America: Land of the Free?

A lot of Americans run around saying that America is the “land of the free”, and that it is the greatest country in the world. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t support this claim. In fact, there are many great countries that are as free or freer than America, despite the claims of many an outspoken Republican. Still, they can’t complain; it’s really all their fault: their misguided worship of an imaginary freedom has cost them their true freedoms. Rather than follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers who believed that our freedoms are contingent upon others, many Americans have become dogmatically individualistic. They’ve ignored natural contingency in favor of a false contingency, and thus their freedom recedes.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.” His words remain poignant: freedom cannot be gifted to us by our government, because freedom is an unalienable right — an intrinsically good and universal state of being that is owed to us for our thousands of years of suffrage at the hands of evolution. As complex, sentient beings, our well-being and prosperity depends upon our freedom, and that freedom is contingent upon the well-being of others. Republicans can likely agree that we are born free, but their individualist ideologies are based on a lie: that freedom is unlimited. This misplaced view ignores the essence of what the founding fathers were trying to impart.

Thomas Paine, one of my favorite founding fathers, gave perhaps the most succinct and logical description of freedom possible when he said, “Liberty is the power to do everything that does not interfere with the rights of others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every individual has no limits save those that assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights.” That’s right, natural rights have no limits, except in the case that your freedom is preventing someone else from enjoying those same rights. In other words, Thomas Paine did not say that we have unlimited freedom or the “right” to do whatever the hell we choose. Rather, he pointed out that our freedom is necessarily limited; it is contingent on the well-being of others. In the beginning, all Americans understood this fact. Not so today. We’ve lost our sense of socialism and collectivism, and we’ve let extreme capitalism and individualism take its place. The result is an America that is not free, one of which the founding fathers would be ashamed. Modern America is a country where the citizen’s rights have become so eroded that they hardly exist, and the government’s reach extends so far into people’s lives that they hardly have any liberty left.

Our culture has devolved into one of materialism, selfishness, religious nationalism, and ignorance. The rights we once had have been stolen away by greedy corporations and the one percent. Gerrymandering, super-delegates, an outdated electoral college, and other clearly obvious examples of political corruption have made our vote irrelevant. Our leaders are chosen by the wallets of the rich, and the average American citizen is merely a slave to the system. Of course the Republicans love to blame the liberals for all of this, but the reality is that it is not the liberals who are voting in these laws. Traditionally, liberals have supported inalienable rights far more than any other political group. Either way, pointing fingers is useless because this is a systemic infection, not a one-time mistake. Prior generations created a monster that they couldn’t control — and now it’s loose. That monster is devouring up the freedoms and livelihoods of Americans everywhere, all while the republicans claim that America is the “land of the free”. Even worse, other countries are freer than the United States.

Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand are just a few of the places that consistently rank higher on the Economic Freedom Index . Also: Australia, Switzerland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada, Estonia, Taiwan, Georgia, Iceland, the Netherlands, Chile, and Lithuania. The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal who created the index say that it measures “basic institutions that protect the liberty of individuals to pursue their own economic interests” which result “in greater prosperity for the larger society” (Economic Freedom Index). By this rubric, the freedom of American citizens is receding. America is consistently missing the mark and failing to guarantee “basic institutions”, and thus the poor ranking.

In every possible way that Americans believe that they have freedom they don’t — because their freedom is entirely contingent on the whims of an ultra-powerful government with infinite reach. The freedom of religion and free speech, freedom of the press, the freedom to peacefully assemble — these can be (and often are) seized, at any moment, by the government. The right to probable cause before searches and seizures, the right to due process, the rights of the accused, the right to fair bail — all of these are violated on a regular basis, yet nothing has been (or can be) done. The sad fact is that the government has so entrenched itself into the private lives of citizens that there are no more freedoms left, and as our society continues to degrade and our legacy fade, we fall further down the Economic Freedom Index. Despite this fact, many continue to believe in the myth of American freedom, mostly because of what’s written in the Bill of Rights and in the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the most important insights of these documents are often ignored.

Our founding fathers did not believe that Americans should have the freedom to do whatever the hell they wish without consequence. They did believe that certain rights were inalienable, and therefore are not gifts that can be given to us from the government. They also believed, however, that these rights are naturally contingent upon the well-being of others. We’ve lost sight of this natural contingency, and consequently allowed our freedoms to become contingent on the whims of our government instead. At any time that we selfishly commit ourselves to individualism, we simultaneously erode our personal freedom and agency. The result is an unnatural contingency on a government that seizes that agency for its own benefit.

The solution to this problem is simple. First, we need to dispel the myth of unlimited freedom. We need to understand that almost every major power on Earth is as free or freer than the United States, and that in all cases the freedoms of citizens are contingent upon some external thing. Next, we all need to decide if we want, as our founding fathers did, a natural contingency upon our neighbors, or if we want a false contingency upon our government. To accept the former we must dedicate ourselves to the eradication of extreme individualism, and we must embrace a more collectivist attitude. Or, we can keep doing what we are doing, and suffer the consequences. If we have the courage to choose natural contingency, we can affect systemic positive change. This we must do, for the sake of not just ourselves, but for the entire country. We must base our decisions on the well-being of others and therefore guarantee our own freedom and livelihood, rather than selfishly act in our own interest and therefore doom ourselves to a life without liberty. If we do so, real freedom will come —once we guarantee the freedom of others.

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