I recently talked about how we have swapped autonomy for convenience, and this is a good thing. I wanted to expand on that. It’s not just convenience that we have gained. We have arguably gained back some freedom, perhaps in a different form that a truly independent, autonomous living would provide, but arguably equally or even more valuable.
It is entirely possible for a modern day person to enjoy an amount of wealth that enables them to purchase goods and employ services from others for a lifetime. At least in the western world private property is protected, and goods and services are widely available for purchase. Having such options is more freedom.
This is a relatively recent development. Both on the availability of goods and services, and on the amount of wealth available to the average citizen.
The former is uncontroversial, but I can see you raising an eyebrow on the latter. “Really? amount of wealth available to the average citizen? what are you on about? Global wealth inequality is high and keeps rising. Most young people can’t buy a property and retirement age keeps going higher.”
Yes, I am well aware. Yet, the statement still stands. It is much easier and increasingly so for the typical westerner to acquire wealth that enables freedom. Access to the means of production, to use a Marxist term, has never been more democratised. It is a relatively recent development that the little guy can own Capital. A diversified portfolio of shares in the best businesses in the world, their assets, production and earnings power is available at a click of a button. This makes the pursuit of financial independence more feasible.
You may argue that it’s not easy for someone to save enough to actually achieve financial independence. True. It’s not easy. But it is possible. Just as for pre-industrial people it wasn’t easy to be autonomous. It was in fact even more difficult for someone back then to be able to survive independently than it is for a modern middle-class person today.
And not only it’s easier but the end result is better. Being financially independent in a modern world with all its goods and services abundantly available, is far preferable to a farmer in a state of autonomy centuries ago.
The fact that some of the goods and services are out of reach, and that wealth/income inequality is increasing does not change all the above. Wealth inequality increases in line with the overall wealth increasing. It’s not redistribution of an existing pie at more unequal parts, it’s expansion of the pie. Sure, some things are completely out of reach for most people, but these are extreme luxuries, that always have been only available to a select few. And yet a typical middle class household today enjoys more luxuries than high class citizens of 100 years ago or Middle Ages kings. And they can feel more independent, not reliant on the goodwill of a benevolent overlord but on their own capacity. And thanks to a better organised State and an established social contract, even the poorest members of the society are not helpless.
Market and State
So we have swapped autonomy with convenience and freedom. It’s a good trade-off. It all rests of course on the system continuing to work.
It is interesting that the two supporting pillars of this system are the Market and the State. Much to the disappointment of both the hard Left and the hard Right, it is the perfect balance of both of them that enables both the richer and the poorer today to be better off than they would otherwise. The market is essential in order to create wealth, and the state is essential in order to protect the property rights that allow the market to work and avoid a catastrophic revolution that would destroy wealth and prosperity for all.
As long as this continues to be the case, people’s lives will continue to improve.