To most, the title of this post is, at best, confusing, at worst, completely counter-intuitive. How can regulations increase personal freedom? How can higher taxes increase personal wealth?
This predictable response speaks to how weak the progressive message has been on the central issues of our time: raising taxes on the rich and raising regulations on the powerful. There exists no narrative, no cogent talking points, no easily accessible argument that we can employ to defend what we believe in: that taxes should be higher on the wealthy, and that regulations should be more comprehensive to protect the majority of Americans.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. We can change the debate, and we do this by changing the yardsticks by which we measure the issues that we are debating.
Regulations are not inherently bad. In fact, if employed in a smart, fair way, they are overwhelmingly good for freedom. Good regulations increase freedom, not decrease it. But until we start talking about regulations in this way, they will continue to be seen by the majority of this country as the proverbial noose that Big Government uses to enslave America. Take, for example, one of the best regulations ever thought of: the regulations against murder. Such regulations increase all of our personal freedom, not decrease our freedom. Although these regulations decrease our narrow freedom to murder, by doing so, they increase our aggregate freedom to go out in the world and live our lives.
Let’s take another, less obvious example: regulations that would enforce net neutrality. As most of us have probably read, Google and Verizon are in the final stages of a deal that could shatter any hopes of net neutrality in our time. For those of us who don’t know, net neutrality is the contentious debate surrounding whether or not giant corporations should be allowed to slow down the internet speed of certain websites (those that don’t pay them) while speeding up others (those that do). Those of us in favor of net neutrality believe this would be the end of the internet as we know it, crushing small websites with no money while strengthening corporate-backed websites that are willing to pay.
Good regulations in this case would increase our freedom, not decrease it. By decreasing the freedom of the telecom giants from profiting off of the speeds of specific websites, we will all be more free. Each and every person should have the freedom to create a website if he or she wants, and regulations protecting this freedom are necessary to achieve this end. Without such regulations, the aggregate freedom of average Americans to create a website and attract an audience will be flushed down the drain, all so billion-dollar corporations can be more free to profit with impunity.
Let’s look at other, even less obvious examples. When Reagan eviscerated most regulations on business, what happened? Sure, businesses became “more free,” but what were the effects? We saw a giant shift in our economy, where big businesses ate smaller ones, thereby becoming even bigger, and small businesses disappeared, either by being bought out or being forced out. In time, it became very difficult for average Americans to have the freedom to start their own business: small pharmacies became CVS; small coffee shops became Starbucks; small banks became Citigroup. In short, increased “freedom” by shredding regulations in the long run, decreased freedom.
What about taxes? Do higher taxes lead to more wealth? Higher taxes on billionaires and multi-millionaires will increase our freedoms who are not billionaires and multi-millionaires. The freedom to not be a billionaire will increase all of our freedoms to be middle class. How? By redistributing wealth, we are, in effect, decreasing the freedom of those we tax. But through decreasing their freedom, we are increasing ours by spending the money they once controlled on public goods. By creating an army of workers, fixing bridges and dams, investing in technology, and taking democratic control over our economy.
We have one of two choices: we can have a select few billionaires and the corporations in which they own control all of our resources and distribute them according to what will reap the most profit, even if this means outsourcing all of our jobs overseas, or we can take democratic control over most of our resources and distribute them according to what is good for us, for the middle class. The latter will unequivocally decrease the freedom of billionaires, but in doing so, it will increase all of ours. It’s your choice.