In June 2018, Nicholas Vrousalis was awarded a Vidi grant by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), worth €800,000. The project, entitled “Inequality against Freedom: Economic Power, Markets and Workplace” (InAF), was awarded to study the relationship between economic inequality, individual freedom, and the labour market. What follows is a general description of the project.

Free but unequal

Economists, political scientists and philosophers have long cautioned that inequalities in income and wealth may adversely affect politics, for example by giving moneyed interests power over elected officials or by attenuating their connections to the public interest.

These arguments often operate under the assumption that inequality does not undermine individual freedom. What is more, some economists maintain that inequality can even enhance freedom. Inequalities that arise from mutually beneficial transactions between consenting adults, for example, expand the option sets of all affected agents and therefore enhance freedom. The rising tide raises all boatseven when it raises some more than others. And what could possibly be wrong with unequal boat-raising?

Unfree boat-raising

Most philosophers admit that unequal boat-raising does not undermine individual freedom, but argue that it undermines justice or fairness. The claim about freedom is a major concession; it is also questionable. Suppose your boss offers you a raise in return for cleaning her boots, or that a millionaire offers you millions in return for a sexual favour, or that a fellow train commuter offers you the only available seat for a thousand euros. Even when voluntarily and rationally accepted, it is not obvious that these offers enhance freedom. The case can be made that they reduce freedom. How is that possible?

Unfree and unequal

One possible answer is that such offers involve an exercise of arbitrary power. The problem with slavery, for example, is that it makes the life and livelihood of the slave subject to the arbitrary will of the slaveowner. Another possible answer is that these offers obstruct the performance of free actions, in the sense of actions that respond to reasons of the right kind. Free action, on this view, is action performed in the right circumstances in response to the right reasons—they are performed not in order to impress the boss, to avoid a penalty or to reap a reward, but for the sake of a good that is independent of that power: having clean boots, having good sex, getting much-needed rest.

On both of these theories, mutually beneficial and consensual offers are objectionable when and because they are merely contingently free: the proposal-recipient is free to clean the boots, have sex, take the seat, but only by the leave of the powerful—respectively: the boss, the millionaire and the commuter. She can act well only subject to their discretion; the proposal-recipient, in other words, is dominated. And since domination is a kind of unfreedom, the proposal-recipient is unfree.

Future research

These suggestions raise a host of questions. Under what conditions are mutually beneficial and consensual transactions unfree? And what kinds of democratic institutions does freedom require?

The InAF project studies these questions using the tools of contemporary moral and political philosophy, along three thematic axes: (1) freedom and economic inequality, in general, (2) the political philosophy of markets, and (3) the political philosophy of the workplace.

The project began in June 2019.