Then Just What Is Freedom?

union builtHere is why I am skeptical when today’s conservatives talk about freedom. Tea party adherents have stressed freedom as an issue in modern American life, even more than traditional conservatives. They are willing to go beyond the politics of conventional Republicans to get the freedom they demand. They use the symbols of our American Revolution to emphasize their commitment to a revolutionary view of freedom.

Freedom from what? It turns out that freedom from taxes is not only what today’s libertarian-conservatives talk about most, but it’s also all they care about. Taxes and the deficit, taxes and unemployment, taxes and recovery from the recession – lower taxes are the answer to everything. Even if that were true, are lower taxes the meaning of freedom?

Republicans have been attacking government as hard as they can since they lost Congress and the presidency. But behind their rhetoric that freedom from government is what cutting taxes means is a whole set of policies of bigger, badder government. Government intrusion into our private lives is bad, unless it asks whether you are gay. Government attempts to influence our healthcare is bad, unless you would like to get a legal abortion. Federal government imposing itself on local governments is bad, unless it is for preventing local gun laws.

What is freedom? Isn’t freedom more than having a low tax rate? Doesn’t freedom mean the ability to direct our own lives, to influence the big decisions that affect our families, our workplaces, and our communities?

Freedom has always been a slippery and contested idea in America. The founders created wondrous documents about freedom, which have been quoted for over 200 years around the world, but denied their idea of freedom to more than half of Americans.

At that time, freedom meant mainly freedom from government, the kind of government that the founders knew from Europe. They could not have imagined the global power of big business that has developed since then. Americans have fought for and won freedoms from the power of big business to force them to work 14-hour days, to pollute our rivers, to discriminate in pay and hiring against Americans they didn’t like, to create monopolies, to put poisons in our food. As many conservatives are so fond of saying, “freedom isn’t free.”

Published by the LA Progressive on March 9, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."