Americans celebrate freedom. Everyone is free, we proudly proclaim. But what exactly is freedom anyhow? Freedom amounts to being able to do what you want when you want to do it. Based on this criterion, it’s clear to me that some of us are freer that others, and those are people with more money. When you have a lot of money, you have the freedom to go backpacking in Tibet. You are probably not going to realize this particular freedom if you are a product of a single-family household and your mother lives in subsidized housing.
We sometimes celebrate the homeless as free people. Perhaps there is a certain freedom in being a vagabond. You can go where you want but chances are to get there you will have to walk. You had best not walk into certain planned communities, particularly in Sanford, Florida. A George Zimmerman type anxious to try out the Stand Your Ground law may kill you. The homeless are free, but you are likely to frequently go hungry. I understand that the dumpsters behind neighborhood Burger Kings offer al fresco free dining opportunities. Sleep will probably be uncomfortable as you will be outdoors and subject to the elements. You likely won’t be allowed to sleep just anywhere, not even places you would think you would be, like a public park. So be prepared to be rudely woken up at 3 AM and asked to shuffle along, or hauled to a nearby police station and booked for being a vagrant. There you can at least you can get free meals and a warm place to sleep.
For most of us, this freedom is very limiting, and something to be avoided not embraced. In fact, it is a faux freedom. Wild animals have this sort of freedom too, but no one envies them. However, with money freedom becomes tangible. Money can buy you freedom from constant hunger and provide a safe place to call home. With more money it can buy health care and likely keep you out of a whole lot of unnecessary misery. With even more money you can become educated, attract a quality mate and take regular vacations. With yet more money you can take exotic vacations, afford homes in the Hamptons and maybe run for political office.
So in reality freedom is not so much about being free, it is about the how much freedom you can afford to purchase. And that depends on how much money you or your parents have. Consequently, in a nation that values freedom we also value wealth, because the more wealth you have the more freedom you have.
We are also aware that freedom is constrained by law. In many mostly Southern states, your right to vote can be constrained by requiring state issued IDs to be shown at polling places, which curiously affects the poor almost exclusively. Sometimes fewer polling machines show up in predominantly poor neighborhoods as well, making it harder to have your vote count, such as happened in areas around Cleveland in the 2000 election. The consequence of actions like these is to give those with money more leverage to influence laws than those with less money. The rich also have disproportionate resources to influence others politically. This is perfectly legal. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court also asserted something wholly absent in the constitution: that corporations have the same rights as people and can give unlimited amounts to PACs. Unsurprisingly then, our government tends to disproportionately reflect the interests of those with money over those without.
Effectively money not only buys freedom, but also allows some measure of being able to take away freedoms from others. Lately the aspiration that all should have roughly the same amount of freedom has been classified as socialism, a strange assertion for a nation founded on the assumption that all men are equal. Make health care available to all regardless of their ability to pay, and poorer people will effectively have more freedom, but in the eyes of many it is an unearned freedom, thus it should not be allowed.
How does one earn more freedom? If freedom is wealth, it happens through acquiring wealth somehow, which can be hard to do without a good education and the right connections. Some time back I wrote about the rags to riches myth. Yet there was one famous president who arguably demonstrated that it was possible to ascend from rags to riches. He was our greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. He had no formal education and never went to law school, yet he became a lawyer and eventually president of the United States. How on earth do you get to become a lawyer with no formal education? At the time it meant convincing the Illinois Supreme Court, which had only recently become a state, that you were competent to practice law. Honest Abe did it somehow.
Rest assured that Lincoln’s tactic no longer works in Illinois or likely in any other state. If you want to practice law, you had best get a law degree and join the local bar association. That of course will require money, and it’s unlikely some benevolent nonprofit will be giving it to disadvantaged inner city youth. Anyhow, if you can acquire a law degree then maybe the Illinois Supreme Court will deign to let you argue before it. Since Abe’s time, Illinois has tightened its standards on who is allowed to acquire higher levels of freedom, and it is generally doled out only to those with the means. In effect, it has cut one pathway that enabled someone to go from rags to riches. There are virtually none left, but the Republican myth remains that there are all sorts of ways to achieve the impossible.
We have created all sorts of barriers to keep people from moving from one socioeconomic level to the next. If it happens at all, it requires superhuman effort. Few of us are supermen, so we are virtually doomed to fail and we will stay in our social class. This seems to be fine for those who are already have wealth. Indeed, they seem anxious to add additional barriers that have the effect of making it even harder to ascend up the socioeconomic ladder. This is done in the guise of welfare reform, reducing or eliminating subsidized housing, and strict time limits to food stamps and unemployment benefits. The effect is to give certain classes of people more freedom than others and through lowered estate taxes give them the ability to extend those freedoms to their children. It also helps ensure a permanent underclass of citizens and keeps a permanent upper class as well.
The lack of defined pathways to become upwardly mobile feeds resentment and fosters insular behavior, heightening class-consciousness and dividing us as a society. To understand the brouhaha in Wisconsin, one has to look not at the bottom of the income scale, but at its middle and the brazen power of those at the top to push the middle class further down the income scale by lowering their pensions, making them pay more for their health insurance and not allowing collective bargaining. In effect, through legislation the middle class’s freedom and wealth is being moved to those with more wealth. Ironically, this is classified as being part of a pro-freedom agenda. The reaction by a vulnerable but politically important middle class was entirely predictable. It was fed by cluelessness and a sense of superiority of those with wealth that they know better. Mostly it is due to a fundamental unwillingness by those in power to understand the connections that implicitly bind us.
Some of the wealthy understand this connection. They know that their wealth is predicated on keeping the other 99% hopeful for a more prosperous future. They understand that marginally higher taxes on their income are actually an investment in their prosperity. Moreover, the smartest ones understand that for society to be stable there must be viable economic ladders to move between all financial classes. Most of those ladders have disappeared, mostly between the lower and middle classes, but also between the middle and upper classes. These ladders do not appear magically, or they would exist now. Instead they must be constructed by civilized society. While capitalism helps provide the wealth that makes these ladders possible, they do not occur from largess, but are a result of government.
In truth, upward mobility is what truly drives growth and by extension wealth and freedom. It is in the best interest of the rich to empower the poor and the middle class so their talents can be maximized for the benefit of society. For when that happens, rather than wealth trickling down from the moneyed, it trickles up. All are enriched, all share the benefits of greater connection, and all share in a greater freedom. It is a formula that worked well for America until it was abruptly changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. To become great as a country again we must rebuild these economic ladders. The decline of our country will be marked by the day when we deliberately destroyed these ladders of hope and opportunity.