Extreme conservatives have done a pretty good job of capturing the word freedom. In fact, they’ve done such a good job that a lot of liberal and progressive folks shy away from it. I think this is a mistake. I don’t think we want to claim just the “justice” part of “liberty and justice for all.”
Part of the reason why I think they shy away from the word freedom is that they’re afraid it leads us down a path of individualism. It can, but only if we forget how social so much of freedom is.
A lot of freedom takes place in shared spaces. The Tea Partiers out in Louden County who say the government is taking away their freedom? They’re the same folks who are driven nuts by the yuppie bicyclists in spandex who take full advantage of their freedom by clogging up smaller roads. At some point, we sometimes get down to a trade-off between whose freedom is going to prevail. And if you truly believe in freedom, then at some point this is a choice we have to make together.
Same thing for the owner of a small auto shop. If you ask them, odds are they’ll complain about the crazy quilt of regulations they have to live with. A conservative guy I used to work with said it was these regulations that drove his dad’s business into the ground.
But what would happen to the freedoms of other people if we didn’t have those regulations? If the owner of that small auto shop has the freedom to dispose of the toxic liquids his folks work with any way he wants, he can end up poisoning other people’s drinking water, or killing off the fish that other folks depend on for their livelihood.
These days you also don’t have the freedom to slaughter a pig inside your house and then throw the remains out the window into the street. Ditto with dirty baby diapers. Why? Because, as public health officials discovered in the 19th century, throwing your crap into the gutters is like throwing a block party for cholera – and the tens of thousands of people in the US who died from cholera epidemics didn’t have a whole lot of freedom left over.
At the same time, that conservative guy had a point. It’s easy to go from regulations that are absolutely essential to a bureaucracy that creates regulations because it can. Or regulations that are designed only with huge corporations in mind that don’t take into account the world of smaller businesses. There has to be a balance. And that balancing of competing freedoms is something that ultimately we can only do together.
And then there are all whole range of issues where freedom depends on your circumstances. If you’re really sick and you can’t afford good quality medical care, that doesn’t sound like freedom to me. Or having to own a car because no decent paying jobs are near mass transit or close enough to walk or bike to. Ditto for having to move into a nursing home and leave the home you’ve lived in for 30 years because you can’t afford the modest amount of assistance you would need to stay in your home.
Conservatives like to harp on the idea that raising taxes means the government decides what to do with your money, not you. But the fact is that many decisions we make that expand our freedom are decisions we have to make together.
In short, some of the most profound decisions we make about our personal freedom are not ones we can make by ourselves. As Ben Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”