Over the last several decades, many in the west have come to accept a remarkably narrow concept of what the economy and a democracy are for. The economy exists to make us rich, or at least pay the bills. It’s thought to be working when the stock market and the GDP rise. Democracy is voting for someone who is “on your side”. The two are linked when you vote for someone who promises to make you rich, or at least cut your taxes.
At the risk of stating what has become obvious in recent years, this materialistic view of the economy and democracy is at best thin and at worst dangerous. Prolonged economic dissatisfaction and our thin conception of democracy have left behind a spiritual hole that has driven voters across the United States, Europe and South America into the arms of angry populists and nationalists who offer a new spiritualism based on the nation.
But there’s another, nearly lost, democratic tradition, in which the goals of a democracy and a worthy civilization are irreducibly linked to the healthy development of its citizens along social, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions. In this older conception, a great democracy is one that serves as a cauldron for the building of good character and the pursuit of a worthwhile life – one that includes but also goes beyond mere material security.
This version of democracy puts the focus not on the ballot box or the ticker tape, but on the quality of citizens’ lives as actually lived. In doing so, it recognizes that healthy personal growth doesn’t just happen: it requires both liberties and securities in which human flourishing becomes possible.
On this view, all citizens should have the security to transcend a brute struggle to survive and feel safe, and the freedom to seek something more with their lives. As the American jurist Louis Brandeis once put it, “the ‘right to life’ guaranteed by our Constitution” should be understood as “the right to live, and not merely to exist”.
Brandeis’s view has radical implications for what a country and its economy should look like. In particular, it demands that we acknowledge, limit and balance the dangers of both government oppression and private coercion in our lives. That means protection against government censorship and oppression, to be sure. But it also means freedom from industrial domination, exploitation, or so much economic insecurity that one constantly fears unemployment or poverty. As Brandeis wrote, no one is really free “if dependent industrially on the arbitrary will of another”.
Since the industrial revolution, we have had to reckon with the growth of private power – once in the form of the trust or cartel, now in the form of the giant corporation, the monopoly and the multinational. The might and wealth of these entities can exceed even those of governments. In the United States especially, they have also claimed many of the political rights of citizens for themselves: rights of free speech, to spend money to influence politics, and to the free exercise of corporate religion – nearly everything except, so far, the right to vote.
For most people in industrialized countries today, our sense of autonomy and security is equally, if not more, influenced by private forces and economic structures than by government. The conditions of work – from the size of one’s wages and the length of one’s hours, to threats of being fired, harassed or mistreated by bosses, to even personal safety – now largely determine how much of our lives are really lived.
Outside of work, our daily lives are also shaped profoundly by economic matters such as rent, access to transportation or groceries, and health insurance, even more so than by any abstract freedoms. That is why real freedom must be understood as freedom from both public and private coercion – a point that has been utterly forgotten by so-called libertarians, conservatives and even most neoliberals.
This leads to a crucial further insight: that “bigness” – the domination of the economy and politics by giant firms – is a curse.
From the perspective of individual liberty, there is a fundamental difference between an economy dominated by giant multinationals and one comprising much smaller concerns in a state of competition. When private power is concentrated, corporate citizens can begin to crowd out humans with their demands. A certain inhumanity arises, and we lose sight of the idea that human flourishing ought be the goal.
Working conditions make this dynamic particularly clear. In the United States, employees are regularly subject to infringements that range from the invasive to the outright tyrannical. Employees in lower-level jobs are regularly prohibited from casual conversation or lingering (which Walmart calls “time-theft”), denied access to bathrooms (Tyson foods), subject to searches upon leaving work (Amazon), or subject to mass, suspicionless drug tests for even routine jobs (many industries).
More broadly, the rise of part-time, unsteady work and its flip-side, overwork, has had deeply corrupting and corrosive effects on how life is actually lived. Perhaps most perniciously, private power, as experienced in the form of an overbearing job, can destroy family life. This has profound inter-generational effects, hampering the development and limiting the future opportunities of children whose parents can’t give them the time and attention they need.
To protect human liberty and provide securities consistent with human thriving demands not only humane regulation of the conditions of work, but also an open economy composed of smaller firms who actually obey the laws. In order to achieve this, we need to break, or at least radically limit, the power of monopolies.
As Brandeis understood, true freedom implies a distrust of both big business and big government. The unifying principle is this: concentrated power in any form can be dangerous; institutions should be built to human scale, and we need, above all, to pursue human ends.