Sunday, June 10, 2007

Loving and Hating Freedom

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova)

One thing we hear constantly in America is how people love and appreciate their freedom. This ideal of liberty and freedom as enjoyed in a liberal democracy is often elevated to the status of a pseudo-religion, the result of the fusing of nationalism and Christianity. And of course, George W. Bush embraces a particular messianic notion of this "religion", by attempting (with catastrophic consequences) to redeem and re-fashion the world with liberal democratic values-- in his own image. Notice how close this reasoning is to Marxism, with its notion of deterministic progression in history and man-made salvation. No wonder it is bound to fail.

But I digress. Even ignoring the messianic element, many Americans (of all political persuasions) will make constant references to their freedom and how grateful they are for it. Some politicians make crude caricatures about how the enemies of America "hate us for our freedom". But what does this mean? Here's the rub: the US is no more or no less free than any other liberal democracy, certainly among the advanced economies. And yet you do not hear this kind of rhetoric in European countries. A citizen of tiny Iceland, a democracy home to a mere 300,000 people, would never claim that he loves Iceland for his freedom. It makes no sense. It's ludicrous. All European democracies come with political freedom. It's simply a system of government, not a religion.

Some will of course claim that the US stands apart. But what makes America different? For a start, the US can offer certain economic opportunities not available elsewhere. Some things come with its natural position in the world. By virtue if its size, it can avoid large swings in economic activity and exploit economies of scale. And the fact that the dollar is a reserve currency means that the US can borrow pretty cheaply and not have to worry about the kind of macroeconomic imbalances that bedevil other countries (to a degree, at least!). Policy also matters. Its openness to immigration boosts living standards. Its relatively liberal product and labor markets give it the flexibility to adapt to new challenges and technologies. But other countries offer these benefits too, including the UK, Ireland, and some of the Nordic countries like Sweden.

Of course, there are also economic downsides in the US. Poverty and inequality are among the worst in the advanced world. It also sits at the bottom of the list for social outcomes like health and education. Sure, many seek to enter to US, largely from Latin America. But most from the more deprived areas of eastern Europe want to move to the western part of the continent, not cross the Atlantic.

But what has any of this to do with freedom? Not a thing. It's a question of economics. Indeed, it can be argued that the two-party system combined with the ability of vested interests to use practically unlimited funds to influence policy actually hinders democracy in the US. No, the concept of freedom in this discourse has no practical relevance-- it is a freedom of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from a nationalism-oppressed brain. We all enjoy the political freedoms that come with liberal democracy. It's just that the US enjoys no monopoly here.

There is a dark side of course. People are still being sent to war for this "ideal". How does occupying a middle eastern country relate to securing "freedom" at home, not to mention abroad?

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