As the country celebrates another Independence Day weekend, it’s worth stepping back from our hot political debates to ask a question: How free is America?
Since last July 4, the country has seen the changing of the guard in the White House — with accompanying changes in policies on everything from war to the environment to health care to the economy. Those changes have sparked cries of tyranny from the right and angry rebuttals from the left.
So how free is America? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, consider the question.
When the Founding Fathers declared America’s independence more than 230 years ago, they couldn’t have imagined some of the events this country has witnessed in the last year or so: A black man elected president. A woman nominated for vice president, and another nearly claim her party’s nomination for the top spot. In a few states, gay men and women have even been allowed to marry each other.
More Americans than ever can be confident of their ability to participate fully in the political process or create the family of their choosing — and if those aren’t signs that freedom is on the rise, well, what is? But the job is not complete. Gay Americans are still largely second-class citizens, prohibited in most places from marrying their partners. They’re still not allowed to serve openly in the military.
Meanwhile, America’s new president — while he has committed the welcome act of ending torture — has put himself on the side of warrantless wiretapping and the indefinite detention of terror suspects who can’t be convicted in a court of law. Lovers of liberty are rightly troubled by these developments.
What we have learned — again — is that freedom belongs to no particular political party. That it demands constant vigilance. And that it still stirs the American soul.
The battles that consume so much of our political life very often balance someone’s notion of freedom against somebody else’s desire to fix a problem. That’s not a bad thing. As long as we are battling for freedom — against its limitations and for its expansion — then we still have a large measure of it. That is something for which Americans can still be grateful.
It’s fair to say most Americans do not worry much about their liberty. We take for granted that the United States is, and always will be, the freest country in the world. Tyranny is what you find in places like North Korea, China, Burma, Iran or Nazi Germany. America doesn’t even come close.
Truth is, despotism comes in many shades and hues, not just the red and black of totalitarian states past and present. This America’s founders understood well in 1776, when they pledged their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" to throw off the yoke of King George III. It’s hard to know these days just what makes for a "long train of abuses and usurpations," as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, but no matter how well intended, government always stifles freedom. Always.
"Guard with jealous attention the public liberty," Patrick Henry said. "Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel." There can be no doubt that the jewel has been badly tarnished over the decades by incessant government expansion into almost every facet of the private sphere. There is almost nothing that the federal government doesn’t touch, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the cars we drive and the very air we breathe. Liberty dies by a thousand cuts, or 100,000 regulations.
But aren’t we better off? Don’t we live longer lives? Aren’t we safer? Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted observation about those who would trade "essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety" never gets old. We’re only as free as we insist, and not nearly as free or as independent as we ought to be.
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis podcast at blog.infinitemonkeysblog.com.)