Economics of…Freedom

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Freedom isn’t free. It is an expression used by leaders as varied as President George W. Bush to Francois Hollande, a phrase immortalised by melancholy country singers to its engraving on the sombre Korean War Memorial in the US capital.

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University of Bath students remember the victims of Charlie Hebdo in January

In January, this notion was once again reiterated through collective mourning. Nine journalists and three ‘civilians’ were shot dead in a hatred-filled attack at the controversial Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper offices in Paris. Within a day, another group of victims, predominantly Jewish, were held hostage at a Kosher supermarket. All of the victims paid an incalculable price for a freedom they had truly believed was impenetrable.

The cost of freedom is not an easy to quantify price. Like many values, much has been done in the name of it. It is an idea which many policy-makers and warmongers have fraudulently cashed in on, making an economists job of calculating it’s real value almost impossible.

A case in point is the tenaciously branded ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. The war in Afghanistan, the centre-piece of the ‘war on terror’, was understood and sold to America, but also it’s unquestioning allies, as a necessary price to pay for our fundamental freedoms; an investment to ensure that no one should live in fear ever. It was not to be a cheap investment: statistics suggest that well over $707 billion have been spent (so far) as well as tens of thousands of civilian and military deaths.

A simple cost-benefit analysis will tell you that such a magnanimous cost might expect some considerable results. Yet, if the raison d’etre of the conflict was to ensure our safety or to protect our basic freedoms, it is a difficult sell to the Western public that Operation Enduring Freedom, and it’s sister projects in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and North Africa, that they have reaped adequate benefits.

The rise of ISIS, Boston Bombings, the internal collapse of Pakistan, Ottawa shooting, the beheading of Lee Rigby, the Sydney siege and many others all suggest a world in which a conflict sold to the public as a necessity for freedom have in fact had the opposite effect. We paid for freedom, but in fact feel like we have less of it.

Economists must always ask the question: is there a cheaper, more efficient way of producing the end product. War, in the case of freedom, is certainly not it. However, a number of organisations and individuals believe the answer could be something we have been practising for years.

Freedom comes with empowerment, and empowerment cannot be found in poverty. Neither can it be found in war. Organisations, from the giants of Oxfam to local religious groups, have preached ‘development’ from years and some daring economists have placed people before statistics. In economic terms, freedom is about empowerment; only when one feels financially safe can they truly find or fight for the benefits of this.

The value of freedom can only be found where people have some level of prosperity, where the lingering uncertainty of famine or disease has been vanquished. There are few examples of freedom sought through bloodshed which don’t also sincerely tackle the evil of poverty.

When one feels like their economic security is at risk, they seek to alleviate their grievances through conflict and division. Be it the ‘terrorists’ who feel fighting the ‘West’ is the only way to beat their plight or the Europeans forced to take sanction in the far-right.

Freedom isn’t free, but it also doesn’t have to be as pricey as the branding would have us think.

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