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Some Thoughts on the Distinction Between “Economic Freedom” and “Social Freedom”

After watching a couple of people I know argue about whether “economic freedom” or “social freedom” was more important, I had the typical libertarian reaction: That’s a meaningless question, they’re the same thing. All transactions are “economic” in an important sense, and all relationships between people are “social.” To violently repress any non-invasive action is to limit someone’s economic opportunities, and doing that tends to put people in a socially subordinate position.

Then it struck me that there’s another problem with that dichotomy that left-libertarians in particular are in a good place to point out, and it has to do with popular ideological assumptions about whose “economic freedoms” are most often violated.

For most people, the archetypal examples of something that violates “economic freedoms” typically involve repressing a wealthier or otherwise more generally privileged person, and their archetypal examples of something that violates “social freedoms” typically involve repressing a poorer or otherwise more generally oppressed person. When you control for that, it becomes a lot harder to distinguish between what’s a restriction on “economic freedom” and what’s a restriction on “social freedom.”

For example, consider labor laws that harm serious, wildcat unionizing. Are those restrictions on “economic freedom” or “social freedom?” What about holding vast amounts of completely untouched land? Vagrancy laws? Zoning (especially regulations regarding non-related people sharing a house)? Eminent domain? Occupational licensing? Drug laws? Prohibitions on sex work? Immigration laws? The general regulatory web that prevents a resurgence of mutual aid societies?

It’s definitely not clear to me, and I think that shows the purpose this distinction really serves.