Two Freedoms in the USA
Updated: Feb 4
There is a great debate in the United States about what it actually means for a person to be free
by Keith Prushankin
Freedom is invoked over just about every issue in the grand buffet of US-American politics. From the expansion of the state’s role in providing healthcare coverage, to mandates to enforce mask wearing during a pandemic that is competing with World War II in the number of US-Americans it has killed; the sense that freedom is under siege by the red-coated agents of tyranny is pervasive. Boiled down to its bare essentials, there are two camps. The first camp holds that human freedom is a function of absence; that a person is free because they do not have to feel fear from physical violence, poverty, and disease. The opposing camp holds that human freedom is a proactive function, meaning that one is free because one is able to perform a specific action. In this paradigm, a person is free because they are able to go where they want and say what they want, regardless of any external material circumstances.
Let us take an illustrative situation. A citizen of a social democratic state, for example, experiences freedom through the lack of fear of material conditions that create fear uncertainty and anxiety. Access to commonly funded medical care, educational opportunities, and the resultant upward mobility illuminate existential fears of the absence of those conditions. This individual is therefore free to pursue their life path without worrying about these conditions.
Now let us turn to the United States for an illustration of the opposite condition. A citizen of the United States claims freedom as much as a citizen of a social democratic country. The US-American claims freedom because of their ability to say what they want without any fear of reprisal or consequence (though this is also debatable, especially in light of employee rights at work). That individual is able to own a gun; with the expression of freedom being one’s right to inflict violence on one’s fellow citizen and the fact that the state authority entrusts that person with that ability.
The US-American citizen also perceives freedom in their ability to choose different material circumstances for themselves. For example, the ability to choose a healthcare provider presents a key element of US-American freedom. This is of course also debatable, considering the monopolies the healthcare corporations have over particular geographic areas and their preexisting contracts with particular employers, but the work of public relations firms has cemented this idea into the US-American mind.
How then, is the US-American citizen freer than the citizen of the social democratic state? The US-American likely perceives freedom more as a rhetorical device than as a material condition. Indeed, the primary freedom over which US-Americans have anxiety is rhetorical: freedom of speech; that the average US-American explains freedom as their right to say what they want regarding the government. The citizen of the social democratic state does not lack that right, nor is that right stronger in the United States. How then, in the minds of the libertarian or conservative in the United States, is freedom as a function of absence less valid and less desirable than freedom as a function of proactivity?
At its foundation, this is all an economic argument. Freedom as a function of absence is simply not as profitable as freedom as a function of proactivity. This is because freedom as a function of absence requires increased spending for the public provision of goods, therefore diminishing the opportunity for profit to be extracted through the market sale of those goods. Conversely, freedom as a function of proactivity requires the individual to contribute their own financial resources to gain security from financial privation. Freedom in its proactive sense is therefore more a function of the profit motive than it is a function of actual productivity.
Following this line of logic, why should the state pay to provide people with equal chances and opportunities when it can just as easily provide them with a rhetorical fluffing that they are free, masters of their own destiny, to whom the world belongs should they work hard enough for it? It is easy and cheap for the USA's corporate ruling class to maintain the illusion of an upwardly mobile, democratically participatory society. Similarly, it removes the impetus of responsibility from the shoulders of elected officials by allowing them to serve a defensive role in protecting proactive freedom from potential threats (e.g. government regulation aimed at advancing absent freedom).
In this sense, freedom is a function of economic security. Freedom from suffering and material and financial destitution is a form of security. Therefore, this is ideally a function performed by the state, because the state’s original concept was to provide security for its population. In the US-American imagination, the role of the state was first to “provide for the common defense,” i.e. defend the people in a military capacity. But the definition of that role has necessarily evolved with time, and the changing material circumstances of life that render it systemically impossible for the average US-American to provide for themselves without the benevolence of a corporation through either wage labor or philanthropy.
Because the state provision of that security threatens the profit motive of corporations, a dichotomy of freedom and security has emerged; putting each desired goal into contention with the other. Public relations teams, propagandists, and neoliberal ideologues advance the explanation that an expanded state role in providing economic security for the population threatens the proactive freedom of the people. Through this dichotomy, they are able to successfully split economic security from physical (i.e.) military security, and justify enormous, costly expansions of state power in the realm of the military whilst condemning similar expansions in public services as undesirable. The omnipresent military-industrial complex profits and the corporate class, through its political ideologues, continues to extract profit on critical public goods, while keeping their customers safe from the tyranny of an expanded government.
How do US-Americans change the script of freedom so that it encompasses freedom from economic precarity, and thereby facilitates the solving of the material struggle of millions of our compatriots? First, we need to change the script of the electoral process. This means changing the dynamic of the two parties that the American people are given as the only choice we have. It is time to stop normalizing Democrats and Republicans. The only claim to legitimacy of the system of two party governance in the United States is its longevity, and longevity, if taken in its myriad forms across the world of political regimes, is not a sufficient condition for legitimacy. In the world of electoral democracies, two parties gripping power is hardly more legitimate than single party rule is normal. These conditions are not healthy. They are symptomatic of a systemic failure to elicit a plurality of options and an open exchange of ideas.
Second, US-Americans must break with economist James Buchanan’s omnipresent Public Choice Theory. The theory holds that personal gain is the primary motivator of human behavior, and therefore the increased availability of public services through the state will remove incentives to work and earn money; thereby affecting a massive wealth transfer from the hardworking to the lazy. The discredited and racist stereotype of the so-called Welfare Queen, deployed by Reaganite Republicans and stuck in the national mind ever since, is the logical conclusion of Public Choice Theory.
In fact, labor force participation is significantly higher in countries with well-developed social support systems (including healthcare and education) than it is in the United States. Additionally, a growing body of psychological and sociological research demonstrates that the human instinct for altruism is a powerfully-imbedded influence on decision making. Greed, far from being the driving force of the USA's economy, is holding us back.
Third, we must recognize the enormous capacity of government, free from the profit motive, to improve the lives of the people it is charged with defending. Public Choice Theory and its adherents implicitly create the dichotomy of the private versus the public responsibility to provide essential services to the population. In this dichotomy, the state is almost always rhetorically bad, inefficient, or tyrannical, and the private sector almost always rhetorically good, efficient, and inherently democratic (despite their authoritarian management structures and draconian employee relations).
As we find ourselves again mired in economic crisis, we must not forget the energy and ingenuity with which a properly-funded and publicly supported Federal Government was able to respond to the dual crises of the Great Depression and the rise of militant fascism. Furthermore, the Federal Government is responsible for much of the technology people around the world now take for granted, from the Internet and GPS systems to satellites and flight. Crippling budget cuts, rhetorical attacks, and institutional undermining delegitimize, demoralize, and debase the government in the performance of its functions, to the detriment of the US-American people.
Freedom is a concept dear to the US-American imagination. Competing interpretations of it have held the country back by creating a threat mentality, urging us to protect what we have lest we overreach and lose it all to the faceless tyrants of our political nightmares. By shrugging off our fears and embracing the potential of government action to solve our country’s endemic problems through workable and egalitarian projects, we can achieve the self-actualization of living not only with the freedom to act as we will, but the freedom from the suffering that lurks in the shadows of our daily lives.
Anderson, Elizabeth. Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press (2017).