Commentary

Do Americans Still Value Freedom?

By Edward L. Hudgins
July 4, 2001

America is a unique country, founded on the principle that we are endowed with “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Yet today, through taxes and regulations, government takes half of what each American earns. Government regulates what goods and services entrepreneurs can offer consumers, and restricts consumer freedom to buy many goods from other countries. Politicians currently are trying to restrict or ban what we can smoke, where we can use our cell phones, what we can view on the Internet, and which fattening foods we can eat.

How is it that the people of a country dedicated to freedom put up with such restrictions from political elites? Do Americans still value freedom?

Polls suggest that Americans still love liberty but with curious contradictions. Some 56 percent say they would favor smaller government with fewer services rather than larger government with more services. Some 65 percent believe big government will be the biggest threat to the country in the future. And 75 percent believe unemployed welfare recipients would find jobs if they were not on welfare. Yet 69 percent respond that they favor more government help to reduce poverty.

For some, “freedom” is a feel-good word, like Mom and apple pie. Who can be against it? The seeming contradictions in Americans’ attitudes toward freedom in part result from confusion created by those who would restrict freedom.

This confusion is best seen in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Two of them, freedom of speech and worship, are “negative” rights that simply require the government and your fellow citizens to leave you alone. Your freedom to speak your mind or worship as you please does not deprive others of their right to do the same. But Roosevelt’s freedom from want and from fear were different. For example, part of the “positive” freedom from want might mean that government must provide a house to those who can’t afford one. In such a case either government agents must march you out at gunpoint and force you to build the house or do a kinder, gentler version of the same thing: tax you to pay to have one built. Someone’s right to a house means you are deprived of your money.

Freedom from want implies eternal satisfaction with all desires met. That is a utopia. And that is impossible. Just ask the Russians. It’s good that Americans value prosperity and want everyone to prosper. But it is the liberty to earn money by creating goods and services — including houses — that creates prosperity, not a license to steal from those who do the creating.

Another problem is that some people confuse democracy with freedom. For example, sociology professor Orlando Patterson bemoans the “dismal state of participatory democracy, the very foundation of any free society.” Our republic — not a pure democracy — was established as a means to protect individual liberty. But the Founders recognized that voters and elected officials could rob minorities of liberty and property. That’s why they established a system of checks and balances. Patterson’s survey, however, found that people most frequently identify freedom with “the desire and ability to do what one wants.” Americans understand what is most valuable.

Yet another problem is that some Americans have difficulty imagining how a free society would actually work. Without welfare, Social Security, and Medicare, wouldn’t we all be dying in the streets? Well, we weren’t prior to any of those programs. If federal, state and local governments in America did not redistribute wealth, we would each have more wealth to purchase what we want, on our own terms, without government strings attached.

Americans still seem to value freedom. But they mistake the problems caused by intrusive government for problems caused by freedom, and thus support restrictions on freedom. For instance, there was no health care crisis prior to government intervention in the health care market in 1965. Since then, problems have multiplied, and government keeps “reforming” the reforms that perpetuate the crisis.

In recent decades many moral habits that result from living free — taking responsibility for our own lives, putting our minds and creativity to their best use — have atrophied. But just as weakened muscles are strengthened by exercise, a return of our rights to fully exercise our freedom will again make us individuals who will expect nothing less than our full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Edward Hudgins, a policy director at the Cato Institute, based this piece on a lecture to be given at the Objectivist Center