Capitalism vs. Freedom

Capitalism vs. Freedom

The Toll Road to Serfdom

A single-handed debunking of libertarian economics and "the age of Friedman".


For years, we’ve been taught that capitalism is good for freedom. Dominant right-wing talk radio hosts to this day recommend “libertarian” classics like Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom that claim markets free us, and this picture still dominates the schools and the political spectrum.

Well get bent, one percent, because Rob Larson’s Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom puts big business under a microscope. This book debunks the conservative classics while demonstrating that the marketplace has its own great centers of power, which the libertarian tradition itself claims is a limit to freedom. In fact, Larson illustrates how capitalism fails both this and other concepts of human liberty, not just failing to establish a right to a share of society’s production, but also leaving us subject to the great power plays of the one percent’s corporate property.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I reckon anyone interested in how the world works financially would get a lot out of it. Larson takes the views of Milton Friedman, the esteemed economist, and dissects them in a context of the present day. He starts with definitions of freedom - both positive and negative freedoms. One gives us freedom to do as we choose and the other gives freedom from being interfered with. Both these are important in a market economy. We think we make choices every day because we live (at least in most of the west) in a capitalist society but if you actually look at what we buy, the choice is between different brand names owned by a very few large companies. They then set prices as the supplier rather than us as the consumer. The 'free market' is a fraud. Mr Larson writes at a fair pace and in an entertaining fashion. You will either like his style or you won't - I loved it. "Meanwhile the radio empire Clear Channel carries Rush Limbaugh and a parade of other similar idiot radio hosts who put the blame for our economic problems on our "heavily regulated" economy. But the huge size and power of Clear Channel, their employer, is a direct result of the deregulation of radio and other media following the 1996 law. Irony loves company!" How can you not love a writer who can use exclamation marks! "Fox News, then, has built up its empire of feverish right wing political reporting thanks to a (then) privileged exemption to the allegedly repressive-of-business power of the government. Yet the channel still runs "Regulation Nation" segments, claiming that the economy's weak job market is caused by the government's rigid regulations, which were no obstacle to building its own empire." We have Friedman, we have Hayek, we have the fact that media that relies on advertising cannot speak freely in their editorials as they may lose revenue from advertisers. We have clear and concise arguments about where the faults exist and what should be done to fix them. So a vicious circle of propping up the capitalist way so the few rich capitalists at the top can continue to feed us (in every sense of the word) what they choose while we give away our freedoms, needs to be broken. And this is an excellent rallying cry. Recommended if you are starting to get a little uncomfortable with the way your choices are being eroded by a few large conglomerates and media moguls. ~ Anne Maguire , NetGalley

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote a very influential book called Capitalism and Freedom. It implies that freedom is a product of capitalism. Capitalism vs Freedom refutes it and more in a blistering litany of well-documented counterattacks. It is a 240 page rebuttal. Rob Larson quotes directly from Friedman, and the claims self-destruct before your eyes: -Where Friedman saw freedom of choice for shoppers, Larson sees enormous concentration, limiting choice to (sometimes) one sole vendor or manufacturer, operating numerous brands it has taken over. For example, almost all beer is sold by two companies. Almost all eyewear comes from Luxottica. Throwing cable into deregulation resulted in megamergers, not consumer choice. Consumers are not offered repairable products they prefer or even sufficient legroom on flights. Forced arbitrations denies consumers even their day in court. Larson says we aren’t so much free to choose as free to imagine we are free to choose. -Friedman saw freedom for workers to choose their employers. They could like their bosses and love their work, at will. Larson sees the labor market running on fear, not free choice. He sees offshoring and outsourcing at the slightest sign of wage savings or unionization, not to mention interminable internships, and 48% of US jobs paying minimum wage or less. Non-compete “agreements” enslave. Barring unions keeps wages below labor’s value. In the gig economy of capitalism, choice is a bitter laugh. -Friedman argued bizarrely that inheritance of a fortune was no different than inheritance of talent. How can you criticize inherited wealth if you’re not against inherited talent? -“Economic power can be widely dispersed. There is no law of conservation which forces the growth of new centers of economic strength to be at the expense of existing centers.” -“The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom, because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.” Looking at these statements today, Larson’s job is like shooting fish in a barrel. As he piles up the knockouts, he keeps repeating : ”Irony loves company!” “Treating labor as an asset priced by supply and demand, like toasters or toothbrushes, is a gross insult to the human spirit, and is indeed responsible for some of the gravest crimes committed against humanity in our history,” Larson says. 42 He calls Friedman an intellectual opportunist, and shows repeatedly how the very opposite of what he said is what is true. “Today’s libertarians follow in a long line of defense of power.” For good measure, Larson collars Friedman’s co-conspirators Ludwig Von Mises and Paul Collier. In a letter to Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand, Von Mises said: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort o men who are better than you.” For Von Mises, who created the Austrian School that inspired Friedman’s Chicago School, the capitalist is a romantic hero and martyr to be exalted: “Creating for him is agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him.” Larson ranges far and wide. He criticizes capitalist colonialists for never giving the colonized infrastructure like sanitation or drinking water, while piling up trash on land, sea and in the air until it is unbearable for the locals. In contrast, libertarian Oxford economist Paul Collier, considered a “bold thinker” among neoliberals, said in his book The Plundered Planet: “We are not here to serve nature. Nature is here to serve us. “ 168 For Larson, these are neoliberals’ true colors showing through. For all of these reasons, and many more, Larson thinks the concentration of capitalism is taking away our freedoms – both the negative freedom to live without fear and the positive freedom to do what we like. His conclusion is that nothing has ever been achieved without a struggle. Labor is clearly not out to fight to for fewer benefits and more neoliberal libertarian “freedoms”. Sadly, it’s not out to fight anything. At some point, labor must awake to its pathetic situation and activists will bloom again. David Wineberg ~ David Wineberg, NetGalley

Are we really free in a capitalist system? Neoliberals such as Friedman and Hayek would say yes, because they claim free-market capitalism is the social arrangement that most encouraged human freedom. Rob Larson’s book demonstrates that they were wrong, because capitalism and freedom are two antagonistic concepts, as suggested in the title of this book. Many people in the world are beginning to suspect that they are not free to choose what they want to do with their life and others don’t feel free to safely express their opinion online. Larson’s book shows us how free-market capitalism based on a competitive market is not creating an overall freedom, but is concentrating more power in the hands of bigger firms and creating towering corporations with full monopoly all by itself. What is even more surprising is that capitalism is putting at risk one of the most important among our freedoms. The practice of controlling information is becoming more and more prevalent. Free markets are not allowing a free flow of information, but instead are creating a more consolidated industry, less diverse. Free-market forces narrowed the diversity of opinion in the media, because media firms’ owners and advertisers warp and shape the information that reaches the average citizen. The philosophy of the market is not to share real information, but to supply the right information, that which is most conducive to immediate profit-making. The media markets bring us information warped by concentrated ownership and by their advertising revenue-based business model. Concentrated power is also making difficult for the average citizen to freely express his political opinion, because dollars in the market give far more votes to those with a lot of money. Our having to say is being flooded by money surging through the electoral and political process. Most working people have not the necessary resources required to fight political confrontations. Parties are no longer debating about ideas, because gigantic amounts of cash are involved in shaping policy today. Therefore, average citizens’ preferences are non-significant. Ordinary people do not have any power over policy decisions. Policies are all driven by decisions and strategic maneuvers of coalitions of political investors in shifting economic conditions. Capitalism has also a great impact on the environment, therefore it has power over future generations. The decisions made through the modern period of capitalism have rarely taken into account the welfare of the people who must live in the world we leave them. The side-effects of capitalism are very serious, but neoliberals tend to ignore them. Among the side-effects of capitalism are climate change, the extinction of some species, the over-consuming of natural resources and pollution. The actual economic system needs to be more sustainable, otherwise the future generations will not have the possibility to enjoy adequate fresh air and water, and will not have the freedom to enjoy nature. Larson’s solution is to eradicate capitalism abolishing private ownership of productive capital and gigantic power arising from it and limiting concentrated power and maximizing freedom. A socialist society can limit the scale of private property and workers can cooperate and collaborate in the decision-making. A collaboration of equal companions can replace the command of masters and obedience of servants. A socialist economy can be created by the solidaric collaboration of the workers with hand in each special branch of production. Socialism, according to Larson, can contribute to a spiritual change among humanity, because it gives ordinary people the possibility to contribute in the economic process. ~ Francesco Camodeca , NetGalley

The ravages of the neoliberal assault on the global population have by now reached the point where they are literally threatening decent survival, not in the distant future. This eloquent study reveals clearly the roots of the problems and their severe dimensions, and calls for renewal of the inspiring vision of libertarian socialism that was displaced and marginalized through the past century but can be revived within the guidelines that are outlined here, expanding on important initiatives already underway. ~ Noam Chomsky

In many ways the consciousness and propensities of young people in the US give reason to be optimistic about the future. On average our young generation is less racist, less homophobic, less sexist, and less militaristic than its forbearers. In addition to these admirable characteristics, young Americans are also freedom loving, which is where Larson’s book comes in. In the US more than anywhere else the cause of “freedom” has been appropriated by right-wing libertarians as a powerful ideological vehicle to gain political support for a conservative political agenda -- to the point where if you tell a young American that you are a “libertarian socialist” they look at you in utter confusion, as if you have contradicted yourself in only two words. With a welcome sense of humor, Larson focuses on examining what freedom means and does not mean, why the right-wing libertarian political agenda subverts freedom rather than promotes it, and why a libertarian socialist program is how young Americans can achieve the freedom they long for. ~ Robin Hahnel

Rob Larson
Rob Larson Rob Larson is a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College in Washington State and the author of Bleakonomics. He's written broadly,...
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