Review: Capitalism vs. Freedom

4 stars
Reclaiming freedom for socialism

Towards the end of Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom, author Rob Larson recounts the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh. 1,134 people died in the collapse of the building—a horrifying death toll that was the direct results of workers being ordered back into the building after a temporary evacuation due to the discovery of cracks. Managers threatened to withhold a month’s worth of wages if workers did not return to the death trap.

Imagine for a moment being faced with that choice. You know that there’s a real risk the building will collapse. But you also know that, without your job, you may not be able to feed your family. It’s hard to imagine a less free choice than one which forced workers to return into a doomed building, leading to a death toll that rivals the deadliest terror attacks.

And yet, in the world of free market extremism, this kind of choice is perfectly free. After all, the state did not force workers to enter the factory at gunpoint. And if there’s a problem, the market, over time, will fix it. To regulate the conditions of factories, on the other hand? That’s the road to totalitarianism.

Freedom to suffer

Rob Larson’s 228 page book seeks to debunk this Panglossian view of freedom and power, where everything is fine until the state gets involved. This belief system is exemplified in the writings of prominent free market theorists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

Larson, a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College in Washington State, calls the writings of Friedman, Hayek et al. “weak-sauce ideology” and describes libertarianism as a sham that has only gained any traction at all because it is being relentlessly promoted by people with power.

To make his case, Larson begins by showing how concentration of corporate power is an unavoidable tendency under capitalism, and then maps the effects of that power on various human choices.

Power narrows other people’s choices, that is the whole point, and concentrated corporate power is just as capable of doing so as the state. When creates an AI that automatically fires workers who take too many breaks, when those same workers pee in bottles to avoid getting fired—that’s a narrowing of human freedom, an Amazon-branded boot stamping on a human face, forever.

But corporate power is not limited to abusive working conditions. The scariest word for any libertarian should be externality, a term in economics which can be used to describe harm inflicted on people by economic activity who are not given a say in the matter. The most obvious example is toxic sludge being dumped in a river.

Climate change is the Mother of All Externalities, and Larson devotes a whole chapter to how climate change and the ongoing destruction of our home planet restrict the freedom not just of people who are alive today, but of future generations.

Larson’s book concludes with a brief history of socialist thought, and a passionate plea for a libertarian/democractic socialism that opposes extreme concentration of power in any form.

The Verdict

Larson’s writing is unvarnished and direct. This positively sets it apart from impenetrable academic writing, although at times it also comes across as needlessly snarky and flippant.

I agree with much of the author’s analysis. If the battle cry “socialism or barbarism” is to resonate again, socialism must reclaim the mantle of freedom, and refute the idea that “free” markets alone will create a society that lives up to our highest aspirations. Capitalism vs. Freedom is an important contribution towards that goal. 3.5 stars, rounded up.