“What then is freedom?
The power to live as one wishes.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero
The word “freedom” and its close corollaries (liberty, independence) are woven deep in the fabric of the United States. It is part of the water in which we swim without knowing it (apologies to the late David Foster Wallace and his commencement speech–worth the read). Not for us Americans is the omnipresent deference to one’s social group (family, cultural, religious, or geographic community, or nation even) that one finds in, for example, many near and far Eastern cultures. No, it is an individual’s right to live “free” that is so intrinsic in our culture that we don’t even question it. There is a reason that old Westerns are the most American of movies.
From whom or what is this freedom sought? From anyone or anything that obstructs us from living a life of our choosing, arguably, whether that be a societal or governmental force.
So who or what holds the power to grant or deny that freedom?
In Power Shift, author Alvin Toffler posits that traditional sources of power come from the use or potential use of one of three power sources: knowledge, money, and physical force. Governments, for example, can derive their power: from a military or police force whose potential use of physical force dictates what people can do; through knowledge its executive agencies possess that allows it to make decisions that private citizens cannot make, and to take actions based on them; and/or through the ability to incentivize or discourage certain behaviors through monetary awards.
Understanding of and receptiveness to an idea hinge upon how that idea is framed. So it is with freedom. Two different frameworks have evolved around the word “freedom” as it relates to our society and government in recent decades, such that now different segments of society use that word to advance two very different ideas. We can mostly agree that American freedom is the ability to live how you wish to live, choose who is a part of your life, etc.
But beyond that is a tension: freedom can mean the ability to live free from societal oppressions that plague some segments of our society more directly than others. Behind this is a recognition that the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, etc. limit the opportunities of and take away opportunities from those who are the objects of that prejudice. Those individuals, who on paper are just as entitled to the freedoms of every other American, are barred from not just opportunities, but from benefits that other citizens are allowed (red-lining is an easy example); in short, they are less free. Proponents of this idea of freedom advocate that we do not live in a free society until all members are equally free.
The second kind of freedom is framed as a lack of another type of restriction. It is freedom from governmental regulations, like, generally speaking, excessive taxes or overly stringent laws. Proponents of this type of freedom would give, as a recent example, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This stance resists the idea that lawmakers, who often live elsewhere and don’t know the intimate details of their constituents’ lives, should make laws that limit what their constituents can and cannot do.
At first impression, there is an easy distinction between the two frameworks: the first is a proactive approach to create a society that strives for freedom for everyone by making sure every citizen has access to the same opportunities. (Whether they take advantage of those opportunities is another question.) The society it works towards is free from sociological ills; let’s call it Freedom through Social Equality.
The second framework focuses much more on the role of government. Its proponents may or may not accept that society is plagued by injustices, but either way, they do not want to see the government try to solve those problems. It is governmental overreach that proponents of this freedom resist; this framework will be called, for purposes of this essay, Freedom through Limited Government.
To demonstrate Freedom through Social Equality, allow me to give an example from my days of working on equal opportunity in employment. There are many challenges in hiring. It is very hard to predict how well a candidate will perform in the job and get along with other employees. Many employers use interviews to try to predict, but haven’t we all known someone who is terrible at interviews and so can’t get a job at which they’d excel if given the chance? (Or, conversely, people who interview really well but are sparse on actual skills, or work ethic?) This particular subset of work, equal opportunity, has to do with reversing hiring practices that intentionally and unintentionally favor some candidates while disadvantaging others. This is done through several ways: choosing words carefully for a job listing, soliciting applications in a certain way (mitigating complete reliance on the “ol’ boys’ network”), paying attention to interviewing techniques and even locations, using the same set of interview questions and ratings of the answers for all interviews, just to name a few.
On the macroscopic level, proponents of Freedom through Social Equality believe we as a society should likewise study how society disadvantages some while giving advantages to others, and then actively work to reverse those inequities. As the body which holds the power to regulate civic behavior, it is the role of government, such proponents believe, to implement this work.
And in fact, the government has regulated behavior through policy for decades, if not for the purpose of erasing inequalities, then at least for encouraging what our civic leaders believe are behaviors that benefit society. Our current tax system provides an easy demonstration: filing jointly is meant to benefit married couples. Why? Because our government decided that it would be good for society to encourage the stability that comes with marriage, so it gave a tax benefit to those who chose to make the commitment of marriage.
Then there’s Freedom through Limited Government, there are fundamental underlying assumptions through which proponents of this view see society. The first is that less restriction leads to more innovation and more prosperity. So markets will grow stronger with only basic and necessary regulation. Markets exist to make money. When regulation becomes excessive, organizations have a burden of compliance (through, for example, filing out report forms, providing training, or carrying out mandatory practices) that requires spending money and effort that could otherwise be spent on their core mission or on innovation.
Recently, market theories have been applied elsewhere in the public sphere: two that are on many people’s minds today are health care and education. Market theory says that if we leave these areas to compete, enterprising minds will come up with ways to make health care cheaper or offer stronger education systems. Currently, there are public options for education–and in very few places, specialized medicine beyond primary care–that anyone can access. Taken to its extreme, market theory would privatize both these services.
An underlying assumption behind market theory is that money is the main–or at the very least an important–motivator for behavior: everyone wants to earn money, and to pay less money for goods and services. But there are other powerful motivators for behavior. For people who hold a strong spiritual or even political ideological worldview, following those beliefs may be an even stronger motivator than money. Proponents of Freedom through Limited Government, I would argue, can hold different worldviews (there are pure market capitalists, deeply religious people, pure libertarians, etc.), but what they hold in common is that government should, to the degree possible, not promote any worldview.
It is here, at the intersection of constituents’ worldviews and the role of government, that the tension about what freedom is comes into sharpest focus. Because of course, every government reflects, to some degree, the values of the people who elected it. This country began as one based on Judeo-Christian values. While the separation of church and state has been pretty universally adopted, there are values from this tradition that remain. Some are now challenged (like the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman), while others continue to be widely cherished (like the importance of honesty, or hard work). As a society, our values are reflected in our criminal laws, tax code, and in countless other areas of legislation.
But given that our society, today more than ever, consists of such a variety of worldviews and motivators, there is the question of what, or whose, worldview–or put another way, moral code–a civil society should abide by. That is what much of our political tension boils down to in the current climate. What behaviors should the government continue to regulate or encourage, and what should the government leave to the private sphere? Is it the role of government only to advocate for policies that will bring economic growth to its constituents (and consequently enrich the government)? And if government’s role should be limited to economic policy (in addition to the basics of building public services (roads, waste services, etc. and of running a national military), that raises another question: how far into other areas should the government go in order to advance economic growth? Do issues like wealth disparity or climate conservation have an impact on economic strength, and if so, is it then within the government’s purview to address them? When it comes to behaviors, to what extent should the government regulate them? Why is it acceptable to mandate some behaviors, like wearing a seat belt in the car, but controversial whether the government should allow or ban the use of recreational marijuana? And should the government be consistently present across spheres: economic, civic, moral/ethical, etc?
These questions bear some contemplation. While freedom is important, so is the need to preserve another aspect of our American heritage: a country whose laws are fair, where movement between socio-economic class is possible, and a country that is governed by the rule of law, to name just a few aspects. How do we keep the American ideal of freedom for the individual without allowing the individual freedoms of some to tread on the opportunities of others? At what point do individuals’ rights to freedom strike a balance with the country’s civic health?
This country’s stars and stripes offer a very visible demonstration of this balance between individuality and membership in a group. Any one of the fifty stars has clearly defined boundaries; its bright white does not fade gradually into the surrounding red. But any one of the fifty stars alone is just a star, its power diminished by its solitude. Placed among the collection of 50 stars, though, the strength of those stars is striking.
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”