Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Does Freedom Mean to You?

Virtually all Americans love freedom. The question is what kind of freedom do they love.

To our founding fathers, freedom meant self-determination. The founders were rugged individualists who opposed having a strong central government run their lives. The American opposition to King George began not as an independence movement, but as a group that favored home rule while retaining loyalty to the British crown.

The priorities of the founders can be seen in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence famously states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Although not as familiar, the Declaration goes on: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it….”

What rights our founders considered important can be seen in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence includes taxation without representation, unfair trade restrictions, making officials of the government above the law, and improperly influencing the judiciary. The common denominator on most of the grievances listed by Jefferson is that are the result of a government’s abuses of power. The fundamental right violated by the English king was the right of the people to have a government that will not interfere with the people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When our nation was finally established, the founders decided to safeguard more individual rights. The Constitution became the foundation for the federal government, but many believed its lack of protection for individual rights was a weakness. The Bill of Rights is a compilation of ten amendments that was ratified to correct that deficiency.

The Bill of Rights guarantees the rights to freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceably assemble, and petition the government. The second amendment guarantees the right for individuals to keep and bear arms. Other amendments give Americans the right to a trial by jury, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and limit ability of the government to hold people charged with crimes. Additionally, the tenth amendment specifies that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved by the people and the states.

The view that our personal freedoms were freedoms to say, do, and possess things without government restrictions or assistance changed radically with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt proclaimed a new basic freedom for Americans: the “freedom from want.”

The freedom from want might be stated in today’s terms as a freedom from need. In other words, in Roosevelt’s view Americans have a fundamental right to not need anything. This “freedom” is more accurately described as a right to security or freedom from responsibility. It is akin to reading the Declaration of Independence’s right to the “pursuit of happiness” as a government-guaranteed right to be happy.

Roosevelt’s new basic freedom was a radical departure from traditional American personal freedoms. The freedom from want is the first freedom that takes freedom from someone else. The government has nothing that it doesn’t first take from productive citizens and businesses through taxes. For the government to meet people’s needs, it must first take from other citizens because the government has nothing that it does not first take from someone else. Therefore, FDR’s freedom from want is a transfer of wealth.

The freedom from want is also an anathema to the more traditional American freedoms. One cannot simultaneously give up personal responsibility to the government while maintaining a previous level of freedom. Because the government must take from citizens in order to meet the “needs” of other citizens, a majority of citizens will find that they lose economic liberty and property rights. As the government raises taxes to pay for programs that meet these “needs,” taxpaying citizens will find that they have less disposable income to meet their own needs. They must work longer hours to bring home the same amount of money. Increased taxes make it difficult or impossible to maintain the same standard of living and amount of property.

An additional problem with the freedom from want is that each individual has different wants and needs. For example, a common belief today is that everyone needs health insurance. It is very likely that soon the government will make a determination that everyone does need and must have health insurance. However, many people today don’t believe that health insurance is a necessity.

Many people today choose not to purchase insurance for a variety of reasons. Many people feel that the money could be better spent on other items, such as starting a business or making a mortgage payment. Many uninsured are only temporarily without coverage as they change jobs. Some may eschew health insurance for religious reasons. The freedom to make the choice to not purchase health insurance is a valuable tool in money management that would disappear if the government decides that all Americans have a right to guaranteed health insurance.

Further, as government grows larger in order to keep meeting the needs and wants of the populace, other freedoms are threatened. Government money and programs come with strings attached. Acceptance of government largess requires adherence to government rules and policies. This can be seen today in federal control of banks and auto companies that have accepted government bailout money.

In the future, as the government begins to pay (with taxpayer dollars) for universal health insurance, it will become more and more interested in cutting healthcare costs. One way of doing so might be to enact new restrictions on what are considered to be health risks. For example, we might one day find that our government health plan excludes coverage for smoking-related illnesses. Once the precedent is established, other exclusions related to diet, exercise, weight, or other factors could be enacted.

America is at a crossroads. For the past eighty years we have seen the growth of government and slow but steady erosion of our personal freedoms. Under the current administration, the process is being accelerated. We must make a choice on what freedom means to us.

If we want true freedom, we must accept that with freedom comes responsibility. We must take control of our own lives. We must be responsible for our own safety, our own finances, our own retirement planning, our own children, and our own health. The alternative is to trade our freedom for the illusory security of the “freedom from want.”

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Very often, that is just what they get.


Palm Springs CA

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