What Republicans and Billionaires Really Mean When They Talk About ‘Freedom’

Yves here. This post focuses on an important slice of history in what “freedom” has meant in political discourse in the US. But I wish it had at least mentioned how a well-funded, then extreme right wing effort launched an open-ended campaign to render US values more friendly to business. They explicitly sought to undo New Deal programs and weaken or end other social safety nets. Nixon Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell codified the strategy for this initiative in the so-called Powell Memo of 1971.

One of the most effective spokesmen for this libertarian program was Milton Friedman, whose bestseller Free to Choose became the foundation for a ten-part TV series.

By Thom Hartman, a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Produced by the Independent Media Institute

America is having a heated debate about the meaning of the word socialism. We’d be better served if, instead, we were debating the meaning of freedom.

The Oregonianreported last week that fully 156,000 families are on the edge of homelessness in our small-population state. Every one of those households is now paying more than 50 percent of its monthly income on rent, and none of them has any savings; one medical bill, major car repair or job loss, and they’re on the streets.

While socialism may or may not solve their problem, the more pressing issue we have is an entire political party and a huge sector of the billionaire class who see homelessness not as a problem, but as a symptom of a “free” society.

The words freedomand libertyare iconic in American culture—probably more so than with any other nation because they’re so intrinsic to the literature, declarations and slogans of our nation’s founding.

The irony—of the nation founded on the world’s greatest known genocide (the systematic state murder of tens of millions of Native Americans) and over three centuries of legalized slavery and a century and a half of oppression and exploitation of the descendants of those slaves—is extraordinary. It presses us all to bring truefreedom and liberty to allAmericans.

But what do those words mean?

If you ask the Koch brothers and their buddies—who slap those words on pretty much everything they do—you’d get a definition that largely has to do with being “free” from taxation and regulation. And, truth be told, if you’re morbidly rich, that makes a certain amount of sense, particularly if your main goal is to get richer and richer, regardless of your behavior’s impact on working-class people, the environment, or the ability of government to function.

On the other hand, the definition of freedom and liberty that’s been embraced by so-called “democratic socialist” countries—from Canada to almost all of Europe to Japan and Australia—you’d hear a definition that’s closer to that articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he proposed, in January 1944, a “second Bill of Rights” to be added to our Constitution.

FDR’s proposed amendments included the rightto a job, and the rightto be paid enough to live comfortably; the rightto “adequate food and clothing and recreation”; the right to start a business and run it without worrying about “unfair competition and domination by monopolies”; the right“of every family to a decent home”; the rightto “adequate medical care… to achieve and enjoy good health”; the right to government-based “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”; and the right“to a good education.”

Roosevelt pointed out that, “All of these rights spell security.”

He added, “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

The other nations mentioned earlier took President Roosevelt’s advice to heart. Progressive “social democracy” has kept Europe, Canada, and the developed nations of the East and South Pacific free of war for almost a century—a mind-boggling feat when considering the history of the developed world since the 1500s.

Just prior to FDR winning the White House in the election of 1932, the nation had been treated to 12 years of a bizarre Republican administration that was the model for today’s GOP. In 1920, Warren Harding won the presidency on a campaign of “more industry in government, less government in industry”—privatize and deregulate—and a promise to drop the top tax rate of 91 percent down to 25 percent.

He kept both promises, putting the nation into a sugar-high spin called the Roaring ’20s, where the rich got fabulously rich and working-class people were being beaten and murdered by industrialists when they tried to unionize. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (the three Republican presidents from 1920 to 1932) all cheered on the assaults, using phrases like “the right to work” to describe a union-free nation.

In the end, the result of the “horses and sparrows” economics advocated by Harding (“feed more oats to the horses and there’ll be more oats in the horse poop to fatten the sparrows”—that generation’s version of trickle-down economics) was the Republican Great Depression (yes, they called it that until after World War II).

Even though Roosevelt was fabulously popular—the only president to be elected four times—the right-wingers of his day were loud and outspoken in their protests of what they called “socialist” programs like Social Security, the right to unionize, and government-guaranteed job programs including the WPA, REA, CCC, and others.

The Klan and American Nazis were assembling by the hundreds of thousands nationwide—nearly 30,000 in Madison Square Garden alone—encouraged by wealthy and powerful “economic royalists” preaching “freedom” and “liberty.” Like the Kochs’ Freedomworks, that generation’s huge and well-funded (principally by the DuPonts’ chemical fortune) organization was the Liberty League.

Roosevelt’s generation had seen the results of this kind of hard-right “freedom” rhetoric in Italy, Spain, Japan and Germany, the very nations with which we were then at war.

Speaking of “the grave dangers of ‘rightist reaction’ in this Nation,” Roosevelt told Americain that same speech that: “[I]f history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

Although right-wingers are still working hard to disassemble FDR’s New Deal—the GOP budget for 2019 contains massive cuts to Social Security, as well as to Medicare and Medicaid—we got halfway toward his notion of freedom and liberty here in the United States:

  • You’re not free if you’re old and deep in poverty, so we have Social Security (although the GOP wants to gut it).
  • You’re not free if you’re hungry, so we have food stamps/SNAP (although the GOP wants to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you’re homeless, so we have housing assistance and homeless shelters (although the GOP fights every effort to help homeless people).
  • You’re not free if you’re sick and can’t get medical care, so we have Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare (although the GOP wants to gut them all).
  • You’re not free if you’re working more than 40 hours a week and still can’t meet basic expenses, so we have minimum wage laws and the right to unionize (although the GOP wants to gut both).
  • You’re not free if you can’t read, so we have free public schools (although the GOP is actively working to gut them).
  • You’re not free if you can’t vote, so we’ve passed numerous laws to guarantee the right to vote (although the GOP is doing everything it can to keep tens of millions of Americans from voting).

The billionaire class and their wholly owned Republican politicians keep trying to tell us that “freedom” means the government doesn’t provide anyof the things listed above.

Instead, they tell us (as Ron Paul famously did in a GOP primary debate years ago) that, if we’re broke and sick, we’re “free” to die like a feral dog in the gutter.

Freedom is homelessness, in the minds of the billionaires who own the GOP.

Poverty, lack of education, no access to health care, poor-paying jobs, and barriers to voting are all proof of a free society, they tell us, which is why America’s lowest life expectancy, highest maternal and childhood death rates, lowest levels of education, and lowest pay are almost all in GOP-controlled states.

America—particularly the Democratic Party—is engaged in a debate right now about the meaning of socialism. It would be a big help for all of us if we were, instead, to have an honest debate about the meaning of the words freedomand liberty.

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  1. everydayjoe

    Let us not forget the other propaganda arm of Republican party and big money- Fox news. They spew the freedom nonsense while not adhering to any definition of the word.
    I worked in the midwest as an Engineer in the 90s to early 2000s and saw plants being gutted/shifted overseas, Union influence curtailed and mid level and bottom pay stay flat for decades; all in the name of free market.
    Sadly the same families that are the worst affected vote Republican!
    But we know all this and have known it for a while. What will change?

    1. PKMKII

      And then act like it’s fair because they don’t have laws against the sheep eating the wolves.

  2. Norb

    The intro to this post is spot on. The Powell memo outlined a strategy for a corporate coup d’eta. Is was completely successful.

    Now that the business class rules America, their only vision is to continue the quest and cannibalize the country and enslave its people by any means possible. What tools do they use to achieve these ends? – debt, fear, violence and pandering to human vanity as a motivator. Again, very successful.

    Instead of honest public debate- which is impossible when undertaken with liars and thieves, a good old manifesto or pamphlet like Common Sense is in order.

    Something calling out concrete action that can be taken by commoners to regain their social respect and power.

    That should scare the living daylights out of the complacent and smug elite.

    Its that, or a lot of public infrastructure is gong to be broken up by the mob- which doesn’t work out in the long run.

    The nations that learn to work with and inspire their populations will prosper- the rest will have a hard time of it.

    Look no further than America’s fall.

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      Nancy MacLean, in her 2017 book Democracy In Chains: The Deep History Of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America, makes the case that the right wing effort of which Yves writes in her introduction began almost a quarter of a century before the 1971 Powell Memo. She implicitly dates it to the founding of the Mt. Perelin Society in 1947. The three instigators were Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek, and Henry Simon who preceded Milton Friedman as the alpha econ guy at the University of Chicago. Another key figure early in the movement was James McGill Buchanan, another UofC product.

      1. Nicholas Shaxson

        She’s right. But in my 2010 book Treasure Islands I described another crucial aspect that has gone hand in hand with the ideological changes: the rise of London and its offshore tax haven satellites (and other non-UK tax havens like Switzerland or Luxembourg) as escape routes freeing wealthy folk, banks and other multinationals from ‘onerous’ US regulations on financial institutions.

        Tax havens are libertarian paradises, where the rules of civilised society fall away.

        When I read the word ‘freedom’ I always conjure up a mental image of a fox outside a henhouse, waving a placard that says “freedom for the chickens!”

  3. Jamie S

    This piece raises some important points, but aims too narrowly at one political party, when the D-party has also been complicit in sharing the framing of “freedom” as less government/regulation/taxation. After all, it was the Clinton administration that did welfare “reform”, deregulation of finance, and declared the end of the era of “big government”, and both Clinton and Obama showed willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare in a “grand bargain”.

    1. WJ


      If in place of “the GOP,” the author had written, “The national Democratic and Republican parties over the past fifty years,” his claim would be much more accurate. To believe what he says about “the GOP,” you have to pretend that Clinton, and Obama, and Pelosi, and Schumer, and Feinstein simply don’t exist and never did. The author’s implicit valorization of Obamacare is even more disheartening.

      But perhaps this is the *point* of the piece after all? If I were a consultant to the DNC (and I make less than $100,000/yr so I am clearly not), I would advocate that they commission, underscore, and reward pieces exactly like this one. For the smartest ones surely grasp that the rightist oligarchic policy takeover has in fact happened, and that it has left in its wake millions of disaffected, indebted, uneducated, uninsured Americans.

      (Suggesting that it hadn’t was the worst idiocy of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. It would have been much better had she admitted it and blamed it on the Republican Senate while holding dear old Obama up as a hamstrung martyr for the cause. I mean, this is what everybody at DailyKos already believes, and the masses–being poor and uneducated and desperate–can be brought around to believe anything, or anyway, enough of them can be.)

      I would advocate that the DNC double down on its rightful claims to Roosevelt’s inheritance, embrace phrases like “social democracy” and “freedom from economic insecurity,” and shift leftward in all its official rhetoric. Admit the evisceration of the Roosevelt tradition, but blame it all on the GOP. Maybe…*maybe*… even acknowledge that past Democratic leaders were a little naive and idealistic in their pursuit of bipartisanship, and did not understand the truly horrible intentions of the GOP. But today’s Democrats are committed to wresting back the rights of the people from the evil clutches of the Koch Republicans. This sort of thing.

      Would my advice be followed? Or would the *really* smart ones in the room demure? If so, why do you think they would?

      In short, I read this piece as one stage in an ongoing dialectic in the Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2020 election wherein party leaders try to determine how leftward its “official” rhetoric is able to sway before becoming *so* unbelievable (in light of historical facts) that it cannot serve as effective propaganda–even among Americans!

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Team Blue elites are the children of Bill Clinton and the Third Way, so the echo chamber was probably terrible. Was Bill Clinton a bad President? He was the greatest Republican President! The perception of this answer is a key. Who rose and joined Team Blue through this run? Many Democrats don’t recognize this, or they don’t want to rock the boat. This is the structural problem with Team Blue. The “generic Democrat” is AOC, Omar, Sanders, Warren, and a handful of others.

        Can the Team Blue elites embrace a Roosevelt identity? The answer is no. Their ideology is so wildly divergent they can’t adjust without a whole sale conversion.

        More succinctly, the Third Way isn’t about helping Democrats win by accepting not every battle can be won. Its about advancing right wing politics and pretending this isn’t what its about. If they are too clear about good policy, they will be accused of betrayal.

  4. Trick Shroade

    The modern GOP has a very brutalist interpretation of Christianity, one where the money changers bring much needed liquidity to the market.

  5. The Rev Kev

    This article makes me wonder if the GOP is still a political party anymore. I know, I know, they have the party structure, the candidates, the budget and all the rest of it but when you look at their policies and what they are trying to do, the question does arise. Are they doing it because this is what they believe is their identity as a party or is it that they are simply a vehicle with the billionaires doing the real driving and recruiting? An obvious point is that among billionaires, they see no need to form their own political party which should be telling clue. Certainly the Democrats are no better.
    Maybe the question that American should ask themselves is just what does it mean to be an American in the year 2020? People like Norman Rockwell and his Four Freedoms could have said a lot of what it meant some 60 years ago and his work has been updated to reflect the modern era (https://www.galeriemagazine.com/norman-rockwell-four-freedoms-modern/) but the long and the short of it is that things are no longer working for most people anymore – and not just in America. But a powerful spring can only be pushed back and held in place for so long before there is a rebound effect and I believe that I am seeing signs of this the past few years.

    1. GF

      And don’t forget FRD’s Second Bill of Rights:

      “…a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.

      Among these are:

      The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
      The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
      The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
      The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
      The right of every family to a decent home;
      The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
      The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
      The right to a good education.
      All of these rights spell security.”

  6. Frank Little

    America is having a heated debate about the meaning of the word socialism. We’d be better served if, instead, we were debating the meaning of freedom.

    I agree, and we should also be having a debate about capitalism as it actually exists. In the US capitalism is always talked about in rosy non-specific terms (e.g. a preference for markets or support for entrepreneurship) while anybody who says they don’t necessarily support capitalism has to answer for Stalin’s gulag’s or the Khmer Rouge. All the inequalities and injustices that have helped people like Howard Schultz or Jeff Bezos become billionaire capitalists somehow aren’t part of capitalism, just different problems to be solved somehow but definitely not by questioning capitalism.

    Last night I watched the HBO documentary on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos and I couldn’t help but laugh at all these powerful politicians, investors, and legal giants going along with someone who never once demonstrated or even explained how her groundbreaking innovation actually worked. $900 million was poured into that company before people realized something that a Stanford professor interviewed in the documentary saw when she first met Holmes. Fracking companies have been able to consistently raise funding despite consistently losing money and destroying the environment in the process. Bank balance sheets were protected while working people lost everything in the name of preserving American capitalism. I think it’s good to debate socialism and capitalism, but there’s not really any point if we aren’t going to be talking about Actually Existing Capitalism rather than the hypothetical version that’s trotted out anytime someone suggests an alternative.

    1. Trick Shroade

      There was a great comment here on NC a little while ago, something to the effect of “capitalism has the logic of a cancer cell. It’s a pile of money whose only goal is to become a bigger pile of money.” Of course good things can happen as a side effect of it becoming a bigger pile of money: innovation, efficiencies, improved standard of living, etc. but we need government (not industry) regulation to keep the bad side effects of capitalism in check (like the cancer eventually killing its host).

      1. Frank Little

        Shoot, must have missed that comment but it’s a good metaphor. Reminds me of Capital vol. 1, which Marx starts with a long and dense treatment of the nature of commodities and commodification in order to capture this process whereby capitalists produce things people really do want or need in order to get at what they really want: return on their investment.

    2. Jack Gavin

      I also agree but I think we need to have a the same heated debate over what capitalism means. Over the years I have been subjected to (exposed) to more flavors of socialism than I can count. Yet, other than an introductory economics class way back when, no debatable words about what ‘capitalism’ is seems to get attention. Maybe it’s time to do that and hope that some agreeable definition of ‘freedom’ falls out.

    3. jrs

      of course maybe socialism is the only thing that ever really could solve homelessness, given that it seems to be at this point a worldwide problem, although better some places than others (like the U.S. and UK).

  7. Stratos

    This article lets the Dems off the hook. They have actively supported the Billionaire Agenda for decades now; sometimes actively (like when they helped gut welfare) and sometimes by enabling Repubs objectives (like voter suppression).

    At this point in time, the Dem leadership is working to deep six Medicare for All.

    With ‘friends’ like the Dems, who needs the Repubs?

  8. thump

    1) In the history, a mention of the attempted coup against FDR would be good. See The Plot to Seize the White House by Jules Archer. (Amazon link)

    2) For the contemporary intellectual history, I really appreciated Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. (Amazon link) Look her up on youtube or Democracy Now. Her book got a bit of press and she interviews well.

  9. Bob of Newton

    Please refer to these folks as ‘rightwingers’. There are Democratic as well as Republicans who believe in this type of ‘freedom’.

  10. Jerry B

    This post seems heavily slanted against the GOP and does not take into account how pro-business the Democrats have become. I tenuously agree with Yves intro that much of the current pro business value system campaign in the US was started with the political far right and the Lewis Powell Memo. And that campaign kicked into high gear during the Reagan Presidency.

    But as that “pro business campaign” gained steam, the Democratic Party, IMO, realized that they could partake in the “riches” as well and sold their political soul for a piece of the action. Hartman’s quote about the billionaire class should include their “wholly owned Republicans and Democrat politicians”.

    As Lambert mentions (paraphrasing), “The left puts the working class first. Both liberals and conservatives put markets first, liberals with many more layers of indirection (e.g., complex eligibility requirements, credentialing) because that creates niches from which their professional base benefits”.

    As an aside, while the pro-business/capitalism on steroids people have sought more “freedom”, they have made the US and the world less free for the rest of us.

    Also the over focusing on freedom is not uniquely GOP. As Hartman mentions, “the words freedom and liberty are iconic in American culture—probably more so than with any other nation because they’re so intrinsic to the literature, declarations and slogans of our nation’s founding.” US culture has taken the concept of freedom to an extreme version of individualism.

    That is not surprising given our history.

    The DRD4 gene is a dopamine receptor gene. One stretch of the gene is repeated a variable number of times, and the version with seven repeats (the “7R” form) produces a receptor protein that is relatively unresponsive to dopamine. Being unresponsive to dopamine means that people who have this gene have a host of related traits—sensation and novelty seeking, risk taking, impulsivity, and, probably most consistently, ADHD. —— Seems like the type of people that would value extreme (i.e. non-collective) forms of freedom

    The United States is the individualism poster child for at least two reasons. First there’s immigration. Currently, 12 percent of Americans are immigrants, another 12 percent are children of immigrants, and everyone else except for the 0.9 percent pure Native Americans descend from people who emigrated within the last five hundred years.

    And who were the immigrants?’ Those in the settled world who were cranks, malcontents, restless, heretical, black sheep, hyperactive, hypomanic, misanthropic, itchy, unconventional, yearning to be free, yearning to be rich, yearning to be out of their, damn boring repressive little hamlet, yearning. —– Again seems like the type of people that would value freedom in all aspects of life and not be interested in collectivism

    Couple that with the second reason—for the majority of its colonial and independent history, America has had a moving frontier luring those whose extreme prickly optimism made merely booking passage to the New World insufficiently, novel—and you’ve got America the individualistic.

    The 7R variant mentioned above occurs in about 23 percent of Europeans and European Americans. And in East Asians? 1 percent. When East Asians domesticated rice and invented collectivist society, there was massive selection against the 7R variant. Regardless of the cause, East Asian cultural collectivism coevolved with selection against the 7R variant.

    So which came first, 7R frequency or cultural style? The 4R and 7R variants, along with the 2R, occur worldwide, implying they already existed when humans radiated out of Africa 60,000 to 130,000 years ago. A high incidence of 7R, associated with impulsivity and novelty seeking, is the legacy of humans who made the greatest migrations in human history.

    So it seems that many of the people who immigrated to the US were impulsive, novelty seeking, risk takers. As a counterpoint, many people that migrated to the US did not do so by choice but were forced from their homes and their countries by wars.

    The point of this long comment is that for some people the concept of freedom can be taken to extreme – a lack of gun control laws, financial regulation, extremes of wealth, etc. After a brief period in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and early 1960’s when the US was more collective, we became greedy, consumerist, and consumption oriented, aided by the political and business elites as mentioned in the post.

    If we want the US to be a more collective society we have to initially do so in our behaviors i.e. laws and regulations that rein in the people who would take the concept of freedom to an extreme. Then maybe over an evolutionary time period some of the move impulsive, sensation seeking, ADHDness, genes can be altered to a more balance mix of what makes the US great with more of the collective genes.

    IMO, if we do not begin to work on becoming a collective culture now, then climate change, water scarcity, food scarcity, and resource scarcity will do it for us the hard way.

    In these days of short attention spans I apologize for the long comment. The rest of my day is busy and I do not have more time to shorten the comment. I wanted to develop an argument for how the evolutionary and dysfunctional forms of freedom have gotten us to this point. And what we need to do to still have some freedom but also “play nice and share in the future sandbox of climate change and post fossil fuel society.

  11. todde

    I am not for freedom. If you want freedom I suggest you find a mountain cliff in a remote part of Idaho to live.

    I am for self-government.

    Freedom is childish. Self government is for people who want to have some sort of power in how things are.

    All we were promised is a say on what chains we wear.

  12. RBHoughton

    I am indebted to Michael Hudson for this gem – the American Liberty Bell’s inscription “proclaim freedom throughout the land” translates the Hebrew word deror (from Akkadian andurarum) as freedom when it means debt relief. Its much the same with the Catholic Church’s version of Jesus’ life which was devoted to ‘deror’ but all Popes changed his mission to another humanitarian object. Take care what you believe.

  13. Anon

    Little did I recognize that Janis Joplin and “Bobby McGee” would be so prophetic:

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

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