Last week the British government gave a new freedom to its citizens, or at least to a relatively privileged group of them. No longer will pensioners with defined contribution retirement plans be forced to invest their accumulated funds in an annuity. The old requirement was a form of financial coercion: government rules which influence behaviour.
For the pensioners in question, the new arrangement may feel like liberation. They will no longer be enslaved to a product which offers meagre yields. For the rest of Britain, though, financial freedom has probably been reduced. All taxpayers will end up paying more for the medical bills of some pensioners, those who would have had an annuity income but who might now be forced to turn to the state if they run out of money when they need expensive care.
The elimination of one sort of coercion for some people brings a new coercion for others. The pattern is typical, and not merely in finance. Freedom is usually tied to constraint. If I am free to play loud music, my neighbour is forced to endure a racket. If I am free to charge as much as I want for a product that is in short supply, the rich are free to buy but poorer people are forced to do without.
In complicated modern economies, this financial coercion is inevitable. Banks and other institutions which collect and disperse money cannot operate well without trusting customers. These intermediaries are so big and distant that customers will not trust them without strong regulatory and legal protection. So the freedom of banks to decide about their capital structures and lending practices is justly restricted for the sake of protecting the value of the funds deposited in the banks. Indeed, more of that sort of financial coercion a few years ago would have saved the global economy a great deal of trouble.
The financial system will always be designed to promote some mix of social goods. In well-organised societies those goods start with prosperity and security. In more corrupt arrangements, the interests of particular groups – bankers, lenders or borrowers – are favoured. In all cases, some activities are well rewarded and others are discouraged or punished. Financial coercions can bring greater freedoms overall or can improve life in some other ways.