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Published on Tuesday, July 4, 2000 in the Cape Cod Times
The Meaning Of Freedom?
by Sean Gonsalves
The Fourth of July commemorates the establishment of a sovereign United States of America and is the symbolic origin of our social freedom - freedom to do things like write columns or enjoy a family barbecue in a backyard full of love, conversation, food and cold beer. God bless America.

Freedom is not free. There's no such thing as a free lunch. My favorite comes from a theologian. (I'm paraphrasing here). Freedom is not the license to do whatever you desire. It is the opportunity to become who you are. And existentially speaking, we are "condemned to freedom," as Sartre put it.

I think the point of these political proverbs is to remind us that freedom comes with corresponding responsibilities. But does any rational person dispute such an obvious truism? Not in theory. But in practice, we tend to collectively ignore one of the most important responsibilities demanded by freedom - the responsibility to tell the truth (as best we can) about ourselves and our condition; to be radically and humbly honest.

Listen to how we speak about freedom and you'll gain tremendous insight into our true attitudes about freedom and, therefore, our relationship to one another.

"Freedom has a price" is a common refrain. It's usually followed by a condescending remark meant to imply that the speaker is the responsible party and it is the poor and weak that must be "more responsible."

When talk turns to nations, self-congratulatory drivel dominates the discussion, where the American empire is held up as "the leader of the free world," while lesser "developed" nations are derided for not measuring up to our "higher standards."

Half-truths are extremely cunning, especially when considered without reference to the actual historical record and then cloaked in Orwellian language - for example, referring to our state capitalist economic order as a "free-market." Again, half-truths are cunning, especially when history is tainted with state religion at the hands of an ideological priesthood.

"Free-market" theorists love to invoke the name of Adam Smith, whose book "Wealth of Nations" gives the Declaration of Independence a run for its money as the most influential document to be published in 1776. But when "free-market" cheerleaders turn to an inquiry into the causes and conditions of poverty, you begin to wonder if they've even read Smith. To them, poverty is simply the result of laziness, stupidity or perhaps bad luck, and whatever misery befalls the dispossessed is a deserved or inevitable misery.

As if the academically celebrated economic models in circulation today are even remotely connected to the real world, "free-market" ideologues inevitably respond to criticisms by saying something like: "The poor in America are rich compared to the poor in Third World nations."

Their own god unveils the double-talk. Smith pointed out that being poor in a relatively rich country can prevent that person from realizing a few elementary "functionings," such as participating in community life. Smith argued that in a free society individuals would be able to "appear in public without shame," which may require, say, clothing or other visible consumer products; "necessaries," he called them.

"By necessaries I understand not only commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order to be without. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them," Smith wrote.

And in their straw-man attacks on socialism, "free-market" proponents (like Milton Friedman) love to talk about how the moral flaws of chattel slavery have not been carried over into capitalism because workers, unlike slaves, are "free" to make voluntary wage contracts with an employer (see Friedman's book "Free to Choose").

The absurdity of the claim is exposed by social critic David Ellerman. "When a robber denies another person's right to make an infinite number of other choices besides losing his money or his life and the denial is backed up by a gun, then this is clearly robbery even though it might be said that the victim is making a 'voluntary choice' between his remaining options.

"When the legal system itself denies the natural rights of working people in the name of the prerogatives of capital, and this denial is sanctioned by the legal violence of the state, then the theorists of 'libertarian' capitalism do not proclaim institutional robbery, but rather they celebrate the 'natural liberty' of working people to choose between the remaining options of selling their labor as a commodity and being unemployed," Ellerman observes.

Whenever someone starts talking about freedom, the next logical question is: freedom for whom? Happy Independence Day!

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email:

Copyright 2000 Cape Cod Times


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