The responsibility that comes with freedom

How does one boil down the concept of freedom? I guess it means different things to different people.

The characteristic that gives freedom its identity is choice.

To you, JP, taken from your recent posting, freedom refers to rights, which should be protected.

The apostle Paul is, I think, hard to follow about freedom. He says true freedom is only found in following Christ, bound to God. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1-3)

Chris Christofferson says, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Freedom ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.”

The right believes freedom is a lack of interference on what someone does.

My thoughts are a very mixed bag on this issue.

Is it the role of government to maintain freedom, and protect one’s access to rights? Yes.

Should the government solve every problem that infringes on rights? No.

Can freedom lead to corruption and abuse of power? Yes.

Freedom and the market are connected. Freedom can solve problems more quickly, adjust to changing conditions better, it provides an incentive to work and contribute to society, and it is the basis for human dignity. Choices are a good thing, incentives are a good thing. And it’s okay to fall, okay to learn from mistakes. It’s even okay to look up to someone else for their achievements and see them as an example. To be a little down and out is a good thing. To be destitute and hopeless is not.

Freedom is not the same as entitlement. The new Right sees entitlement as a bad word in our time. Entitlement has blurred its meaning toward gifts, bail-outs, automatic checks, or something the receiver readily accepts while others view it as undeserved. In some cases, entitlements are a better deal than what someone might do without them, and that is an abuse of the system.

Here’s a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

And: “The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.”

“No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”

Thus, we do not have the right to yell “Fire” in a theater. We do not have the freedom to trample on another’s rights. When presented with a problem or inequity, my response is not, ‘How can the government help?’ Rather, what is the real cause, the real problem here, and then I look for a solution. Good character, good education, and healthy skepticism are genuine solutions, though they work slowly, and seem to work against the tide. And, yes, sometimes the government can help.

The government does not have an obligation to employ people, or even to buy every wheelchair or tax every transaction.

Take this example of subtle misguided principles from Katrina van den Heuven’s column: “We should be focused on how to put people to work. How much should we take advantage of record-low interest rates and borrow to rebuild America and put construction workers back to work? How much should we raise taxes on Wall Street and multinationals to pay for rehiring teachers, and direct employment of young people?” I would replace the phrase “put people to work” with, “let people find work.” The power and choice to find work is part of freedom. The government would fail at creating jobs, if that were ever its purpose or aim. Still, her point that so much of Washington is broken, and the wildly successful and rich are trampling on the rights of others is valid. Education has a critical role in creating opportunity, in greasing any socioeconomic climb, in making the next generation better than the present.

There are three huge, difficult nuts to crack these days:

1. Unemployment.

2. The deficit.

3. Polarized views about what to do about #1 and #2.

Unemployment should decrease as money comes available for companies to invest and grow. I believe that Obama administration is taking a wise middle track that begins to make substantial inroads on the deficit, but looks towards reducing unemployment first. The deficit is real, and needs attention. History tells us that a strong middle class is associated with a stable, growing economy that funds needed government programs. It has been in those times when government has grown – seeing itself as optimistic and able to do more good. The Right remembers those times as good, but are not convinced that previous government growth was always necessary.

There are examples, real and common ones, of government action leading to a culture of dependence. There are examples of education that doesn’t work. I have seen a lot of schools in action in my time. Parent involvement is by far the single variable to determine the success of schools and their students. Many schools fight tough battles, where kids have no plans to realize the potential that idealistic teachers see in them, and they fight against all the opportunities that free, compulsory education provides.

The most fundamental drive in humanity is to fend for oneself, to find some way to survive and thrive. Successful societies encourage the drive that allows people to reach their fullest potential. Successful societies check tyranny and gilded overlords.

To simply rail against the very wealthy is inadequate. Yes, they probably took unfair advantage, even abused the system. So do many who receive entitlements.

Shall we throw the baby out with the bathwater, like the Tea Party wanted? No.

Shall we tax and spend? No.

It happened in the Roman Empire, it happens is many schools, I think it happened in Greece. Obesity, diabetes, and happy pervasive ignorance are symptoms of a looming complacency.

Katrina van den Heuven’s column (and David Brooks’, too) gave Obama credit for trying to compromise and deal with Congress. He gave, they did not. He learned to stand up for what he thought was true, and he continues to try to make what progress he can. Let’s reach down to help, not climb up on top of others. And that can happen with the government, and without.

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About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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2 Responses to The responsibility that comes with freedom

  1. JP says:

    You write, “To simply rail against the very wealthy is inadequate. Yes, they probably took unfair advantage, even abused the system. So do many who receive entitlements.” Please make your case. I gave specifics showing how wealth has moved upwards, how they have gamed the system. Simply saying yeah, they’re bad, but so is the other side so it’s really, you know, a wash. That just won’t cut it for me, sorry. The devil remains in the details. I find vague generalities in the service of making false equivalencies a waste of my time. Sure, some have abused entitlements, and that is a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth moved upstairs by gaming the system. And the rich are very happy when we think it’s a wash and that the poor have done as much damage to society as they have. Obviously, we have different purposes in what we’re writing and thinking, and in that sense maybe our recent posts aren’t related.
    Beyond that, I like a lot of the post, though I think we’re on different tracks. I thought I was clearly talking about freedom in the political sense; at least at what freedoms politics and government can and cannot provide. You are taking a broader, more philosophical approach. As Christians ultimately as Paul says our freedom is in Christ, and for me that doesn’t mean I should let the rich and powerful just run all over my earthly freedoms without a fight.
    I just finished a good essay by Lewis Lapham in the new Harper’s. It’s about how we use history and the danger in forgetting history. He makes the point that money has always ruled. He quotes coal merchant Mark Hanna, who managed McKinley’s presidential campaign in 1896, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” He also quotes John Jay, the Chief Justice in 1789, who said that “those who own the country ought to govern it.” If you believe that, Romney is your candidate. If you believe in government of, by, and for the people, the price, as always, is eternal vigilance.

    • Jim says:

      JP, I doubt it’s a wash. Dollars wasted by needy in entitlement no doubt pales in comparison to the dollars abused by the gilded. We know that welfare success (or lack of) is monitored by the government and many others including academics and think tanks. I think we can safely agree that abuse of entitlement is minor in dollars, and limited in numbers of people, but very real by some. There is an issue of what counts as abuse.

      And corruption by the gilded is also a characterization issue. There is breaking the letter or the spirit of the law. And there is something more subtle, which might be called unfair advantage. And there is something to be said for the wealth generated by anyone, which contributes to the overall economy.

      I guess my point, besides saying it’s a mixed bag, is that we must not lean automatically one way or the other. Too often we only find what we look for, which is especially true in this internet age. More to come.

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