Freedom’s Just Another Word…
The conservative Heritage Foundation released its 2010 Index of Economic Freedom and it’s been causing much ink spillage over the organization’s assertion that the United States is not only less free (by –2.7 points) but the nation scored 78.0, meaning it’s less free than the coveted “Free” title. The cut off for “Free” is 80 points.
I can’t help but think that this is a slight against the current administration, health care reform and the growing debt-to-GDP ratio going ever up. Sad to say, however, they seem to forget part of the reason the debt-to-GDP ratio has shot up is because this has been a very deep recession; the administration’s actions can’t be solely left to blame.
Nevertheless, Bruce Bartlett, domestic policy adviser under President Ronald Reagan and Treasury official under President George W. H. Bush, has questioned just how valid the Heritage Foundation’s (HF) indexing methodology. More specifically, he believes HF is using a myopic view of the definition of freedom—one that leads to a false perception of liberty.
I think many conservatives and libertarians look at government’s share of the gross domestic product as the central measure of freedom. Implicitly, they assume that if there were no government we would be 100% free. If government taxing and spending consume one-third of GDP, then we are only two-thirds free and so on.
On the one hand, we underestimate the importance of government regulations because they are hard to quantify yet may affect our lives more significantly than taxation or other governmental actions. On the other, I think we tend to underappreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like cellphones, PDAs and the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy.
Bartlett goes on to say that Americans are more free to live out their lives without so much worry about food gathering, public services that we depend on, and the burden of taking care of aging and ill loved ones.
Now that the cost (both absolutely and relative to income) of basics–food, water, clothing–have fallen dramatically from just a few generations ago, people can afford to pay more taxes without suffering the deprivation that similar burdens would have imposed in the past… Today, at the federal level, the vast majority of people will get back every dollar they pay in Social Security taxes plus a lot more, and Medicare provides a valuable service that will eventually benefit almost everyone. At the state and local level, spending mostly goes for things that people want, like police and fire protection, schools, parks and roads.
Barlett also points out that conservatives and libertarians tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of the social safety net, especially where Medicare and Medicaid are concerned, but forget to consider the plethora of benefits that they add to everyone’s life. “[C]are for the aged imposed an enormous burden on families that decreased their freedom.”
Simply imagine the burden families had to endure throughout their lives when the concern for taking care of one’s aging parents was fully on the children. Much of a family’s resources went to this effort, limiting a family’s opportunity to get ahead in life and forcing families to push out more children in order to secure their end of life care. This exacerbated the problem families endured, putting even further limits on both parents and the likelihood the children would find a proper education to succeed. Today, families have more freedom to use their extra money, not to save up for the 10-20 years having to care for elderly parents and sick ones, but to make their lives richer materialistically or through charity—or through self-improvement through education or volunteer work.
Bartlett also mentions that the elderly today are in much better shape and are more capable of enjoying their last years. Medical technology and easier to attain nutrition has lifted a burden from their shoulders during their life and their last days, allowing them the freedom the Heritage Foundation’s index methodology doesn’t account for.
People of color and women are more ingrained in the labor force, removed from the slavery of marginalization due to either oppression or lack of opportunity due to a lack of a strong foundation to work from.
I think Bartlett got to the gist of the matter very well when he wrote:
My purpose is not to defend government or say that taxes and government spending don’t matter for freedom. My point simply is to suggest that there tends to be a myopia among conservatives and libertarians that is very quick to condemn governmental curtailments of individual liberty, while failing to appreciate or even acknowledge expansions of personal freedom that have enormously improved our lives over those of our parents and grandparents, not to mention those in the distant past.
There is also a tendency to exaggerate the importance of recent curtailments of freedom while failing to put them into proper historical context.
This historical context, he says, is that conservatives and libertarians make two mistakes: reliance on rose-colored hindsight about the 19th century, a time rife with racist and economic oppression; and reliance on a false narrative about what happens when the top marginal tax rate is increased. Conservatives “predicted a recession, which never happened, from the rise in the top rate in 1993. Yet the top rate he has proposed would still be well below what it was from 1936 until 1986.” There was no recession as a result; the rich were able to afford the tax increase, and the world didn’t implode. HF’s index score for the Clinton “years peaked at an index score of 76.7 in 1996, falling to a low of 75.4 in 1998.”
The index dropped during an economic boom? Perhaps the myopia is the problem: too much reliance on what 1% of the population would consider “freedom.”
Tying the index to both welfare states and political freedom:
According to Heritage, the people of Denmark, where government spends more than 50% of GDP, are only a tenth of a point less free than we are (at 77.9), and those in Canada, which has long had a government-controlled health system, are 2.4% more free (at 80.4). While Hong Kong ranks as the place with the most economic freedom (at 89.7), its people have very little political freedom, according to the latest report from Freedom House.
Note that Hong Kong is the most “free” country in the world according to the Heritage Foundation. Apparently HF has a very different definition of “Economic Freedom,” one that doesn’t include the power of one’s economic wealth—not limited to all the resources available to them from the state and the rest of society. It seems they’ve been walking an all to Randian path where only one’s own will and ability can define worth and value. It’s no secret, although it’s not admonished enough, that conservatives have strayed from the path Hayek walked and detoured into the darker regions of subjective Objectivism.
The proof is very evident to anyone who bothers to study the things they espouse are important to them.
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.
Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong… Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.
– The Road To Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek
So, what, exactly, is freedom another word for—according to conservatives, libertarians and those at the Heritage Foundation?
Freedom translates into a simple phrase: “I’ve Got Mine, Fuck You.”