Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (Economic Freedom)

In last week’s reading we saw how personal freedoms could easily be smothered by The Power of the Majority (GB1).  Tocqueville believed that within democracies public opinion and social shaming are stronger weapons than written laws to enforce uniformity of manners and ideas.  In this week’s reading Georg Simmel looks at the idea of individual freedom but takes that idea in a different direction.  For Tocqueville freedom is the ability to think and act independently.  Simmel agrees, but only up to a point.  It’s true that freedom is the ability to think and act independently but for Simmel freedom can only exist within an existing framework of social duties.  Only social obligations can provide a context for true freedom and we don’t get more freedom by shirking those obligations.  Simmel puts it this way: “what we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligations; as a new obligation replaces one we have borne hitherto, we sense above all that the old burden has been removed.  Because we are free from it, we seem at first to be completely free; until the new duty makes its weight felt.”  If I stop paying rent on my apartment I seem to be free of the duty to make monthly payments.  At least for a while.  Before long though I’ll be burdened with the new duty of finding another place to live. 

Simmel wants us to think more clearly about the relationship between freedoms and obligations.  For him freedom isn’t an emotional feeling but an objective reality.  He says “moral philosophy always identifies ethical freedom with those obligations imposed by an ideal or social imperative or by one’s own ego.”  We can’t act as moral agents unless we can choose to fulfill our social obligations in our own way, without coercion.  Simmel’s insight is this.  We can’t have ethical freedom without a certain amount of economic freedom. 

For Simmel economic freedom takes three main forms and has followed a clear historical development.  The first phase is slavery.  Under this economic system “the obligation does not involve a service that is objectively defined, but to the person himself who performs the service.”  Under modern conditions this would include people such as domestic servants and military personnel.  Their personal freedoms are constrained by their economic status and their social obligations are primarily toward a superior authority.  The next phase is serfdom.  Under this economic system the services of a serf are generally defined by obligations of time or specified commodities.  An obligation of time would be to work at the manor on a public project two days a month.  But instead of working on public projects the serf may be given another option.  For example “instead of a fixed amount of labor time and energy, a specific product of labor is required.”  The obligation of supplying commodities would be to turn in a certain amount of corn or wheat each year, for example.  This isn’t an ideal situation but it’s a step up from complete slavery.  And it’s not just under serfdom that this arrangement can be found.  “One finds a similar phenomenon today when talented people, who work for a wage, prefer to work for a company with its strictly objective organization rather than for an individual employer.  They may prefer factory work to service with people of authority, where they are in a better position financially but feel themselves less free in subordination to individual personalities.”  The third phase of economic freedom is the replacement of payment in kind (commodities) by money payment.  Simmel calls this the “magna charta of personal freedom” because it gives maximum choice to the individual.  It’s a step up from serfdom because “The lord of a manor who demands beer or chickens or honey from a serf thereby determines the activity of the serf in a certain direction.  But the moment he imposes merely a money payment the serf is free, insofar as he can decide for himself whether to keep bees or cattle or anything else.”  We’re still under the social obligation to pay taxes, rent and other expenses but we’re free to decide how we get the money. 


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