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.
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.