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Freedom from a Dead-End Life: True Liberty Means Defeating the Right-Wing's Nightmare Vision for America

The Right likes the parts of "big government" that limit our freedoms and attacks those that expand them.

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The regulatory state is obviously subject to fierce debate. Conservatives are right when they point out that it has the capacity to overreach. But in theory, at least, the regulatory state constrains the “freedom” to harm others, which is an entirely good thing. Most of us don’t want companies to have the “liberty” to sell us defective products, tempt us with grossly misleading advertising, hire children to toil in sweatshops, or spew toxic garbage into our water and air.

And consider the largely unexamined belief that more government leads to less personal liberty in relation to its other tasks. Maintaining our public spaces and infrastructure enhances our personal freedoms. Tomorrow, I can choose to go to a national park or a public beach that I know is safe and clean. I don’t drive a car, but thanks to our government-funded public transportation system, I can get around freely. I have a choice of paying the top rate to catch a cab—a convenient private sector transaction—but if I can’t afford that, I’m still able to take the (government-subsidized) bus. Having reliable delivery of fresh water to my home liberates me from the task of trudging to a river to fetch it by bucket, as people do in many places. It’d be hard to name something that added more to Americans’ individual freedom and choice than the establishment of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, a massive socialist undertaking by the standards of today’s conservatives.

But where conservatives really get it wrong – and where they spend an enormous amount of energy constraining Americans' liberty – is in the social welfare state. Although one obviously can’t opt out of financing one’s share for it—you have to pay your taxes—it provides us with an enormous amount of individual liberty and freedom of choice. And it's not just about the “freedom from want” that is common to Marxist thinking; there are obvious and concrete ways that a robust safety net yields greater individual liberty and brings us more personal choice. Consider a few examples.

In the United States, it’s not uncommon for people to stay in dead-end jobs or crappy relationships for fear of losing their health coverage. In Canada or France or any other industrialized country, a citizen’s healthcare is his or her own – financed largely through the taxes they pay. People in those countries have the very real freedom to quit that lousy job or dump that asshole without worrying about losing their coverage. In this example, Americans are slaves not to an overarching state, but to the way our private insurance system works.

Or consider the millions of people who want to go to college but can’t afford to pick up the tab for tuition and living expenses. Many still have the choice to get a higher education through federal education grants and subsidized student loans. That’s a personal choice that the private sector has no incentive to provide to citizens, and it is one that the Right has sought to undermine.

There are also programs that help people start new businesses or buy homes they otherwise couldn’t afford. There are programs that offer them new job skills. Even if you’re dirt poor, you can still get into a program to help you kick a drug addiction. You can go to the library and read a book or search job listings on the Internet. All of these things give people real choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I could go on. The young researcher working on an NIH-funded science project, the farmer who has the choice to maintain his or her family’s tradition only because of agricultural subsidies, or the actor performing in an off-off-Broadway play that couldn’t be produced without a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—all of these are living examples of people who have the freedom to pursue options that would be closed to them without Big Government “intervention” in the economy.

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