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The meaning of freedom

Chris Rhodenbaugh | Friday, November 12, 2010

Freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action” (legal definition). The word freedom dominates the U.S. political discourse. While the nature of the word is expansive, its use in U.S. politics has been deduced to a concrete and tightly bound definition of personal choice without the interference of government. This interpretation of the word and its portrayal as the founder’s sole intention defined the rhetoric of the wave of conservative victories in 2010.

What was left out of 2010 debate is that there is a spectrum of freedom that spans from government intruding on individual freedom by requiring certain behavior from its citizens, to an economic structure that chains people to economic necessity in their decision making. The debate of what it means to be free is not as simplistic as conservatives like to believe. A person who must choose to turn down treatment for a disease because her family cannot afford it, is equally relevant to the discussion of freedom as someone who is forced to buy health insurance to prevent free-riding and bring costs down for everyone. Let the citizens choose whether they want to prevent government from protecting citizens from medical tragedies due to economic constraints, but it is unjust to claim that more government involvement in health care unequivocally means less freedom.

Before further argument, it must be exposed how far the lines have been moved on the definition of freedom. The 4.6 percent tax increase President Obama is seeking on the wealthiest two percent to a rate of 39.6 percent, the highest tax rate under Clinton when the budget was balanced and more than 22 million jobs were created, has been compared to socialism and a government takeover of the economy. These claims become increasingly hyperbolic the more history is examined. The new tax rate under President Obama on the highest earners would be considerably lower for that tax bracket than the rates of three Republican presidents in their third year in office, prior to being reelected. Under the Eisenhower administration the U.S. had a top marginal income tax rate of 91 percent, under Nixon it was 71.75 percent and finally under Reagan it was 50 percent.

While it is always a temptation to create growth as fast as possible by dismantling what appear to be irrational limitations, the temptations must occasionally be refused. A new political class has been elected that believe the U.S. needs to drastically reduce restraints on business designed to protect society. The core belief is that taking away the freedom of business to act in its best interest is what is preventing our economy from a full recovery. Democrats do not want to stop business, President Obama and the vast majority of Democrats are ardent capitalists who believe a system of competition and markets drives ingenuity and efficiency, but they also believe speed limits must be set that ensure the long term health of society.

It is a natural impulse to want to get somewhere as fast as possible or to have it as cheap as possible, but without constraint that urge has likely created problems for every American. The same will occur across society when regulations are removed, and programs designed to keep the financially vulnerable above water while they recover their health, work to find employment or get an education will be cut in order to reduce taxes on businesses and the wealthiest two percent.

The United States will never represent anything but the strength and opportunity of capitalism despite the worst fears of the right. Setting limits to ensure the health of civil society is not an infringement on the founding values of this country or the freedoms of individual citizens. It is not anti-business to disagree with business some of the time. In reality, business functions better in the long term if there is some basis of equality to drive aggregate demand. The United States is at risk to succumbing to a systemic risk of democratic governance, that short term need or pleasure, will replace sound and balanced long term economic growth and societal health.

It is important to have a social infrastructure in society designed to promote freedom from making choices based on economic need. Are seniors more free when cost cutting results in the retirement age on social security being pushed to 70? Should the poor have the freedom to know they can temporarily feed their families with food stamps in order to buy other necessities for their family? Or should their success in the free market determine the family’s survival? Should Americans have the freedom to pollute the environment or the freedom to live with clean air, clean water, and a stable climate? Should companies have the freedom to mislead people into debt they cannot afford, or should people be protected against exploitative contracts written by the nation’s wealthiest lawyers? Do people have the freedom of using their voice in democracy? Or is it more important that the government not regulate campaign donations letting corporate money take over elections? These are debates on freedom that should not have clear partisan lines. Unfortunately, these issues are robbed of a fair hearing when one party monopolizes the definition of freedom.

A real discussion of freedom in America does not leave out the millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules only to remain in poverty. No one is less free in the United States than the 43.6 million people that live in poverty according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, one in five U.S. families admit to struggling to put food on the table and 20 percent of children are growing up in poverty. Should we put freedom from government influence ahead of the success of the next generation? It is fair to debate the level of which government should be involved to ensure opportunity and a safe and just society, but it is dishonest to claim that the only domestic force threatening the freedom of U.S. citizens is the U.S. government.

Chris Rhodenbaugh is a senior political science major and editor of www.LeftysLastCry.com, Notre Dame’s Progressive Headquarters. He can be contacted at crhodenb@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.