‘... Land of the Free’ ... Really?
Drawn from World Hunger: 10 Myths, coauthored by Joseph Collins.
The billionaire Koch brothers chose the Libre [Free] Initiative as the name of their political outreach efforts in the Latino community. Some of the most conservative House Republicans call themselves the Freedom Caucus. And last month, Pope Francis enjoyed a standing ovation from Congress with the words “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Hearing the refrain, most Americans leap to our feet with hand on heart and pride inside.
But what do we mean by “free”?
Unless we together grapple with the meaning of “free” and “brave,” might we end up singing this refrain ever more fervently while losing the actual experience of freedom?
Two strains in our understanding of freedom seem to run deep in our culture, but rarely do we spell out their very powerfully different implications. So, with the hope of triggering rich debate, let me try.
Freedom for me involves having choice, in the richest sense, including the capacity to choose how we develop our unique gifts and passions. Political philosopher Harry Boyte captures its essence as the “liberation of talents.”
This understanding of freedom lies at the heart of my life’s message about hunger, as laid out in World Hunger: 10 Myths, the book I’ve coauthored with Joseph Collins. From this perspective, it becomes clear that where people go hungry, freedom has been drastically curtailed, while societies making real the right to eat are on the path to freedom.
But many in American culture hold a different view:
Freedom, in its core economic expression, means unlimited material accumulation. By that definition, of course, freedom for some will continue at the cost of hunger for many.
Such an understanding misses the insight of Yale University economics philosopher Charles Lindblom, who in his classic Politics and Markets coolly reminds us that “income-producing property is the bulwark of liberty only for those who have it.” In the Global South just a tiny minority have such a bulwark to their liberty. And, most Americans don’t have it either. About half of Americans have zero or near-zero net wealth; much less possess income-producing assets.
Fortunately, this understanding of economic freedom was not the vision of many whose philosophy shaped the birth of our nation. Some perceived that a link between property and freedom could be positive only when ownership of socially productive property is widely dispersed.
In 1785, after a conversation on a country road with a desperately poor single mother trying to support two children with no land of her own, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.” The misery of Europe, he concluded, was caused by the enormous inequality in landholding.
Many of our nation’s founders also understood that being able to think and speak for oneself without fear is foundational to the culture of a free republic. So “independence” carried the meaning of being free from dependency on others for survival — the kind of dependency characteristic of the aristocracies our founders had rejected: another key reason for our founders’ passion for ensuring a wide dispersion of wealth.
Americans today might think such views vanished with the powdered wig. But no. In 2014, two professors surprised a lot of people with research revealing that Americans’ ideal level of economic inequality would be a society in which an average CEO’s pay is no more than seven times that of an unskilled worker’s. The reality? U.S. CEOs receive on average more than 350 times what the unskilled worker receives.
Security: Not a Threat but a Ground of Freedom
Economic insecurity constrains our freedom, as Franklin Roosevelt summed up, declaring, “Necessitous men are not free men.” More recently, University of Maryland philosopher Henry Shue offers a helpful exploration of precisely why the right to that which is essential to life itself — particularly the right to an adequate diet and health care — is basic to freedom:
No one can fully, if at all, enjoy any right that is supposedly protected by society if he or she lacks the essentials for a reasonably healthy and active life. Deficiencies in the means of subsistence can be just as fatal, incapacitating, or painful as violations of physical security. The resulting damage or death can at least as decisively prevent the enjoyment of any right as can the effects of security violations.
Moreover, freedom so understood is not finite. My artistic development need not detract from yours. Your intellectual advances need not reduce my ability to develop my own intellectual powers. And assurances of my protection from physical assault, including my right to nutritious food, need not prevent you from enjoying equal protection. This is true because sufficient resources exist to guarantee the fulfillment of food rights for everyone. Despite vast waste of food resources, the world produces nearly 2,900 calories a day for each of us.
Not only does your freedom to develop your unique gifts not have to limit my expression, but my development in part depends on your freedom. The failure of our society to protect the right to basic security means that all of its members are deprived of the intellectual breakthroughs, artistic gifts, and athletic achievements of those whose development has been blocked by poverty and hunger. When we are denied the potential inspiration, knowledge, example, and leadership of those who are directly deprived, all of us experience a diminution of our freedom to realize our own fullest potential.
In all, I see a positive link between economic security and freedom.
Freedom as Participation in Power
Another vein in many Americans’ understanding of freedom is that it means being free from interference, especially from government. The gist is the absence of something negative.
But I believe we need a stronger, more active, understanding of freedom to end hunger and enable the “liberation of talents.” Freedom must include the freedom to participate with a meaningful voice, to have a say creating our common destiny.
And this realization brings me to the “Home of the Brave” refrain with which I began. Bravery today involves citizens willing to forego despair about our democracy. To reject cynicism. To stop simple finger pointing. Bravery today means the boldness of citizens stepping up — no matter what the odds — to expand this active understanding of freedom by removing the grip of money over public decision making so that government becomes accountable to them.
This is what freedom means to me.