WHAT IS FREEDOM? - FREEDOM AND THE 'FREE-MARKET ECONOMY'
We need to see the current health care debate as the tip of the iceberg in relation to the question of freedom and also in relation to the question of what our responsibility is toward others. Are we seeking freedom for all, or are we seeking freedom for some?
In previous articles I have written about the various ways in which individuals can define freedom, with a primary focus on the question: “Can I be free if you are not?” This question, answered in the affirmative, has infused the dark side of American history in the presumption of the right to freedom for a certain group or class of individuals, while others were treated as of lesser account. Slavery, the treatment of native populations, and policies toward certain minority groups have all spoken to this current within our history to emphasize the importance of freedom for some, while denying it to others.
In relation to the current issue in America concerning Health Care Reform, protest against government control of the formerly private area of health care insurance is based on a certain conception of freedom, supported by what we have come to call the ‘free market economy’. This ‘free market economy’ is a basic structure of capitalism, and is a phrase we often associate positively with core American values without really scrutinizing it carefully.
Here, I wish to look at the question of whether the ‘free market economy’ is truly free, and if so, for whom? In principle, the ‘free market economy’ is meant to create a level playing field for personal and economic growth, in which each has equal means and equal opportunity to move ahead in the world in the direction of their choosing. Such a principle gives maximum authority and responsibility to each individual to define and create their own life. This, at face value, sounds like a good thing, and has been seen as such. Nevertheless, the concept presumes that lack of regulation or restriction by government is what gives everyone equal opportunity on a level playing field. This is not necessarily the case. The absence of government involvement in personal or economic choices does not mean that all have equal opportunity. Here are some reasons why:
1. Opportunities can be limited by cycles of poverty that are passed on from generation to generation, limiting education, health, and financial opportunity.
2. Opportunities can also be limited by current social and cultural values that restrict when, where, and how far certain ‘types’ of people can rise to a level equal with others in terms of financial opportunity.
3. Cycles of poverty as well as cultural norms and prejudices can affect the internal level of motivation with which individuals pursue a given opportunity or direction, since the chances of success are more realistically limited as an end result. This cultural reality has been true for African-Americans, for women, for gays, for the disabled, for the mentally-ill, and for many other minority groups, both past and present.
4. Finally, opportunities are also restricted by the tendency of some individuals who operate ‘freely’ to take advantage of their freedom by trying to accumulate excessive wealth or power, thereby squeezing out the possibility of others rising equally within the area they control. The motive of greed and self-interest narrows the so-called ‘free-market’ in practice, if not in principle, making it less than a level playing field.
To say, then, that a ‘free market economy’ is free begs the question of ‘who is it free for?’ It may be free for a certain class or group of people, but it is clearly not ‘free’ for many others in the same way.
For this reason, we need to see the current health care debate as the tip of the iceberg in relation to the question of freedom and also in relation to the question of what our responsibility is toward others. Are we seeking freedom for all, or are we seeking freedom for some? America has faced this question before and it has challenged her basic principles regarding freedom and equality. We face, today, a similar moral accounting, one in which we must look at our willingness to care for the whole of a nation, rather than just for some of her parts.
One might think, from what I have just said, that the alternative to capitalism and a ‘free market economy’ is socialism. This is not necessarily the case. We do not need to think in ‘isms’ in order to address the question of caring for others or being responsible toward them. Government response to the needs of minorities, the poor, the disabled, etc. is only one level of response.
We need, as a people, to take responsibility ourselves for each other. We need to think not only in terms of what the federal government can do, but what neighborhoods can do, what communities and towns can do, what farm collectives or work collectives can do, what basic identification with the needs of others can do.
Creating freedom for all means caring for all, and this is not the government’s job except in certain specific respects. It is the responsibility of the human heart to come up with new ways of relating to the needs of others so that they can be cared for, receive adequate education, and have the freedoms that others enjoy.
The alternative to a ‘free market economy’ is a ‘heart-centered economy’, one in which we collectively take responsibility for the wellbeing of all as if it were our own. This is the New America or the America of the future that we may envision if we so desire, and upon the choices of each heart will it come into being.
For those who wish to pray for the future of America and/or for the leaders of government, visit www.prayersamerica.org. You will find specific prayers and invocations on that site.