This post originally appeared on celebratequestions.com on July 6, 2014. It is co-authored with Dr. Neil Browne.
1. What would it even mean to say we have the greatest country on the planet?
2. When a person has the freedom to read, but has nothing to read and no ability to read, what is the value of that freedom?
3. Can we not be willing to praise our country for its self-evident achievements without forgetting its marked deficiencies?
Independence Day is rarely celebrated in a reasonable fashion. It is not a day of reflection amidst pledges of improvement. Rather our collective egos seem to require us to forget the low quality of our health care, our fears, our seeming need to arm ourselves far out of proportion to either the probable risk or the levels of other countries, our urge to imprison, the increasingly poor quality of our public schools, and our ailing infrastructure. We instead use the 4th of July to announce to everyone within earshot our primary place in the world as a beacon of “freedom.”
The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and the dependably right wing Wall Street Journal publish a rank ordering of nations based on what they call “economic freedom.” Apparently, this is the form of freedom that comes to their mind when they hear “freedom.”
The freedom that seemingly most excites them is the one that “provides an absolute right of property ownership, fully realized freedoms of movement for labor, capital, and goods, and an absolute absence of coercion or constraint of economic liberty beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself.” They blithely look at freedom from the perspective of the businessperson/property owner. Why? I guess they presume that when one has something he or she deserves that something. But the role of luck in our lives is so extensive that making such an assumption begs at minimum for a solid explicit defense.
We are using the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal as representative voices of American viewpoints because to us even the Democratic Party’s market-oriented rhetoric sounds suspiciously similar to the understanding of freedom described above. See, for example, the Obama administration’s self-conscious rejection of “inequality” memes in their talking points.
Continuing to parse the freedom defined above, we note that property ownership and the rights attendant to ownership are not just present; they are absolute. A nod to labor and its need for freedom takes the form of freedom of movement. Neither the right to bargain collectively, to require that non-members pay dues so that the collective unit can exist, nor the right to a living wage taints the clarity of their identification with the dominant. Surely, we suppose, they would claim that benefiting such people pari passu benefits everyone else.
And among the fascinating aspects of their rank ordering of free countries is that Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are in the same “mostly free” category as is the United States. Yet these countries are often lampooned by the Heritage Foundation and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal as Socialist and freedom-denying. So the list you create finds that these countries are just as free as the USA, but that fact does not give you pause when you derogate them as “nanny states.” Very strange.
The source of the contempt for these Scandinavian countries seems to be that they spend approximately 30% of their GDP on social expenditures, while the U.S. government spends 20%. Social expenditures are primarily for the housing, health, and training needs of the vulnerable, i.e., those who are not victorious in the financial arena of modern markets. Scandinavian social expenditures are clearly redistributional; they transfer income from the comfortable to the young, the sick, the old, the unemployed and the poor. To us they seem to be taking the mandates of religions and ethical systems of thought to heart when they do so. They are expressing a shared sense of human community. For governmental actions to be redistributional means that citizens in those countries are unwilling to bow in obeisance toward whatever income distribution the market at any time provides.
The relevance to “freedom” talk is that Scandinavian countries are providing more positive freedom or capabilities to that component of its citizens who need assistance in the fundamental areas of modern living. Voters in the USA turn a relatively frigid shoulder to that cohort of Americans who lack the capabilities required to flourish.
We celebrate “freedom,” In the process, we exaggerate freedom’s identifiable merits by treating it as if it is some universal meaning and application. Peter Levine suggests 6 distinct types of freedom, and I have seen coherent definitions of several additional forms of freedom. Yet, we on the 4th of July sing hymns of praise to an abstraction as if all of the singers are on the same page and yearn for the same form and quantity of liberty.
Our political proclivities implicitly hinder large number of Americans from having the time, knowledge, and inclination to participate actively in relational meaning or civic engagement. Tired, depressed, ill, quasi-literate, and unemployed citizens are not in a position to appreciate and benefit from many of the negative freedoms provided by out Bill of Rights for example. We vote for those who insure that corporations will be largely unregulated in areas that are heavily regulated in Scandinavian and other European countries. Regulation comes in many forms and can be as harmful to the vulnerable as helpful. But consumer protection, health, and safety regulation, while potentially helping all citizens are especially helpful to the vulnerable because of their inability to help themselves. Those expenditures are feverishly opposed or simply ignored by dominant interests in the U.S.
The point here is that freedom is complex; liberty takes many forms. In many instances freedoms are divisible. Expanding yours can infringe on mine. The distinction between freedom from and freedom to accomplish activates a struggle over which version of freedom will prevail and which group of citizens will most be assisted by laws and norms that defend and spread that form of freedom.
1. What ethical model, religious or secular, would justify a celebration of freedoms that are most beneficial to the most comfortable members of our society?
2. Does the type of freedom we most need to expand depend on the context a particular nation finds itself in at the moment?
3. Is patriotic boasting anything more than an extension of our affection for our own ego?