Contently’s “The Freelancer” published an article by Yael Grauer today entitled 5 Free Alternatives to Must-Have Freelance Tools. Being relatively new to freelance writing, I read it with great interest, and appreciated Grauer’s helpful breakdown of the pros and cons of various software options. But the underlying conceit of the article (money-saving tips!) is a familiar one, and when contrasted with another common refrain among freelancers (F-you; pay me!), it left me with a nagging feeling that there’s a growing cognitive dissonance that we should address.
While advocating that “freelancing isn’t free,” freelancers as a group persist in searching for free alternatives to the tools critical to doing business. This is characteristic of a prevailing, individualistic attitude among freelancers when it comes to compensation: we’re all looking out for number one and are encouraging each other to do so. This individualism is borne out of necessity. After all, we are our best (and often only) advocates as self-employed individuals. But it can lead to a perpetuation of the very inequitable economic system we’re so often fighting.
After all, many of our would-be employers share our mindset: How can I save money and increase my profit margin? No wonder every freelancer has a story (or five hundred) about dismal rates on offer. If we expect to be paid fairly for our services, we should also be willing to pay others fairly for their services. When we seek out free alternatives, we encourage a system that undervalues labor in the pursuit of cheaper consumer products. By imposing one set of standards on ourselves and a diametrically opposed set of standards on others, we simply transfer the exploitation.
When we advocate for decent compensation for our freelance services, and at the same time look for ways to avoid paying for services and products that allow us to run our businesses, we’re living a double-standard. Don’t get me wrong–human beings are not required to have coherent worldviews. We are, all of us, ideological hypocrites in some way or another. But if we, as a loose collection of workers, are trying to create a better working environment, we should consider economic consequences beyond those that affect us personally. We can’t just argue against our own exploitation.
Our rhetoric, which reflects our aspirations as a class of freelance workers, must extend its horizon if we intend to change the world for the better. If our goal is to make working conditions more equitable, then we might have to re-frame some of our personal spending decisions to reflect that worldview. It’s all connected, after all. Raising our prices raises the operating costs of the businesses we contract with, and on and on it turns.
In the same way that I have to stop myself from grumbling about the $4 difference in price between Trader Joe’s peanut butter and that of my local co-op’s, I have to remind myself that the services and software needed to succeed in freelancing are worth the investment. In the case of the peanut butter, I remind myself that Trader Joe’s has low prices in part because they source products from suppliers who exploit their workers, while the co-op’s peanut butter is produced by a workers cooperative. We have to make concessions somewhere, whether it be in our own lives or those of others. Someone always pays.
It’s obvious why our decisions about what software and peanut butter to buy are made on the individual scale. Many (most?) freelancers can’t afford to not seek out free or cheaper alternatives to the tools they need to do business. (Yes, I consider peanut butter an essential part of my operation.) My argument that freelancers should consider walking back our predilection for touting the virtues of free services butts up against the stark realities of America’s growing economic underclass, not to mention discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and all marginalized identities.
I get that consumer decisions are often made completely within the context of an individual’s personal economy. Many short term issues cannot afford the luxury of long-term considerations. As participants, willing or not, in capitalism, we are all of us looking for ways to maximize our profits, but we often do so at the expense of even less-fortunate people. When we look for ways around paying, we are usually bringing more advertising into the world, becoming products ourselves, or exploiting the labor of other people. One way to break this cycle is to take a look at how we value labor and commit to providing fair compensation for it.
To take it back to The Freelancer article, it takes time and talent to code software and maintain it. If we can afford to do so, we should be willing to pay for that. At the very least, our conversations about what it costs to run our individual businesses should take into consideration that the advocacy we’re engaged in on behalf of ourselves is often just as applicable to many of the people whose labor contributes to the products and services we’d prefer to get on the cheap.
Now, companies have different business models and various revenue strategies. That much is apparent from The Freelancer article, as many of the software products Grauer reviews have a sliding scale pricing structure. And I’m not saying large tech companies couldn’t stand to lower their prices, break news to investors that they might have to wait another year to remodel their fourth vacation home, and come up with business models that don’t exploit workers or overcharge consumers. Instead, I’m suggesting that, whenever it’s economically feasible, we consider the real cost of labor when we make decisions about what a service or product is worth. And that we acknowledge the ways in which our prevailing mantras (F-you-pay-me, and I-want-to-save-money) are at odds with one another.
It’s entirely possible that these competing arguments aren’t actually in direct opposition. They’re happening on different scales, after all, one personal and the other systemic. My concern is that the individual decisions we make add up; together they have the power to either perpetuate economic inequality or help to remedy it. Because wanting free services while expecting to be paid well for our own is unsustainable. Something’s gotta give. When those of us who are able to make the choice to spend more money for a service that was ethically produced, that tips the scales in the right direction. A direction that benefits our campaign to communicate the true worth of freelance work.
So in addition to providing helpful resources about how freelancers can save money, and encouraging us to advocate for fair compensation, perhaps some of our collective energy could be turned toward interrupting and reordering the exploitative system that our thrifty individual economic decisions perpetuate. Unions and co-ops are both useful dismantling tools; our everyday rhetoric around personal economies can shift to align with our valuation of equitable compensation to find common ground with and encompass the workers we rely on for quality products–digital or physical.