act or actor that interferes with them. Thus if we emphasize this definition of liberty, we cannot expose the similarity between capitalism and slavery, a juxtaposition many will dismiss as extreme. But as I have outlined, we could argue that large for-profit corporations meet the basic characteristics set out by the non-domination concept of liberty: Employees are dependent on and dominated by corporate management.

Readers might object that it is utterly absurd to compare today’s corporations with yesterday’s serfdoms. We live in a democratic society, after all, with corporations an integral part of that society. Shareholders hold CEOs accountable just like voters hold the president accountable. This shows that corporations are just as democratic as governments. Furthermore, lay-offs are unfortunate but are important to ensure the overall survival of a business.

Shareholders can present a semblance of a democratic process, however, a closer look reveals the process as mostly not democratic. Shareholders are not equal: The more money a shareholder has invested in a corporation, the more influence they have on the governance of the corporation. If someone owns more than one share in the company, they have more than one vote. This is not consistent with basic democratic principles. Furthermore, shareholders are not the only corporate stakeholders. Only decisions that affect the stock value of the company impact shareholders. Stakeholders might have no say in the corporate governance because they might not own stock. Decisions of corporate management could have great impacts on them. For example, workers get laid off because management decided to move part of the company overseas. People residing around the factory are impacted by the pollutants released at night. Corporate management can make decisions without listening to all stakeholders beforehand. These decisions can impact, among other stakeholders, the employees; this makes them dependent on their employer’s decisions.

Lay-offs are often the least imaginative way of dealing with economic challenges. Management could also respond to unanticipated economic changes by reducing their own salaries, which rarely happens, or by reducing hours worked per week for everybody, thus spreading out the impact of the economic downturn. Either way, though, management makes the decisions without consulting the employees to find out their preferences. This points to the element of dependence: Lay-offs seem arbitrary to employees because they did not have any say in the decision making process.

Another objection to this usage of negative liberty might be the claim that employees can quit their job, something that would have been nearly impossible for a serf. At least in theory, people can quit their jobs at any time. At-will employment works both ways: Employees can leave a company without a cause. Reality feels different, however. Unless a person has another source of income, we might experience leaving a job as hazardous. With the loss of employment come often not only a loss of income but also the loss of health insurance – for the whole family, if the employee was the sole earner. This shows another level of dependence that exists at least where no universal health care is available. Here, we can also see again, why the concept of negative liberty as non-interference can support a hierarchical corporate structure further: The idea that we are free to leave a job is consistent with liberty as non-interference – nobody stops us from leaving. Only if we view liberty as non-dependence do we see that people are not free to leave their jobs – except if they are willing to make big sacrifices and accept large risks.

I have tried to argue that a third concept of liberty – liberty as non-domination – can shed light on the modern Western economic system of large corporations illuminating some interesting consequences of our tradition to limit the concept of liberty to non-interference. As soon as we leverage the third concept, many of our assumptions about our freedom are called into question.

Liberty as non-domination also points us to some positive ways that we can incorporate freedom into our world. Building on the analysis in this post, we look into some of those ways in another post.






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