Each chapter of Freedom from the Market takes up a different domain of public policy and shows how social reformers have historically fought for progress in that area by “articulating a different idea of freedom,” one rooted in “resisting dependency on markets.” In “Free Land,” Konczal traces the history of movements for the redistribution of land and the wealth of landowners, from Thomas Paine’s 1796 pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice,” which argued that landowners owed the public treasury a “ground-rent” and that taxes on land inheritance should be used to finance what amounted to a universal basic income, to the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of free government-owned land to anyone willing to build a dwelling on the tract and live there for at least five years.
The Homestead Act constituted one of the largest wealth transfers in U.S. history: in the decades after its passage, a total of 246 million acres was granted to 1.5 million people. This represented about one-sixth of all land in the public domain at the time, or almost the entire area of Texas and California combined. And although Konczal acknowledges problems with the law—including that much of this “free government land” was “only ‘free’ when it was taken, with force, from the people already living there,” namely, Native Americans—he nevertheless credits it with providing “a floor of opportunity for all those who were able to use it.” Republican politicians always like to remind everyone that the GOP is the “Party of Lincoln,” but can anyone imagine a modern Republican president overseeing such a gargantuan redistribution of wealth to ordinary Americans?
In a chapter titled “Free Time,” Konczal examines how labor organizers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fought for, and ultimately won, shorter working hours and a shorter workweek. One of the greatest obstacles to progress in this regard was a conservative judiciary that routinely struck down limits on working time, most infamously in the 1905 Supreme Court decision Lochner v. New York, on the grounds that they interfered with “freedom of contract”—that is, the freedom of capitalists to dictate the terms of contracts to workers. But those agitating for reform were not content to cede the mantle of liberty to their opponents, often framing their demands as efforts to increase the freedom of the working class by countering the tyranny of bosses. The “Ten-Hour Circular,” a manifesto released in 1835 by a group of laborers in Boston calling for a ten-hour workday, solemnly declared that “we claim, by the blood of our fathers, shed on our battle-fields, in the War of the Revolution, the rights of American Freemen, and no earthly power shall resist our righteous claims with impunity.” Even the most florid progressive rhetoric today generally stops short of depicting the labor movement as an extension of the American Revolution.
In “Free Health,” Konczal highlights not only how public provision of health insurance can make everyone more free by reducing the prospect of destitution or bankruptcy in the event of illness, but also how it has been used historically as an instrument to combat other forms of inequality and discrimination. Most of the chapter is devoted to recounting how the implementation of Medicare gave progressives an opportunity to force the racial integration of hospitals in the Jim Crow South, by threatening to bar from the program any medical institution that remained segregated and thereby deprive it of a lucrative income stream. According to Wilbur Cohen, who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, “on the day that Medicare went into effect in the South, all those signs [reading “White” and “Colored”]...began to come down. This I think was a singular achievement of Medicare. In one day Medicare and Medicaid broke the back of segregated health services.”
In the book’s acknowledgements, Konczal credits an acquaintance with helping him to refine his “Polanyi-ish, and Pollyanna-ish, thinking,” a reference to the twentieth-century Austro-Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi, whose ideas permeate the book. Although Konczal only explicitly references Polanyi a handful of times, he has written elsewhere about the enduring relevance of his thought. “Karl Polanyi for President,” a 2016 article in Dissent that Konczal coauthored with Patrick Iber, is a useful companion piece to Freedom from the Market, and helps illuminate the intellectual genealogy of its arguments.
As Konczal and Iber explain, Polanyi’s most famous work, The Great Transformation (1944), is devoted in large part to a critique of the idea that the so-called “free market” is a precondition for, and guarantor of, freedom more generally. “Polanyi’s work dismantles this argument in two important ways,” they write, first by showing that “markets are planned everywhere they exist.” As Polanyi puts it, even laissez-faire “was the product of deliberate state action”; the economy is not a freestanding reality that exists apart from the state, but is necessarily structured by it. Even in those areas where government appears to take a hands-off approach, it still plays a critical role in sustaining economic activity by virtue of the fact that it sets the “rules of the game”—for example, by establishing laws governing incorporation, bankruptcy, or labor relations. Without such acts of creatio continua, the market would devolve into Hobbesian chaos.
The second key argument of The Great Transformation is that, in the words of Konczal and Iber, “the move to markets is inherently destabilizing”:
Rather than a font of liberty and freedom, markets are also a source of coercion, instability, precarity, and worse. Subjecting all of life to the market wouldn’t result in the freest society but instead one defined by the collapse of social life…. [P]eople resist being turned into commodities. When they are exposed to too much of the market—when markets try to “disembed” from society—people resist, demanding protection from excessive commodification. Lives are more than commodities for those who are living them.
Polanyi referred to this process as “the double movement”: the destabilization wrought by marketization produces backlash, sometimes in the form of socialist or progressive movements that work to provide refuge from the market, but at other times in the form of fascist or reactionary movements.
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