Trains, Planes, and Automobiles: On the Left’s Ideas about Money and Freedom

There’s a whole essay or dissertation to be written—probably has been—on how liberals and leftists interested in explaining the relationship between money and freedom—namely, that without money, we cannot be free; that we lack liberty if we lack the economic means to pursue our ends—so often resort to metaphors of, or make reference to, travel and transportation.

The Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen does it in his classic essay, “Freedom and Money,” where he shows how not having money is an abridgment of freedom. Not having money does not mean simply that I lack the resources to do what I want to do. Not does it mean that I lack the capacity to do what I want to do. Without money, says Cohen, I am literally unfree to do what I am otherwise physically and emotionally capable of doing.

To explain that argument, which is an attempt to take apart Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between negative and positive liberty, Cohen deftly uses the analogy of a train ticket. If I cannot afford to buy a ticket to travel to Glasgow (Cohen was a Canadian who made his career in Britain), I am not free to travel to Glasgow. I am physically able to board the train and make the trip. But without a ticket, I’ll be physically stopped and prevented from doing so—not by the frailty of my body or infirmity of my mind, not by the weakness of my will, but by the conductor and behind her the force of the state.

This afternoon, Alex Gourevitch reminded of a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I posted on Facebook a while back. It’s from an interview she gave to Elle magazine where she explains that poor women, by virtue of being poor, lack the same right to an abortion that wealthy women have. Freedom is unevenly distributed in relationship to social class and wealth. To drive the point home, she too invokes travel, less as an analogy than as an instance:

The impact of all these restrictions is on poor women, because women who have means, if their state doesn’t provide access, another state does. I think that the country will wake up and see that it can never go back to [abortions just] for women who can afford to travel to a neighboring state…

You find the same trope in the Buckley v. Valeo decision, where the Court upheld the constitutionality of limitations on campaign contributions but struck down limitations on campaign expenditures as a violation of the First Amendment. Explaining the connection between expenditure and expression, between money and speech, the Court wrote:

A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached. This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money.

And then to, um, drive the point home, the Court added a footnote:

Being free to engage in unlimited political expression subject to a ceiling on expenditures is like being free to drive an automobile as far as and as often as one desires on a single tank of gasoline.

This being the United States, the Court naturally invoked the car and the gas tank—rather than Cohen’s train and ticket—as the appropriate metaphor.

The invocation of travel makes some sense: Going back to Hobbes, the absence of external impediments to the motions of our body has often been taken as the most basic definition of freedom. (In chapter 14 of Leviathan, as opposed to chapter 21, Hobbes is a little more elusive on the question of motion, but his emphasis on external impediments remains.) Likewise, the hallmark of the state’s power is the right to control a person’s entry and exit across its borders.

But rather than external physical impediments serving as the barrier to motion, in these examples, what is doing that work of impeding motion is money itself.


  1. Stephen Vernon, MFT July 1, 2016 at 10:42 pm | #

    Franklin Roosevelt told us a necessitous man (person) is not a free man (person). Further, while there is much else to dislike about Buckley– does the court really believe that issues are discussed and deeply explored ? Have they not seen campaign commercials? Have they not watched the horse-race ?

    • Tom July 2, 2016 at 10:23 am | #

      At the 1936 convention, FDR said “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living-a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”

  2. msobel July 2, 2016 at 9:38 am | #

    Your post reminded me of:

    La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.
    In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread. (

  3. John Merryman July 2, 2016 at 12:50 pm | #

    “what is doing that work of impeding motion is money itself.”

    The analogy works because money is a medium, yet we also treat it as a store of value and that is not a medium. For instance, blood is a medium and fat is a store. If you store fat in the circulation system, it will certainly impede the flow of blood.

    While money functions as a contract, as any asset value has to be backed by a debt, we experience it as quantified hope and so there is enormous political pressure to create as much as possible and so we treat it as a commodity. Which to manufacture, means creating enormous debt. Much of this as government borrowing, but since much government spending, like bombing other countries to rubble, doesn’t create any viable return, eventually it will prove to be bad debt.
    Now if the government threatened to tax, rather than borrow excess currency out of the system, people would quickly find other ways to invest for the long term and that would require investing directly back into the community and the environment on which it is based. Originally known as the Commons. Muscle and bone, rather than fat.

    Though we will have to wait for this bubble to pop, before considering alternatives.
    Keep in mind the old adage, “Never waste a crisis.” Comebacks are a bitch.

  4. nathanrff July 2, 2016 at 3:00 pm | #

    Possibly tangential, but this reminds me of Hobsbawm in his memoir, similarly noting the bonds of freedom and transport, though he had in mind another device:

    “Even the form of transport that set us free was cheap, for we, or our parents, heeded the advertisements on the back of the London double-deckers: ‘Get off that bus. It will never be yours. Twopence a day will buy you a bicycle.’ . . . If physical mobility is an essential condition of freedom, the bicycle has probably been the greatest single device for achieving what Marx called the full realization of the possibilities of being human invented since Gutenberg, and the only one without obvious drawbacks.”

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