Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Can More Government Involvement Make Us More Free?

One of the articles of faith of modern conservatism is that government is intrusive and meddlesome. This goes back to Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. Part of this belief is that government intrusion in our lives inevitably takes our freedom away. One influential conservative framed the movement’s goal as making the government small enough that we could drown it in a bathtub. And much of the anger on the Right is aimed at this image of government that has been so effectively painted by people with more air time than common sense. A good portion of the reasoning is that the more government we have in our lives, the more we have to be taxed to pay for it. And, of course, taxes are evil. A significant part of the conservative view of freedom is freedom from taxation.
Well, here’s a heretical thought in these days of rampant antigovernment rhetoric. Can more government involvement actually make us more rather than less free?
This thought occurred to me in a particular context, and that context is health care, although there are certainly many more contexts where this question applies. But let’s look at health care. I served a mission in Germany and still have friends in that green country. I’m sure my German friends are convinced that they have more freedom in terms of health care than I do as an American citizen. When they are sick or injured, they are free to seek care from a variety of options. Because I have good insurance, I too am free to seek care, but only from providers who happen to have contracts with my insurance company. If I go outside this network, I either pay everything or I pay a higher percentage of the total bill. This certainly limits an important freedom. And if I were to fall into one of the gaps where I could not afford insurance and did not qualify for government assistance, I would have very little freedom.
Yes, I understand that there are certain inefficiencies and inadequacies in the various “socialized” health-care systems around the world, but these pale in comparison to the deficiencies of the American system, even with the Affordable Care Act in place. None of my German friends would ever want to trade their system for ours. They would view this as a decrease in their freedom. This is a case where the free market does not make people more free.
Another conservative article of faith is that government regulation is intrusive and should be curtailed. Rather than looking at specific regulations, the politicians just condemn regulation categorically because this sells well on the campaign trail. The argument generally is that regulations hamper businesses in some way (infringe on businesses’ freedom to do business the way they want). But most regulation is aimed at protecting individual freedoms from business overreach, because most businesses are hard-wired to cut corners and take advantage of any angle they can find to increase their bottom line. As long as it isn’t illegal, it is usually fair game.
So regulation occurs at the intersection of business freedom and human freedom. Conservatives generally favor increasing business freedom at the expense of human freedom. Liberals favor individual freedom over business freedom. But relaxing regulation under the ludicrous assumption that businesses can be trusted to self-regulate definitely damages certain individual freedoms. Take pollution standards, for example. Imagine where we would be if corporations had been allowed to self-regulate regarding their pollution of our air and water. Businesses would have enjoyed great freedom to externalize certain costs, but American citizens would have lost the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Of course, in reality government regulations have still allowed plenty of freedom to pollute, so we do not actually enjoy clean air and some communities (think Flint, Michigan) are not free to drink clean water.
One final example. Just last week I saw statistics showing that nearly half of all American families have no retirement savings. None. Among citizens between ages 51 and 60, the average retirement savings is less than $17,000. This is probably partly due to poor planning, but primarily it is a result of falling wages for most Americans and corporations eliminating pension plans. When labor is considered a cost to minimize, decent-paying jobs get either shipped off to Third World countries or replaced by technology. The result is a pinched middle class. So a huge segment of the workforce has been unable to save anywhere near enough to retire on. I imagine that these people would consider Social Security benefits a boon to their freedom, not a constriction of it.
Similar arguments can be made for any number of areas where government is involved in our lives. While there are certainly areas of government overreach, quite often increased government involvement results in increased freedom for the majority of citizens. Maybe it’s time to put another of Ronald Reagan’s myths to rest.


  1. ref: Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

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