We Need to Talk About Freedom

The campaigns are shaping up for the home stretch. The first debate was no October Surprise, but it did seem to inject new life into exhausted Romney supporters. Meanwhile, the President is trying to cement slight leads in the biggest battleground states. This one’s not over yet.

While the media chews on the scraps we were offered in last night’s debate, it’s important to remember that there’s another narrative being written: it’s the choice narrative. before the debate, Romney told supporters that he and the President have very different ideas of what the United States should be as it moves forward. He defined his vision of America as “free people and free enterprise,” and derided Obama’s vision as one of government getting its bumbly hands into every moment of our lives.

But where I sit, I see a dearth in definitions. We are told every day that we are free people – America is the “Free World,” we believe in “liberty,” we have access to “free speech.” But there’s a real danger of relying on market forces and deregulation to define freedom because as some people become more free, others can become less free – and that’s a balance that Obama’s administration seems at least aware of. It’s not fair to tell subsistence-poverty-level workers that they are free to invest their money in offshore accounts or that they are free to take tax breaks on their horses. If people don’t have access to basic freedoms, then they are not meaningfully free.

The freest people have options, and the ability to decline some choices. I’m not talking about Sophie’s Choice, or false choice, but real, substantive options for the way they live their life. People want to have multiple career choices, the ability to acquire education, and the chance to build a family. They also want to know that if they make a choice and it doesn’t immediately provide economic benefits (more schooling, for example, or a career shift that requires a return to a lower-level rung on the ladder), then there will be support while the situation improves.

Cutting millions of Americans’ access to healthcare will not make anyone more free, regardless of the rhetoric. The “choice” to buy risk-premium insurance or have none at all is a false choice. The “choice” to opt out of covering basic healthcare for your employees is a false choice for recipients of care. The “choice” to stop having a formal job and start making money from capital gains at a 15% preferential rate is a false choice.

Before we can ask ourselves if we are free to do anything we want with our money and lives, we have to ask ourselves if others in our society have the freedom to do the same. If other people don’t have access to the same freedoms I do, then I have no business telling them that they’ll be getting less so that I can do more.

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