Recently I was at debate practice and somebody brought a case about whether or not trans-fats should be taxed, with the revenue those taxes generated being given to poor people in the form of food stamps. They should not be, but that’s an issue for another post (perhaps the next one!) More specifically, one of the arguments they used to support the proposal was that presently, poor people could not afford the vegetables they needed to be healthy, and so were resorting to trans-fat heavy foods in order to feed themselves. When his opposition (which was not me, unfortunately) brought up an argument about the economic freedom of companies to sell what they want and of people to buy whatever they want, the person proposing the case called bullshit. “In order to have freedom, you need to have options”, he said. “And if you’re too poor to afford healthy foods, your only option is to buy unhealthy foods. Therefore, our option gives people more economic freedom, because it opens up more options to poor people”.
This is a classic liberal argument against the free market, that poverty negates freedom by leaving people with only one option, thereby forcing them to do the bidding of others. But this argument employs a false definition of two words: “option” and of “force.” Firstly, they confuse options with good options. Everyone has options, because everybody is exclusively in control of their own actions. Their actions may be very strongly influenced by very powerful interior or exterior motivators, but ultimately it is your brain that decides how your body acts. The poorest person in the world has options. Perhaps his choice is between buying a glass of water and dying of starvation in a week, or buying a sandwich and savoring it but dying of dehydration in three days. It’s still a choice. Just because most people would choose something doesn’t make the alternative option disappear.
Secondly, they falsely define the word “force”. People cannot be forced by their own desires, they can only be motivated by them. Ultimately those desires are merely components of decision they freely make. As Dale Carnegie once said “Nobody does anything unless they want to do it.” Force requires an outside influence, an action by somebody else which affects the options available and/or induces desires which didn’t exist before. This outside force is what distinguishes between a choice and a free choice.
For example, let’s say I am pressing a gun against your head in an alley and saying “give me your money!”. You do so. You have made a choice. You did what was in your best interests, and therefore what you wanted to do. I have created in you a very powerful desire to give me your money: the desire to survive. The action of giving me your money was unsavory, but not as unsavory as the alternative, so you choose the lesser of two bad options. But that was not a free choice, because some external force was restricting your freedom. By using force or the threat of force against you, I took away something you had a right to: your property.
The distinction between that case and the case of a poor person who cannot afford vegetables is that in the latter, nobody uses force to restrict your choices. Nobody holds a gun to your head at the supermarket and tells you what to buy. You can buy whatever you like, even if doing so might result in you not having enough money for something else you desire. Perhaps the poor man could afford the vegetables by driving a cheaper car, or cancelling his TV service, or putting off something else in his budget. This is not a matter of affordability, but a matter of budgetary priorities. That many people choose to live X standard of living and eat unhealthy things and get fat instead of eating healthy at a lower standard of living is not an absence of choice, it’s an absence of choice that liberals find desirable.
But what if he literally CANNOT afford it? Like, let’s say he has $3 to his name and vegetables cost $4. He is butt-naked and without any possessions at all, and so crippled and stupid that he cannot work for money. It is literally impossible for him to choose to purchase vegetables. Let’s even pretend there’s no charity, and no opportunity for him to acquire any sustenance at all. In that scenario, is the supermarket’s decision to price vegetables at a level he cannot afford equivalent to me holding a gun to your head and using force to threaten your life?
Of course not. In one, force is used to take something you have; in the other, no force is used and you merely are unable to obtain something you need. You don’t own the food; you do own your property. You are entitled to your property; you are not entitled to food, much less healthy food! Food is not a right. Unlike rights, which are inherent at birth, you are not born with food. You must acquire food if you are to survive. Not acquiring food and dying of starvation may not be a desirable option, and it may be an option that 100% of people will choose to avoid 100% of the time. But that is very different from them being forced to choose differently by an outside actor.
The point is that if somebody has no good options available to him, he may be unlucky, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t free. Freedom is restricted not when an insufficient amount of good options exist, but when external force is employed to restrict the existing options. More often than not, the government uses that force in the name of “expanding freedom”, and in turn it only restricts it.