Goldstein: Liberty and Justice for Some

The first in the “Liberty Abridged” series on America’s false freedoms.

by Matthew Goldstein | 3/30/17 12:35am

People in America care — or profess to care — about freedom and personal liberty, perhaps more than any other group of people in recorded history. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution, the fundamental document from which each statute and protection in American law stems and whose tenets it must not violate, putatively exists to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Political and patriotic rhetoric, generally purporting to speak for “true” Americans and “true” America, centers on the freedoms that Make Us Special. United States foreign policy from George F. Kennan to Donald Rumsfeld has held the liberation of oppressed places and people from the chains of tyranny into the warm embrace of capitalism and democracy as its guiding ideal.

We, the People of the United States, are freedom-obsessed. We live and die by the doctrines of opportunity, level playing fields and the American dream. We see ourselves as the “shining city on the hill,” exhorting leaders with funny-looking names in faraway lands to “tear down this wall.” We use the language of markets and competition to defend the free practice of business and flow of money. When we stand at a baseball game, hands on our hearts, watching the Marine band on the field and the starred and striped flags cracking in the wind overhead, it is not — heaven forbid — propaganda, but patriotism.

One might reasonably expect, then, that consistent American efforts are undertaken to ensure the freedoms that pervade our rhetoric — and further, that those measures are effective. But in many ways, surprisingly, the United States is not free. No, America does not jail political dissenters. Nor do its politicians hang on to power indefinitely, winning even the sparse, rigged elections that some leaders around the globe tout as their mandate to govern. We are not Russia, China, Turkey or Sudan. But the United States does rank 23rd on the Cato Institute’s 2016 Human Freedom Index. Any freedom lacking in this country is lacking only relative to the standards for liberty we purport to hold. Still, our national pride throughout much of the last century was defeating tyranny and toppling dictators — yet we only rank 23rd?

Neither are the absent freedoms those of personal autonomy. Our leaders do not set out to overtly restrict our rights. We may still speak our minds, practice our religions and run our presses. The kinds of freedom missing in the country once called liberty’s “last best hope” are far subtler, and because of their subtlety, more pervasive and harder to fix. Their presence is instrumental to the just operation of nearly every major subset of American sociopolitical life. Where they are absent, that justice suffers.

These missing freedoms are lacking not because someone said that should be so, but because in America, we often think of freedom in ways that lead to logical conclusions that are at best, perverse, and at worst, dangerous. In her book “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” the Finnish journalist Anu Partanen describes the Nordic theory of love, which entails a philosophical belief in government’s duty to actively ensure its citizens’ equal abilities to freely operate in the world. In contrast, much of the American spirit of freedom manifests as, and can trace its roots to, a belief in small government and bureaucratic non-interference. In a complex and ever-changing world, there is ample evidence that the kinds of freedom intended to be enshrined in the Constitution and American law are those that the Nordic theory achieves to a greater degree than does the American one.

Consider higher education. In the late 18th century, at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, education at an institution of higher learning was not necessary for the pursuit of a successful career. Apprenticeships abounded. Only the wealthy went to university. Because college attendance was not common, the absence of a degree on one’s list of qualifications was not a barrier to entry to the job market. Therefore, the poor could, in those American turns of phrase, “lift themselves up by their bootstraps” and change their station in life. This is often no longer true. Today, higher education is not only a necessity for any career that could improve one’s socioeconomic standing but also a prohibitively expensive one. American answers to this dilemma — barely answers at all — frequently emphasize the importance of a free market for education despite that education’s enormous costs. The Nordic answers, variations on free universal public higher education, take root in the idea that in a society for which a college degree means so much, one is not truly free if by accident of her birth, she cannot afford to attend college.

The language of freedom abounds in America, but there is far less discussion of what that freedom actually means. We must know, as the writer Raymond Carver might say, what we talk about when we talk about liberty. It is not just opportunities to walk and talk or to breathe and eat as we wish that comprise that high-minded American ideal. It is a capacity to flourish; to find opportunity to prosper no matter where or into what circumstances one is born. And the lessons of today’s world may well teach us that we’ve been going about securing those capacities all wrong.

This is the first in “Liberty Abridged,” a series of columns by the author about American conceptions of freedoms and the laws that are purported to advance those ideals.