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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.

Photo Credit: AFP


Last week, Mitt Romney summed up the Right's rhetorical fluff as well as anyone when he told the National Rifle Association that “freedom is the victim of unbounded government appetite.” It was an unremarkable comment, so accustomed are we to hearing the Right – a movement that historically opposed women's sufferage and black civil rights and still seeks to quash workers' right to organize and gay and lesbian Americans' right to marry– claim to be defenders of our liberties.

One has to acknowledge the conservative messaging machine for branding its ideological preferences with the rhetoric of “freedom.” But it's nothing new. During the 2009 healthcare debate, Steve Benen noted that in 1961, when John F. Kennedy introduced the Medicare bill, Ronald Reagan “warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living.” Reagan told the nation, “If you don’t [stop Medicare] . . . one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that “freedom” for the Right offers most of us anything but. It’s the freedom for companies to screw their workers, pollute, and otherwise operate free of any meaningful regulations to protect the public interest. It’s about the wealthiest among us being free from the burden of paying a fair share of the taxes that help finance a smoothly functioning society.

The flip side is that programs that assure working Americans a decent existence are painted as a form of tyranny approaching fascism. The reality is that they impinge only on our God-given right to live without a secure social safety net. It’s the freedom to go bankrupt if you can’t afford to treat an illness; the liberty to spend your golden years eating cat food if you couldn’t sock away enough for a decent retirement.

Many Americans, however, have accepted the premise that liberties for corporate America are inextricably tied to their own individual freedom. According to a 2010 Pew poll, Americans’ distrust of government had increased dramatically since 1997. “Over this period, a larger minority of the public also has come to view the federal government as a major threat to their personal freedom....30% feel this way, up from 18% in a 2003 ABC News/Washington Post survey.”

Pew’s findings touched on an important and largely unexamined assumption in our political discourse: that when “government” grows, our individual freedoms and personal choices decline by definition. To see how facile that equation really is, you have to disaggregate what we mean by “government.” You can divide it up, roughly, into a “security state,” a “social welfare state,” a “public infrastructure state,” and a “regulatory state” (there’s obviously some overlap with such broad categories).

Yet the expansion of the security state—criminalizing more behavior, increasing law enforcement’s surveillance of the public, and locking up more people—is a real threat to our personal liberties, and it, like the disastrous “war on drugs” is supported heartily by the Right (with a small number of exceptions in the libertarian wing of the conservative movement). The security state rounded up innocent Arab Americans after 9/11 and routinely locks up hundreds of thousands of nonviolent immigrants seeking economic opportunities. A greater share of our own population is behind bars than any other country in the world – we even lock up children “at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations,” according to Wired -- and while that sad reality is a bipartisan affair, it is driven by conservatives' innate respect for authority and desire for public order, not liberals' attempts to cut down on pollution.

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