The Land of the Free?
We believe we are free. Our country was founded on freedom as its most important principle; it was for the right to be free, that the Revolution was fought; and it was to preserve and protect freedom that our Constitution was adopted. More than 200 years have passed since those events; how have we fared? Not well, I daresay. Consider some of the elements of which freedom is comprised: physical, intellectual, financial, behavioral, and legal.
Physical freedom is the freedom of our persons, our places and our things; the right to own and use things, to sell them or to give them away. Our minds and our bodies are the most personal of these, but the freedom to sell them is no more sacred that that of any other thing we possess. Our labor is a combination of our body and our mind, together they are a commodity we are free to sell (or at least rent) in the marketplace of labor and ideas. But are we? No. We are constrained by various labor laws, minimum wages laws, and others that limit our ability to set the price and conditions to market ourselves. We use safety, morality and fairness as the basis to create laws that limit our freedom to market ourselves, but which poses the greater danger: legal protections, or loss of freedom.
Do you own property? That is an essential freedom under our system of government, yet it is hardly the case. You have property taxes levied against your property that you didn’t ask for, utilities forced upon you that you don’t want, restrictions on what you can build, limits on what activities you can pursue, whether or not you can remove a tree, and restrictions on water, oil and minerals that lie beneath your property. Are you free to own property? Don’t pay the property taxes and see who really owns it.
In the early days of our country, people were free to travel, to use public streets provided by general taxes for that and other purposes. The general rule was to proceed reasonably and with regard to the safety and traveling rights of others. Today we have hundreds of rules, signs, limits and fees. I wonder what it would be like if we went back to the general rule, and simply prosecuted violators of common sense, preserving the freedom to use it.
Beyond the ability to travel, there are those who want to monitor our whereabouts as well. Insurance companies are offering it as an option with devices that record where you went and how you got there. Some states have mulled taxation based on miles traveled and want to have similar devices mandatory. Then there are the advocates of implanting chips, to monitor not only your whereabouts, but also most every aspect of who you are. It's all for your health and safety. Does this sound like freedom?
Intellectual freedom is the freedom to think, to inquire, to use your mind in all ways for which it has a capacity. Does that freedom still exist? Today, there are limits placed on what one may think. Failure to conform to those limits may not yet land you in jail, but it may get you fired, subject you to indoctrination classes, be removed from school, or face demands for resignation or make public apology. Comments which are even perceived to be derogatory can be grounds for these actions. Comments regarding women, people of color, certain races and nationalities (but not others), sexual practices, religious beliefs, and even political positions may be off limits, unless framed in a positive way. Inflammatory, defamatory and derogatory comments appear to be tolerated if aimed at Caucasians (especially male), heterosexuals, Republicans, Christians, Constitutionalists, and Veterans. Interestingly, it is the second category that is most protective of the right to speak freely. Our thoughts, both public and private, it would seem are among the most intimate of freedoms – and yet that concept is under attack.
Beyond the ownership of physical property discussed earlier, financial freedom gives us the right to acquire wealth in all forms and to use it or dispose of it as we see fit, right? Not so fast. Today, we levy taxes on all wealth, as it is earned, created, and disposed of, even taking from the dead as they leave acquired wealth to their heirs. Even the movement of our wealth is tracked and restricted, with banks reporting to the government any large deposits, and limits on the amount of money we can carry out of the country (without reporting). The mere possession of money doesn’t mean we own it – the government can devalue it, limit our withdrawals, and even confiscate it. In 1933, under Franklin Roosevelt, we were prohibited from owning gold, and today we are limited in the amounts of money to support political candidates. Are we financially free?
As adults, at least, we are free to engage in behaviors we choose, are we not? Well, not if we are accused of a crime involving certain beliefs which may be characterized as “hateful.” As with intellectual freedom, this standard seems to be applied selectively. Despite the “sticks and stones” argument, unless one hurts another person, it seems this would be a violation of the freedom to behave as we wish, even if it is bad behavior. But what about behaviors affecting only ourselves? Drug use comes to mind. We not only prohibit the personal use of drugs, but also criminalize such behavior. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to allow the drug use, but punish any criminal behavior or damage to other people or property in the course of its use. The same is true of sexual and other intimate behavior. Now it’s come to removing our freedom to choose a particular size of soft drink, or to consume unapproved foods at school (but which are apparently allowed in the White House). A British Member of Parliament put it thusly: “The problem with your Republicans is that they want to tell you what you may do in your bedroom; the problem with the Democrats is that they want to tell you what you may do in every other room in your house!”
Legal freedom is that allowed by laws, but especially protected by the Constitution, and in particular, the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech is among the first of those rights. There are the usual reasonable limitations such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but we are increasingly seeing unreasonable limits on that fundamental right. During the Bundy ranch engagement with the government, there was a fenced off “free speech” area. I don’t believe that was what the Founders had in mind. Freedom of religion is also a basic constitutional protection, but it is coming under attack as well. At its essence, religion is a guide to moral behavior and much of religious doctrine involves the acceptance or rejection of certain behaviors. So when a bakery is told that it must violate the owner’s religious position rejecting homosexuality, its fundamental freedom of religious belief is infringed. On the other hand, when non-Muslim citizens are required to allow and even pay for public accommodations of Muslim religious practices (such as mass prayer in public streets and properties), it is a violation of the limits on religious freedom. The attacks on religious freedom have gone so far as to suspend from school a young girl who volunteered a “Bless you” to a classmate who had sneezed! THAT is not freedom of religion.
Freedom of the press is one all citizens hold collectively, as exercised through the press and other media. Is that freedom served when a few large media corporations control the vast majority of print, television, cable and radio media? There are calls for government intervention in the programming of “talk-radio,” which seems to have a preponderance of politically conservative hosts. No such demands are made for print and network television, both of which are notoriously liberal. Rather than focus on the persuasion, freedom in the press would be better served by breaking up the large conglomerates and returning this protected industry class to true competition and open markets.
Are We Free?
There are numerous indices of freedom published by various groups, some under government sponsorship or other bias, which undermines their validity. According to the Heritage Foundation 2014 ranking of economic freedom, the U.S. ranks 12th. Another index which includes both economic and personal freedom is published by the CATO Institute and ranks us 7th. Clearly, anything less than 1st is unacceptable in a country founded on the concept of freedom. While such analytical services offer a relative guide to freedom, the real measure is in how we live, and as the foregoing shows, we are not as free as we used to be, and nowhere near where we should be.
The reasons for most declines in freedom relate to the increased power and scope of government, particularly at the federal level. The abuse of the income tax system to punish and reward; the collection and access to information about citizens; and the linking of all government information systems have given government great power to abuse the freedom of citizens. They are not letting it go unused.