Freedom from a Dead-End Life: True Liberty Means Defeating the Right-Wing's Nightmare Vision for America
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.
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.
When progressives advocate for better public transportation, they’re trying to increase ordinary Americans’ freedom of movement. When they promote the wonders of municipal WiFi, they’re talking about the freedom to work anywhere in a city, anytime you want, without having to suck down a cup of stale Starbucks coffee.
People like Mitt Romney call the basic functions of government – taxing in order to finance public services – “theft” and argue that we “can't afford” these things. But many of the examples above – good infrastructure, the ability to take risk without facing ruin and having an educated, healthy population -- yield greater economic output, resulting in more tax revenues. They are investments, not “sunk costs.”
Governance all comes down to a question of priorities. And, in rough figures, we spend about a fifth of our federal budget on the social welfare state, around 5 percent on the regulatory state, and about 10 percent on the infrastructure state.
And the security state? It sucks up around two-thirds of the national budget.
In the final analysis, the Right talks a lot about freedom and liberty while expending an enormous amount of energy to shrink down the very parts of government that afford us the most individual freedom until they're small enough to drown in a bathtub. Maybe progressives, who would actually shrink the growing security state, should reclaim these terms.