What type of “freedom” do we want today?
Our society is an evolving entity. It grows. It changes composition. It’s values and mores morph over time. Within this structure, the role of government has reflected this process. A fundamental question is whether the changes we see are positive or negative, moving us towards a better future, or towards ultimate decline?
Today, there appears to be a general feeling that our society is changing in a “negative” way. One side tends to see an ever-expanding central government that increasingly encroaches on the rights of individuals and impairs the free market economy. The other side sees growing inequity (between classes, races, etc) and views the need for government’s role to expand to protect the rights of individuals, not from government but from a social and economic system that creates a differentiated environment predominately defined in terms of “have” and “have not.”
The latter group (liberals and “progressives”) believes that “Government” provides the mechanism for positive change; therefore, its power and influence should increase. The former group (conservatives) fundamentally believes, as Ronald Regan stated, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Smaller government is inherently “better” government, and the current expansion of its scope is a significant threat.
Interestingly (or perhaps sadly), both sides believe in “freedom.” However, their conceptions of the term differ widely. There are two types of Freedom: freedom “from” (Negative Freedom) and freedom “to” (Positive Freedom). While this may seem a bit of semantic game, the differences between the two are important.
Negative Freedom is the freedom from external interference and control. These are inherent in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. For example, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” These rights are the rights we enjoy because government is restricted from prohibiting or hindering personal activity.
America’s Founders were primarily concerned with these rights given the perceived violations by the distant government in England prior to our Revolution. Largely, the Bill of Rights is a list of restrictions on government. The provisions detailed in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution secured foundational rights for the citizens by governmental limitations.
While there was less enumeration of Positive Freedom (the ability to determine and control one’s life) in the Constitution, there are some specific terms delineated. For instance, The Sixth Amendment guarantees an individual’s “right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…”
The genesis of our current dispute rests with the substantial evolution in interpretation of these two types of freedom. For example, Positive Freedoms historically represented the individualistic “pioneer spirit.” They empower the individual to “act rather than being acted upon.” While such a vision inevitably crosses ideological lines, this view has come to primarily represent the espoused (as opposed to the demonstrated) views of the political Right. In reality, it is more closely tied to the Libertarian vision. They believe that the most important political value is Liberty-the freedom to make your own choices about your own life. However, the Progressive views towards abortion (the “right to choose”) and legalization of marijuana also fall also within this concept.
Positive rights are now interpreted to include government intervention into citizens’ lives to give them resources or enable them to do or to have certain things. For example, providing social services and payments allows individuals to live in a manner more consistent with contemporary standards even though those programs are funded by removing resources from other members of society thereby limiting their freedom of action.
Moreover, the concept of negative rights has been dramatically expanded to include a host of social welfare issues such as, “freedom from” hunger. By opening this door, virtually any program that promotes prosperity or improves the lives of a targeted portion of the population can justify increased government regulation and control. Negative Freedom no longer corresponds to the Founder’s original intent (limiting government), rather it is used to justify government expansion (in terms of both scope and control). From free education to universal healthcare, everything has become a “right,” not something to be worked for, paid for, or earned. We are creating a culture of “entitlement.”
In today’s world both forms of freedom are now used to justify increased government spending and regulation. One should not believe that it is just the Liberals who want larger government programs, the Conservatives do as well. It is only a difference of where they want government to expand or intervene.
I am in favor of “more” freedom, but I am more aligned with our original Founders’ view. We should return to a wariness of government power. Lord Acton statement that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” applies as much today as it did in 1877. The more we move towards the consolidation of power (at the expense of individual freedom), the more concerned we should be.