The Geography of Freedom

March Madness was supposed to be confined to college basketball – who would make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and then the Elite Eight, and then the Final Four, and who would come out on top – but this year no one much cared. There are fewer sports junkies all the time. The young have other concerns, and amazing smartphones and tablets and whatnot, connecting them to each other in a massive multidimensional web of intense social interaction. There’s no room for college sports. That’s for other people, something that fascinated a previous less-connected generation for some reason – something that seems quaint now. As for adults, life is just too hard in the lingering deep recession that followed the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression for such nonsense. You may have a degree from one of the universities that have a team in the big tournament, but that means little to you now, as that degree isn’t helping you much these days. You could lose your job tomorrow – no one’s safe – and then your house, and then everything else – and there’s something oddly unpleasant about watching your school’s lavishly-funded sports efforts, with the coach who earns many millions of dollars a year directing a team of superb athletes who need tutors to find the door to the men’s room, who will soon move on to the pros and make their own millions. Had the school spent those big bucks on academics, on teaching something actually useful, perhaps things would be different – but they’re not. The result of all this is mild resentment and almost total indifference. The world supplies enough of its own madness. Basketball madness is wholly unnecessary.

The madness this March was in Washington anyway, as the month ended, with two days of intense argument in front of the Supreme Court over the issue of gay marriage, or maybe something more basic – what the government gets to regulate or even forbid. There was the argument that this week was historic, or at least that’s the view of the New York Times’ Charles Blow:

Witnessing a historic moment is such an odd and exhilarating thing. It is hard to register the full scope of it because you are chest deep in it.

That is how I feel about the gay-marriage arguments made before the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday.

However the court rules on California’s Proposition 8 and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act, there is no denying that something historic has just happened: an aggrieved group has taken a stand and given voice once again to the American – and indeed Democratic – ideals of justice and fairness and freedom.

There’s much to be said about the details of the absurd arguments about defending California’s Proposition 8 and the almost farcical arguments in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act – but basically it was a rout. Even Bill O’Reilly said the compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals – live and let live – that’s the American way. Even Rush Limbaugh said the battle was lost – legal recognition of gay marriage is inevitable. Here and there conservatives argued that legal recognition of gay marriage was a conservative concept, or should be, as conservatives in the UK have argued for years. The government shouldn’t pick and choose who is allowed to marry whom, as conservatives believe in limited government. That led to John Fund in the National Review finally asking the obvious severely conservative question – Why Not Separate Marriage and State?

Why not? It’s a free country, or ought to be. John Fund admits there’d be a lot of tax code and contract law to unravel, but at least the government would back off:

Turning marriage into fundamentally a private right wouldn’t be an easy task. Courts and government would still be called on to recognize and enforce contracts that a couple would enter into, and clearly some contracts – such as in a slave-master relationship – would be invalid. But instead of fighting over which marriages gain its approval, government would end the business of making distinctions for the purpose of social engineering based on whether someone was married. A flatter tax code would go a long way toward ending marriage penalties or bonuses. We would need a more sensible system of legal immigration so that fewer people would enter the country solely on the basis of spousal rights.

The current debate pits those demanding “marriage equality” against supporters of “traditional marriage.” But many Americans believe it would be better if we left matters to individuals and religious bodies.

That’s it. You register some sort of private contract between two parties with the courts, should disputes arise, and anything else – vows in church or a synagogue or whatever – is your own business. That’s true freedom – freedom from government meddling, because government is always the problem, never the solution. Saint Ronald said so. It’s the basic conservative principle that freedom is always “freedom from” something. Liberals and progressives keep seeing freedom as “freedom to do something” – freedom for gays to marry for example – and Fund and other conservatives would say that’s backwards. They want freedom from the government having anything to do with healthcare – everyone is free and on their own – and don’t see how anyone could talk about freedom to live life and do useful things without worrying that a serious illness will bankrupt them and ruin their lives. It’s the same with environmental and financial regulation – one side argues we’d all be better off if the bad guys were constrained a bit more – so we’d all be free to live in a safe and fair world, and thus free to reach our true potential. Conservatives huff and puff that that’s setting up rules and restrictions – the opposite of freedom. Gun safety presents the same dilemma – regulating gun ownership would make most people feel a bit more free and easy, and relieved, so they could get on with their lives. The folks from the NRA would feel oppressed, and most certainly not free. Gay marriage in all this is just part of the mix. This year’s March Madness in Washington was about the nature of freedom itself. Gay marriage was just the current catalyst for the discussion to resume.

Franklin D. Roosevelt started it all, on January 6, 1941, in that Four Freedoms speech – the rousing second half of his State of the Union address that year. The four were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two were no problem – they’re right there in the Constitution – but the other two were something new. He talks about the benefits of democracy – economic opportunity, employment, social security (the concept, not the program) and the promise of “adequate health care.” Roosevelt suggested we all had a right to economic security – the government should assure that – and he included “freedom from fear” against national aggression probably because he thought we had to fight the Nazis sooner or later, and this was justification. Eleven months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and then Germany declared war on us. He was right.

The problem was claiming that “freedom from want” was a basic freedom that should be guaranteed by the government. No conservative would agree with that. That’s a matter of personal responsibility. If you’re starving in the street, well, that’s your problem – a sign of your fecklessness and general inadequacy. Remember what Romney said about the forty-seven percent – “All right, there are forty-seven percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

The “him” in question was Obama, but it might as well have been FDR – both argued that the government ought to care for its citizens, to provide them the freedom to do cool stuff and prosper. Conservatives have always seen that as the opposite of freedom. Healthcare, food, housing, you name it… you find a way to buy those things or you don’t. It’s a free country. Put on your big-boy pants and get a job.

The confusion is between “freedom from” and “freedom to” – between the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty – two different things entirely. One is defined as having the power and resources to fulfill one’s own potential – a series of social contracts, mutually agreed on, frees up everyone from want and worry. That’s what FDR was getting at. Heck, traffic laws, with fines, keep everyone safe, and alive. Negative liberty is freedom from interference by other people – so stop signs make you less free. The distinction between positive and negative liberty might be specious. Positive liberty and negative liberty are pretty much indistinguishable in practice, or maybe one cannot exist without the other. That’s what Isaiah Berlin argued in his 1958 lecture Two Concepts of Liberty:

It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows” – the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.

The problem is drawing that line between private life and public authority. That’s what the battle over gay marriage was about. That’s what all the other current battles seem to be about – healthcare, gun control, bank regulation and all the rest. That’s what all of American politics seem to be about. We believe in freedom – do what you want – no one’s going to interfere with you – and you can’t do anything that screws things up for everyone else – because we also believe in public authority. We haggle endlessly over which matters more at any given moment. We draw lines and keep erasing them and drawing new lines.

Now the lines are geographic. See Freedom in the Fifty States – or follow Paul Waldman’s explanation:

The Mercatus Center, an independently funded free-market think tank housed at George Mason University, just released its annual “Freedom in the 50 States” rankings, and the results, showing whether you live in a Randian paradise or a soul-crushing statist hellhole, are getting a lot of ridicule on Twitter. Liberals may laugh that this kind of thing is pretty silly, but it’s conservatives who ought to find the results deeply unsettling. Because if “freedom” as conservatives define it determines the quality of one’s existence, then they all ought to be packing their bags to move to the most free of all the states – which, according to the Mercatus Center, is North Dakota. You can see the problem here.

It’s basic libertarian stuff:

A state can get extra points for having civil unions or gay marriage and some form of marijuana legalization (each account for 2.1 percent of the total score), but the factors that matter are things like low taxes, lack of gun control, and “freedom from tort abuse,” i.e. laws that make it hard to sue when your surgeon cuts off the wrong leg. There are also some glaring omissions, like reproductive freedom, but that’s not too surprising given who’s making the list.

Waldman says this all depends on how you define freedom:

It’s often said (accurately) that liberals and conservatives both value freedom; they just have different ideas about which kinds of freedom are important. For instance, we all agree that free speech is vital, but conservatives think that if you can’t choose your health insurance provider, you aren’t free. Liberals, on the other hand, think that particular kind of freedom is far less important than the freedom that comes from having guaranteed health coverage, which is why we’d prefer a system in which everybody is covered, even if it means we all had to be covered by a single system like Medicare. We can argue endlessly about which conception of freedom is the right one, but if the Mercatus Center is correct, then the states that score the highest on their freedom index ought to be the most fantastic places, where everyone of every ideology wants to live.

That would be North Dakota, or then South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, or Oklahoma, which Waldman finds amusing:

As it happens, a lot of people are moving to North Dakota, but that isn’t because you can be so free there, it’s because the state is experiencing a fossil fuel boom, so there are a lot of good-paying jobs in and around the oil and gas fields. I feel like I’ve read a half-dozen overly long “Letter from North Dakota” magazine articles in the last couple of months, and the picture that gets painted from all of them is that the people flocking there plan to work for a few years, save as much money as they can, and then get the hell back to civilization.

No one wants to live there:

We all value different things when choosing where to live – some people want good schools, beautiful landscapes, and access to restaurants, shopping, and culture. Other people want to live where it’s 50 below zero in the winter and there’s nothing but flat prairie as far as the eye can see. Or let’s take the single most important element of freedom according to Mercatus, the tax burden. If that was what separated a great state from a terrible state, then we’d all want to live in one of the lowest tax states. The top five are: South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Alabama. These are all, not surprisingly, states controlled by Republicans who keep the taxes low. And what’s the effect? Is your average Washington think-tank conservative telling himself, “Man, I just have to put in a couple more years here, and then I am totally moving to Rapid City – it is going to be awesome there!” I don’t mean any insult to the good people of Rapid City; I’ve never been there, and maybe it’s great. My point is just that there’s a lot more to life than low taxes.

Conservatives should know better, and do:

Elite conservatives often wax poetic about the “real America,” small towns and places in “the heartland,” where people supposedly have superior values and life is good. Yet for some reason, they don’t choose to live there. During the 2012 primaries, I wrote about Rick Perry’s love of his tiny home town of Paint Creek, Texas, where he supposedly learned so many valuable lessons about life and America. The most important lesson he learned, however, was I’ve got to get out of Paint Creek, which he did at the first opportunity.

So if I were a conservative, I’d look at a ranking like this and ask whether my compatriots and I were focusing on the right things.

Alex Pareene adds this:

The Mercatus Center, coincidentally, is run in large part with money from Koch Industries. Charles Koch sits on its board, along with another high-ranking Koch Industries executive. Mercatus is effectively the in-house think tank for the Kochs, providing reports and research that support the ideological aims of the notorious brothers, and their ideological aims usually also support the long-term goal of the Kochs to make as much money for themselves as possible without anyone telling them to “pollute a bit less” or “pay taxes.”

Looking at the list, it’s clear that most Americans have “voted with their feet” and chosen to live primarily in our least free states. Bottoming out the list are California, the second-least free and most populous state, and New York, third in population and dead last in liberty.

Something’s wrong here:

I called North Dakota a “fucking shithole” on Twitter earlier, which was unfair of me, because while it is unreasonably, inhospitably freezing cold in much of the state for much of the year (and I say this as someone who grew up one state away) it is, on the whole, a reasonably pretty part of the country full of decent people (unless you are openly gay or transgendered or in need of an abortion obviously). I can more easily figure out why people, indigenous and immigrant, settled there than, say, Phoenix. But there is a reason that fewer people live in all of North Dakota than in Detroit, and there is a reason why the population of North Dakota slowly declined from the 1920s through the end of the 20th century: Not that many people want to live there. People are moving there now because of a natural resources boom (and those always last forever and always create permanent, stable communities, right?) not because North Dakota suddenly became a much nicer place to live, on account of freedom.

New York and California, though, are both super-nice, even though we confiscate more money than North Dakota, and spend it on things like mass transportation (freedom from having to own cars!) and helping people without means get food and healthcare (freedom from dying!). Koch industries co-owner David Koch, for the record, lives in New York City. Though I imagine he and his brother will soon pack up and relocate to sunny, free Grand Forks.

Pareene argues people already have chosen positive liberty:

It is a very obvious observation but it is still the case that Americans – and people everywhere else – have generally decided that they don’t mind a bit of taxation in exchange for a more humane and fairer society. This Mercatus Study, with its limited, self-serving definition of “freedom,” is like a mean-spirited parody of the sort of “libertarianism” that’s just a front for the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

No kidding, and in Forbes, Timothy B. Lee asks “whether it makes sense to have a political ideology that’s focused on freedom, narrowly defined, to the exclusion of other values” – which has always been the question:

There are some obvious problems with Mercatus’ methodology. Theoretically, libertarians are “economically conservative and socially liberal,” but the libertarians at Mercatus have given economic policy more than twice as much weight as “personal freedom.” On top of that, it uses a pretty right-leaning conception of “personal freedom.” The right to smoke is given almost twice as much weight as marriage equality. The right to own a gun is given five times as much weight as the “civil liberties” category, described as a “grab bag of mostly unrelated policies, including raw milk laws, fireworks laws, prostitution laws, physician-assisted suicide laws, religious freedom restoration acts, rules on taking DNA samples from criminal suspects, trans-fat bans, and laws that can be used to prosecute people who audio-record public officials in the performance of their duties.” Reproductive freedom isn’t taken into account at all.

Yes, we always draw lines and keep erasing them and drawing new lines, but some would draw the line at North Dakota – no one wants to draw any line there. The basic conservative principle is that freedom is always “freedom from” something, but freedom from everything is a cold and nasty business. So is living in Minot. The lines on gay marriage may prove difficult to draw, but they will be drawn, somehow, and we’ll work things out – and we’ll keep arguing about which kind of freedom we prefer. But we won’t move to North Dakota. On the other hand, if all the severe conservatives and idealistic libertarians moved there…

No, it’s too much to hope for that. They won’t disappear to where it’s fifty below zero in the winter and there’s nothing but flat prairie as far as the eye can see, never to be heard from again. They’ll hang around, telling us of their view of freedom, which sounds pretty awful. The arguments will continue, and they’re far more interesting than college basketball. Duke just beat Michigan State, by the way.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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