Do Americans Still Value Freedom?


America is a unique country, founded on the principle that we are endowedwith "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and thePursuit 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 suchrestrictions from political elites? Do Americans still value freedom?

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

For some, "freedom" is a feel-good word, like Mom and apple pie. Who can beagainst it? The seeming contradictions in Americans' attitudes towardfreedom in part result from confusion created by those who would restrictfreedom.

This confusion is best seen in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. Two ofthem, freedom of speech and worship, are "negative" rights that simplyrequire the government and your fellow citizens to leave you alone. Yourfreedom to speak your mind or worship as you please does not deprive othersof their right to do the same. But Roosevelt's freedom from want and fromfear were different. For example, part of the "positive" freedom from wantmight mean that government must provide a house to those who can't affordone. In such a case either government agents must march you out at gunpointand force you to build the house or do a kinder, gentler version of the samething: tax you to pay to have one built. Someone's right to a house meansyou 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 thatAmericans value prosperity and want everyone to prosper. But it is theliberty to earn money by creating goods and services -- including houses --that creates prosperity, not a license to steal from those who do thecreating.

Another problem is that some people confuse democracy with freedom. Forexample, sociology professor Orlando Patterson bemoans the "dismal state ofparticipatory democracy, the very foundation of any free society." Ourrepublic -- not a pure democracy -- was established as a means to protectindividual liberty. But the Founders recognized that voters and electedofficials could rob minorities of liberty and property. That's why theyestablished a system of checks and balances. Patterson's survey, however,found that people most frequently identify freedom with "the desire andability 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, andMedicare, wouldn't we all be dying in the streets? Well, we weren't prior toany of those programs. If federal, state and local governments in Americadid not redistribute wealth, we would each have more wealth to purchase whatwe want, on our own terms, without government strings attached.

Americans still seem to value freedom. But they mistake the problems causedby intrusive government for problems caused by freedom, and thus supportrestrictions on freedom. For instance, there was no health care crisis priorto 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 -- takingresponsibility 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.