“Freedom from Want” is Slavery for All

The Mises Institute reposted a 1999 article I wrote for Sheldon Richman at The Freeman on how government handouts can subvert freedom. That piece was adapted from my book, Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Individual (St. Martin’s Press).  Looking back on this 20 years later, I am surprised at the widespread revival of socialist notions of freedom.

“Freedom from Want” is Slavery for All

by James Bovard

“Freedom from want” is one of the most frequently invoked notions of freedom in our time. However, it is a bogus freedom that politicians and socialists offer to lull people into accepting policies that destroy true freedom. Freedom from want has been most loudly advocated in this century by those who favored removing almost all limits from government power.

For example, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two of the founders of British socialism and authors of The Soviet Union: A New Civilization?, asserted in 1936: “Personal freedom means, in effect, the power of the individual to buy sufficient food, shelter and clothing.”1

The Webbs did not specify how many millions of people government should be permitted to kill in the name of “freedom from want.” But during Stalin’s bloodiest decade, they asserted that for government economic planning to succeed, “public discussion must be suspended between the promulgation of the decision and the accomplishment of the task” and that any criticisms of the master plan should be treated as “an act of disloyalty, or even of treachery.”2

For government to be able to liberate people with food and clothing, it must have the power to execute anyone who criticizes the official economic plan. After visiting the Ukraine, the Webbs endorsed Stalin’s war on the kulaks (the least impoverished peasants), commenting that “it must be recognized that the liquidation of the individual capitalist in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”

(Output plummeted.)

Equating liberty with satisfactory living standards became far more common as the twentieth century went on. “Real freedom means good wages, short hours, security in employment, good homes, opportunity for leisure and recreation with family and friends,” wrote Sir Oswald Mosley, the most prominent British supporter of Nazi Germany, in his 1936 book, Fascism.3

James Gregor noted in his book The Ideology of Fascism that fascism aimed at “restraints which foster the increased effective freedom of the individual.”4

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted in 1937 that “even some of our own people may wonder whether democracy can match dictatorship in giving this generation the things it wants from government.”5

University of Chicago professor Leslie Pape noted in 1941 that “democracies readily admit the claims of totalitarian states to great achievements in the cause of positive freedom.”6

British historian E.H. Carr, writing in 1951, observed that, for the modern era, “freedom from the economic constraint of want was clearly just as important as freedom from the political constraint of kings and tyrants.”7

Carr justified the array of economic controls in postwar Britain: “The price of liberty is the restriction of liberty. The price of some liberty for all is the restriction of the greater liberty of some.”8

However, with this standard, there is no limit to the amount of freedom that government can destroy in the name of creating “greater liberty for some.” The British Labour government that Carr championed advanced freedom by conscripting labor for the coal mines and empowering the Ministry of Labour to direct workers to whatever employment was considered in the national interest—empowering over 10,000 government officials to carry out searches (including of private homes) without warrants—prohibiting restaurants from serving customer meals costing more than 5 shillings (less than $2 in 1947)—and fining farmers who refused to plant the specific crops government demanded.9

The government also “nationalized all potential land uses in the United Kingdom, permitting only continuation of existing ones and requiring ‘planning permission’ for any others,” as law professor Gideon Kanner noted.10

The Labour government offered freedom via the solidarity of standing in the same rationing line—liberation via deprivation. (A 1998 New York Times article cited the Labour government’s postwar food rationing, which continued into the 1950s, as a contributing factor to the long-term decline of British cuisine.11

The more politicians promise to give, the more they entitle themselves to take. Carr, serving in 1945 as chairman of the UNESCO Committee on the Principles of the Rights of Man, declared that “no society can guarantee the enjoyment of such rights [to government handouts] unless it in turn has the right to call upon and direct the productive capacities of the individuals enjoying them.”12

Thus, the price of government benefits is unlimited political control over people’s paychecks and work lives.

Once freedom is equated with a certain material standard of living, confiscation becomes the path to liberation. Thus, the more avidly a politician raises taxes, the greater his apparent love for liberty. In the name of providing “freedom from want,” the politician acquires a pretext to destroy the basis of private citizens’ independence. “Freedom from want” becomes a license for politicians, rather than a declaration of rights of citizens.

Anyone who does not have certain possessions is assumed not to be free—and in need of political rescue. President Johnson, justifying a vast expansion of government social programs, declared in 1965, “Negroes are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gateless poverty. . . . Public and private poverty combine to cripple their capacities.”13

Vice President Hubert Humphrey defined a poor person as “the man who for reasons beyond his control cannot help himself.” This perspective on poverty and self-help mocks all of American history. It implies that any individual who earns less than $7,890 a year (the official poverty line for a single person) is incapable of any discipline or resolution.

While advocates of positive freedom insist that government must intervene so that each person “can be all that they can be,” government aid programs are notorious for rewarding people for making the least of themselves. President Roosevelt warned in 1935 that “continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”14

President Clinton declared in 1996: “For decades now, welfare has too often been a trap, consigning generation after generation to a cycle of dependency. The children of welfare are more likely to drop out of school, to run afoul of the law, to become teen parents, to raise their own children on welfare.”15

A rising tide no longer lifts all boats when the government rewards people for scuttling their own ships.

Faith in freedom from want depends on a political myopia that focuses devoutly on only one side of the ledger of government action. This is measuring freedom according to how much government does for people, and totally disregarding what government does to people. Government provides “freedom” for the welfare recipient by imposing tax servitude on the worker. In an age of unprecedented prosperity, government tax policies have turned the average citizen’s life into a financial struggle and insured that he will likely become a ward of the state in his last decades.

Some statists insist that taxation is irrelevant to freedom. According to sociologist Robert Goodin,

If what the rich man loses when his property is redistributed is described as a loss of freedom, then the gain to the poor must similarly be described as a gain of freedom. . . . No net loss of freedom for society as a whole, as distinct from individuals within it, is involved in redistributive taxation. Thus, there is no basis in terms of freedom . . . for objecting to it.16

What does Goodin mean by “freedom for society as a whole”? By this standard, slavery would not reduce a society’s freedom, since the slave’s loss of freedom would be equaled by the slave owner’s gain. Nor is there any difference, vis-à-vis freedom, between permitting people to retain their earnings and spend them as they choose, and government confiscating their money to hire more regulators, inspectors, and informants to better repress the citizenry.

What are the practical results of the modern “freedom from want”? Economist Edgar Browning, writing in 1993, examined the marginal cost of redistribution—defined as “the ratio of the aggregate loss to the top four quintiles of households to the aggregate gain to the bottom quintile of households.”17   Browning estimated that the marginal cost to the most affluent 80 percent of households of increasing the income of the poorest 20 percent by $1 was $7.82.18

The marginal costs of redistribution are much larger than people might presume because of reduced incentives to work, both among the taxpayers and recipients. Also, as Browning noted, “marginal tax rates must be increased very sharply relative to the amount of income that is redistributed.” Combining Browning’s analysis and Goodin’s definition, confiscatory redistribution destroys almost eight times as much “freedom” as it creates.

Once the notion of “freedom from want” is accepted as the pre-eminent freedom, it becomes a wish list justifying endless political forays deeper and deeper into people’s lives. Princeton professor Amy Gutmann, in her 1980 book, Liberal Equality, declared: “Liberal egalitarians want to say that freedom of choice is not very meaningful without a right to those goods necessary to life itself.”19

​Gutmann’s elaboration of “necessary goods” reveals how government would be obliged to control almost everything: “Supplying the poorest with more primary goods will be insufficient if their sense of self-worth or their very desire to pursue their conceptions of the good is undercut by self-doubt.”20

By this standard, freedom is violated when people suffer self-doubt, and the government is obliged to forcibly intervene to guarantee that all people think well of themselves.

Political scientist Alan Wolfe, a self-described “welfare liberal,” asserted in 1995 that “people need a modicum of security and income maintenance, underwritten by government, in order to fulfill the ideal of negative liberty, which is self-sufficiency.”21

Government dependency is the new, improved form of self-reliance: dependency on government doesn’t count because government is a better friend to you than you are yourself. But the more dependent people become on government, the more susceptible they are to political and bureaucratic abuse. Freedom from want is conceivable only so long as people are allowed to want only what the government thinks they should have.

Freedom from want supposedly results from government taking away what a person owns so that it can give him back what it thinks he deserves. The welfare state is either a way to force people to finance their own benefits via political-bureaucratic bagmen, or it is a way to force some people to labor for other people’s benefit. In the first case, government sacrifices the person’s freedom to the fraud that government must tax him to subsidize him; in the second, government sacrifices the person’s freedom in order to “liberate” someone else—often someone who chooses not to work. If someone pays the taxes that finance the government benefits he receives, he is less free than he would otherwise have been.

Some “freedom from want” advocates imply that government is a great benefactor when it promises citizens “three hots and a cot”—the old-time recruiting slogan of the Marine Corps. But trading freedom for a full belly is a worse bargain now than ever before. As economist F.A. Hayek observed, “As the result of the growth of free markets, the reward of manual labor has during the past hundred and fifty years experienced an increase unknown in any earlier period in history.”22

The average worker in industrialized countries can purchase the bare necessities of life with fewer hours of labor than ever before. Comparing current wages and prices with those of 1800, economist Julian Simon found that the average American worker today needs to labor less than one-tenth the time to earn enough to purchase a bushel of wheat than his predecessors did two centuries ago.23  While the real price of food has plummeted (in spite of government farm policies), the “real price” of political servitude has not diminished.

It is understandable that some well-intentioned people assume that “freedom from want” is the most important freedom. It is difficult for many people to conceive of enjoying anything (much less their freedom) if they lack food, clothing, or shelter. However, freedom is not a guarantee of prosperity for every citizen; the fact that some people have meager incomes does not prove that they are shackled. It is a cardinal error to confuse freedom with the things that free individuals can achieve or produce, and then to sacrifice the reality of freedom in a deluded shortcut to the bounty of freedom. Freedom is not measured by how much a person possesses, but by the restrictions and shackles under which he lives.

Throughout history, politicians have used other people’s property to buy themselves power. That is the primary achievement of the welfare state. The danger of government handouts to freedom was clear to some political writers hundreds of years ago. The French writer Etienne de la Boétie, in his 1577 Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, noted of ancient Rome: “Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine . . . and then everybody would shamelessly cry, ‘Long live the King!’ The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.”24

“Freedom from want” is not possible unless the government is allowed to control all things people want. Americans must beware of Trojan-horse definitions of freedom that allow bureaucrats to take over everyone’s life. Government handouts insinuate political power into the deepest recesses of a person’s life. And when the time is ripe, politicians take command where they previously lavished their gifts.

Originally published as “Bogus Freedom” in The Freeman May, 1999
  • 1. Quoted in Fritz Machlup, “Liberalism and the Choice of Freedoms,” in Roads to Freedom: Essays in Honour of Friedrich A. von Hayek, Erich Streissler, ed. (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1969), p. 126.
  • 2. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), pp. 1038–39.
  • 3. Quoted in Dorothy Fosdick, What is Liberty? A Study in Political Theory (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939), p. 28.
  • 4. James Gregor, The Ideology of Fascism (New York: Free Press, 1969), p. 212.
  • 5. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 361.
  • 6. Leslie M. Pape, “Some Notes on Democratic Freedom,” Ethics, April 1941, p. 26.
  • 7. Edward Hallett Carr, The New Society (London: Macmillan, 1951), p. 107.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 108.
  • 9. John Jewkes, The New Ordeal by Planning (New York: St. Martin’s, 1968; based on his 1948 book), p. 213.
  • 10. Gideon Kanner, “Tennis Anyone?,” California Political Review, March-April 1998, p. 17.
  • 11. William Grimes, “History Explains Disparity Between English and French Cuisine,” New York Times, May 9, 1998.
  • 12. Quoted in F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 184.
  • 13. Quoted in Marvin Gettleman and David Mermelstein, eds., The Great Society Reader (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 256.
  • 14. Quoted in “The Welfare Bill: Excerpts from Debate in the Senate on the Welfare Measure,” New York Times, August 2, 1996.
  • 15. “Radio Address of the President,” Office of the Press Secretary, White House, December 7, 1996.
  • 16. “Total Tax Collections to Reach $2.667 Trillion in 1998, Tax Foundation Says,” Tax Notes Today, June 11, 1998.
  • 17. Robert Goodin, Reasons for Welfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 313.
  • 18. Edgar Browning, “The Marginal Cost of Redistribution,” Public Finance Quarterly, January 1993, p. 3.
  • 19. Amy Gutmann, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 8.
  • 20. Ibid., p. 123.
  • 21. Alan Wolfe, Review of Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy, by Stephen Holmes, New Republic, May 1, 1995.
  • 22. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 1, Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 24.
  • 23. Julian Simon, “What the Starvation Lobby Eschews,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1996.
  • 24. Etienne de la Boétie, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Murray Rothbard, ed. (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), p. 70.

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including 2012’s Public Policy Hooligan, and 2006’s Attention Deficit Democracy. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.


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