Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How Free Are We Really?

© Charles D. Hayes

Have you ever wondered how the concept of freedom has evolved? Try to imagine what freedom meant to the immigrants in the seventeenth century who indentured themselves to five or more years of hard labor to pay for their passage to America. Then compare that frame of mind to the outlook of the slaves brought here from Africa in chains.

Imagine longing to fulfill an indentured servitude contract to secure your independence. Try to assume the mindset of those who would never live as free men and women, and then consider the expectations of slaves once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, even as the Civil War raged on. 

Our perception of the independence that individuals possess has changed, especially when we compare the way we live today with the times when most people lived off the land and on small farms. Home mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and a business climate driven by shifting technology and payment plans have had a profound influence on our concept of freedom. Many of us willingly indenture ourselves to a lifetime of debt. We adopt the subordinate, submissive, and silent civil behavior that’s so often required to stay employed.  

Today we accept high levels of consumer debt as normal, while perpetuating an economic system known for its creative destruction. Our opportunities as citizens have increased dramatically, while our ability to speak truth to power without risking great loss has suffered. We have, in effect, fashioned a nearly perfect environment for the creation of yes men and women, and yet we wonder why we have so much corruption in business and government.

Increasingly employees witness wrongdoing but can’t afford to report it for fear of losing their jobs and, in some cases, everything they own. Our economy rests on a pyramid of oppressive authoritative control, and those in power have legislated easy rigging into law. This is not to say that legitimate sources of authority aren’t necessary for our very existence, but much of the citizen-level independence necessary to safeguard democracy has been squelched, if not barred, by law.

There was a time when most people lived off the land and very few people worked for wages. Their level of independence and their ability to object to malfeasance without losing everything is hard to fully appreciate today. I raise this subject because many of our fellow citizens in this country brag incessantly about how we are the freest country in the world. But I often wonder if this shrill rhetoric isn’t a result of their own nagging doubt. If you don’t believe the pressure to toe the line is intense, just take a hard look at the lives of whistle blowers after they have nobly followed their conscience.

I spent many years working for major oil companies on Alaska’s North Slope. We had a saying up there that by spending years away from home we were being held in place by golden handcuffs. We did this fully acknowledging that we also felt very lucky to have jobs that paid so well, but I used to secretly wish the oil reservoir would dry up so I would have no choice but to quit.

When we compare ourselves as Americans to the other developed countries that have much more socialistic forms of government, like Denmark and Sweden, we see that their citizens exercise more lifestyle alternatives without penalty than we do in America. Could it be that our own political dysfunction has something to do with the existential angst we endure because we champion freedom in theory but not so much in concrete experience?

I suspect it’s mostly this subconscious anxiety that contributes to the emotional vitriol driving our political divide. People who are constantly in fear of losing their job, home, and livelihood because of sought-after innovations that increase productivity while simultaneously leading to higher and higher levels of unemployment tend to be hypersensitive about anyone they suspect is getting a free ride. This anxiety serves as the perfect political tool for generating public expressions of contempt—something demagogues can depend on for inflaming public resentment ahead of elections.  

In an earlier essay, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was adamant that labor should maintain a higher premium of value than capital. Lincoln was understandably sensitive about the subject of servitude, and he was dismayed at the thought of people working for wages for a long period of time without being able to free themselves from what he saw as a deeply flawed arrangement. I wonder what he would say about today’s working poor, whose figurative handcuffs are the metaphorical equivalent of barbed wire.  

We still aspire to an ethos of self-reliance and rugged individualism espoused by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson at a time when we were poorer in purse but much more independent. It’s not so easy now to build a cabin in the woods and live off the land in the manner of Thoreau. In fact, things have changed so much that it’s the people who live off the land in rural America who today are most fearful about their economic future.

Clearly hard work, self-reliance, and the ability to take care of oneself and one’s family are just as important today as at any time in the past. But we need to mend the fence, so to speak, to make up for the fact that our society is increasingly vulnerable to arbitrary economic whims and rapidly changing technology. We need to address the reality that a very small percentage of people in our country have accrued the power to indenture most of the rest of us to varying levels of required servitude, often with little room for negotiating our compensation.

Today capital not only trumps the value of labor, it adds insult to injury by capturing most of the income from labor’s rising productivity as effectively as a new Dyson vacuum cleaner scarfs up lint from a bare floor. That a large percentage of our population believes right-to-work laws are anything more at their philosophical core than the right to pay low wages shows the effectiveness of the power of ideological indoctrination.    

We now find ourselves in an economy where six heirs of the Walmart fortune have the wealth equivalent of the bottom forty percent of our population, and yet we subsidize some of Walmart’s employees with government programs. In my view, this is sheer madness and it’s only one egregious example of our growing inequality. There are too many to list.  

Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—were, in my view, worthy goals in 1941. They are even more pressing today because our aspirations for democracy have been overwritten by plutocracy.

Call our current economic system the greatest exercise of freedom in the world if you want, but in my book, it’s just a fabricated illusion in serious need of redress. I believe Abraham Lincoln would think we have lost our minds and most assuredly our voices.

My point is that we need to be civically thoughtful when we use the word freedom. History clearly shows that growing inequality results in conflict that can lead to violence. We know that to experience and maintain real freedom requires constant vigilance. Without a thoughtful and responsible public, our freedom is easier lost than gained.
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