Freedom is a nebulous concept, and is often purposely misinterpreted by many vested interested groups. For example, pharmaceutical companies want the “freedom” to charge as much as they want for prescription drugs. Corporations have the same rights as actual human beings, including the right to free speech and the right to make political donations. Monsanto wants the “freedom” to not have to tell consumers about GMOs, because apparently their right to privacy trumps our right to know what we’re eating. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
But what did freedom mean to me? What does freedom mean to most people? Obviously I can’t speak for others, but at least I can speak for myself. I always equated freedom with the ability to make choices, but growing up I was ignorant about how the system we live in constrains the choices we have. I was also unaware of how your position in the social and economic hierarchy can constrict or multiply your viable options–we were taught as children that America was the land of the free, and that was that. Deeper thinking and analysis was discouraged, especially by my family. This isn’t to say that my family was stupid, I assure you they are far from it. Instead, what I got from them was this underlying sense of fear that if you think too hard and ask too many questions, you were going to get punished. Turns out they were right.
Punishment can come in many forms. The most underhanded form of punishment is financial–if you’re not willing to go along just to get along, you could find yourself out in the streets. Your free will regarding your personal morals and ethics could be a liability: it could get you imprisoned (at worst) or have you digging out of trashcans once your savings run out (at best). When you are marked for economic punishment, your skills and work ethic are meaningless. All that matters is that the avenues you use to support yourself are institutionally blocked off, damning you to legalized starvation in the land of the plenty.
When we hear the word punishment, what we often think of is corporal punishment, which is regularly doled out by law enforcement. Not everyone who is arrested or processed by the police are guilty of any crime. In fact, people can get themselves killed if they act in a way that an officer can construe as “resisting orders”.
Most people in the United States are not free, and have never known freedom. I’m not talking about federal and state prisoners, even though America has the largest prison population per capita in the entire world. American’s don’t even have the right to know what’s in their food, if you can believe that. Most employed Americans won’t take earned vacations or days off, because the possibility of losing their jobs in the next round of layoffs is all too real. Speaking your mind and subscribing to politically unorthodox views can get you flagged as a potential terrorist or a conspiracy nut, regardless of actual evidence. And because choice is constrained by money, it follows that most Americans have very little of it, given the state of the economy. Simply put, you can choose only what you can afford. And if the system is set up to make even the simplest of decisions out of your reach, then that’s just too bad.
One of the biggest arguments made against freedom are the “alleged” costs of obtaining and practicing it. I say “alleged” because the structure of the system is what imposes the cost. Our political and economic systems are not unbiased entities; they do not come into being just because–they are clearly made to encourage certain desired outcomes, with built in mechanisms for resisting change. What we consider desirable is up to debate of course, but clearly it is those who own the levers of power who gets to decide what desirable outcomes the system will promote.
Why is freedom so “unaffordable” for the vast majority of Americans? My guess is that it’s simply not profitable (nor is it in their best interests) for the elites to allow the existence of so many viable choices. How profitable would Time Warner Cable or Comcast be if we could really choose our internet and digital TV provider? Most of the people who work for Walmart or Target don’t have other, high paying employment options (and if they did, they most likely wouldn’t be working there). If you have cancer and can’t afford insurance, you can’t just choose to get treatment (you can apply for Medicaid but if you make too much you’re SOL). And if you do have insurance you can only choose what they’re willing to pay for, regardless of whether the treatment will actually help you.
Does this sound like the promised land of freedom? Does it really have to be this way? What would the world look like if freedom was suddenly made affordable to the common man and woman? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can speculate. And if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the true masters of our world will do everything in their power to make sure we’ll never find out.