The Dramatic Disintegration of America’s Freedom of Choice

Freedom, happiness, and prosperity are privileges only afforded to the wealthy. We must fix that.

Happy Friday morning everyone! Unfortunately I won’t have time to write In the News this weekend, but I’ll be back next Friday with a new Antidote.

How much freedom do you have? That may seem like a strange question, but we all have a certain degree of autonomy to live as we choose. Our personal freedom has bounds, of course; if your choices infringe upon the rights of others, your actions, and freedom, may be restricted. For example, you may be required to wear a mask to protect the health of others, even if you don’t want to. 

Freedom begets happiness

We are happier when we have freedom to choose how to lead our lives. The true tragedy of poverty is not a lack of resources, but a loss of freedom. If you are poor, you may not be able to choose where to shop for groceries (if you can afford groceries at all); about 23.5 million people live in food deserts. Gas stations and convenience stores may be your only source of food. You can’t choose where to live if you are poor. Only 1.5% of the population moved to a different state between 2015 and 2016; in the 1950s, people were moving to different states at nearly twice the rate they are now. Poor workers can’t move to places that offer high-paying jobs because housing is unaffordable. In New York, for example, janitors spend 52% of their income on housing; lawyers in New York spend 21%.

Freedom of choice is a privilege of the wealthy. If you have enough money, you can choose to live in an area with as many stores, parks, hospitals, or schools as your heart desires. You may even be able to choose not to work at all. Creating a more equitable society would not just benefit the poor, though; we would all benefit from more freedom of choice.

Is capitalism broken?

Capitalism, in theory, works great. Unstifled by government regulation, companies are able to meet every need consumers could possibly have. Low barriers to entry keep markets efficient and prices low. Or so the story goes. 

Americans are much less free than we’d like to believe. Our industries are becoming more and more concentrated each year, and our choices fewer and fewer (in some cases, we don’t even have choices anymore). Our phones are the most important piece of technology most of us own, yet we have two options: Android (Google) or iOS (Apple). Google and Apple are two of the biggest tech companies in the United States. Apple is more focused on user privacy, but their walled garden approach prioritizes the company’s interests over those of the customer. Apple won’t allow cloud gaming services on the platform because they don’t offer Apple a cut of the revenue. (Yesterday, August 13th, Apple decided to kick Fortnite off the App Store for offering gamers a discount if they bypassed Apple’s 30% fee. Epic Games, creator of Fortnite, had a lawsuit ready to go when Apple removed their game.) Instead of having freedom of choice, users are held hostage to the demands of a trillion dollar corporation. Google’s platform is more open, but they make money through monetizing users’ personal information. Consumers that don’t like Apple or Google are out of luck because there are no other options.

How many high-speed internet providers are available at your home? Tragically, the only internet provider available at my apartment is Comcast. I have a data cap every month, which means I have to strategically time when I download video games or watch 4K video content. If it’s near the end of the month, well, I might have to wait until next month to download The Last of Us 2 or catch up on Better Call Saul. The data Comcast does give me is throttled; competing streaming services mysteriously run much slower than Comcast-owned options.

Lack of competition benefits no one

The influence of corporate money in politics cannot be understated. Acquisitions and mergers are rarely good for consumers, yet they are so prevalent in the U.S. because they are often the only way for giant corporations to increase profits. The government has done a poor job promoting competition, and many politicians have fallen victim to the fallacy of free market capitalism. The winners of unregulated capitalism are the Amazons, Apples, and Googles of the world. Everyone, and I do mean everyone else loses. 

Consumers suffer from a lack of choice and a loss of freedom. Words can’t describe how much it pains me to pay Comcast for internet service every month. As a hostage to Comcast, I don’t feel very free. Amazon has established itself in many places as the only way to get goods and products delivered fast and cheap. In many areas of our lives, we suffer from a lack of choice and a loss of freedom. Poor Americans, often unable to move or get a college education that could lift them out of poverty, suffer even more.

Less competition also means fewer potential employers to choose from. How many Amazon employees truly love working for Amazon, and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else? I’m sure there are some, but I imagine most employees, especially those working in warehouses and delivering packages, would work somewhere else if they had the option. Promoting competition will force employers to offer higher pay and benefits to lower-wage workers who traditionally may not have much choice in who they work for.

Creating a more equitable society will benefit everyone, not just the poor. Runaway capitalism is destroying our freedom and personal choice. These are not new ideas; in the golden era of U.S. antitrust policy and enforcement, the 1940s to the 1970s, controlling capitalism was seen as the key to preserving economic and political freedom. Now, the government rarely stands up to large corporations.

With little antitrust enforcement from the government, business competition in many sectors is nonexistent. New businesses as a share of the economy have been declining since the late 1970s. A 2015 study found that over 75% of U.S. industries have become increasingly concentrated over the last two decades. The share of the profits we receive for our labor has never been lower; in the 1950s and 1960s, we received as much as 66% of the fruits of our labor. Now, we are receiving around 58% of the dollars we create. Workers in lower-wage sectors of the economy have seen the sharpest declines.

If we continue down the path we are on, our choices will continue to decrease, and with it our freedom. Prospects for change under the current administration seem bleak at best, but if there is a shift in power in the White House and Senate, Democrats must move to break up some of our biggest corporations. Big tech companies, like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, would be a good place to start. If Democrats are truly the party of the working class, and of poor and underprivileged Americans, they will do what’s best for all of us and regulate runaway capitalism.

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