Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Freedom, More or Less

An argument has broken out in the pages of conservative publications of whether or not Americans as a people are freer now than we were, say, 50 years ago. Many conservatives think we are less free, and they seem quite adamant about it, based mainly on the expansion of the government that intrudes on our lives.

I have long called the people who are critical of the idea that we are a nation of increasing freedom “victim conservatives” because they are so wedded to the idea that they are victims of an oppressive government.

What this usually misses is that conservatives are all for government where it is necessary, and it is often necessary to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the people.

For example, those who think that we were so much freer in the 1950’s should talk to Catholics, blacks, Latinos, gays, and lesbians from that era.

It reminds me of the point made by one historian (I forget who) who pointed out that when the founding fathers talked about “freedom” they were talking about markedly different things: In New England they were talking about freedom of (not freedom from) religion; in the South they were talking about freedom to run their plantations the way they liked, which included keeping slaves; in the West they were talking about freedom from taxes and laws; and in no case were they talking about freedom for everyone.

No doubt when Southern slave owners had to give up their slaves they bemoaned their loss of freedom even though there was an obvious increase in freedom for all the people. When New Englanders lost the ability to exclude people with other religious beliefs from their communities they bemoaned their loss of freedom to do as they pleased in one particular area even while their right to continue to believe as they wished was more solidly established in the law. And, when people in the West started having to pay revenue on whiskey they bemoaned their loss of freedom even as their taxes went to pay for roads and other things that expanded their horizon and increased their overall freedom. And I suspect that this is where the victim conservatives are coming from -- it is a kind of tunnel vision that misses the forest of overall freedom for the trees of particular types of freedom.