Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from an article in the Journal of Working-Class Studies.
On any given day in the past year, you could find somebody shouting about their freedom being taken away. Ask them to wear a mask to help protect themselves and their fellow Americans, and you were somehow taking away their freedom. Question their decision to “demonstrate” outside of the private residence of a government official—a “protest” which included firearms, obscenities, and threats—and you may be accused of threatening their freedom.
In a limited sense, they were right. Any restriction on the limitless list of things people could do is an imposition on freedom. But the best definition of freedom in the political context, especially in America, is deeper, more robust, and more complicated. It does not mean everyone—or anyone—gets to do whatever they want; it has much more to do with the kind of lives people lead.
Freedom has long been a central part of the American identity, and most Americans would agree that freedom has political, social, and economic dimensions. Most agree that in a free society there is a need for order, justice, security, opportunity, and fairness. There is a shared sense that freedom requires the absence of harm and undue interference. Most believe that freedom requires a variety of rights, especially those enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction Amendments.
But while Americans may agree on these things in abstract terms, they are often divided over their precise meanings. What does true opportunity entail? What types of security are needed in order to be free? Which freedoms should the government guarantee and which ones should be left to markets and individuals?
To understand both the current limits of our freedom and potential for its future expansion, we need to understand the complicated ways in which social arrangements and policy decisions constrain our freedom in the long term. In better understanding these constraints, we can better provide the conditions that promote freedom in the long term. The greatest threats to freedom are not the temporary restraints on our range of action now, but the enduring constraints that prevents people from living free lives.
A number of problems facing American society today—including the undermining of truth and expertise, climate change, social inequalities, and the shortcomings of social policies—are issues of freedom, and ought to be thought of as such. While many Americans may agree, far too many fail to make a strong connection between these issues and liberty. To meet these challenges, citizens and political leaders not only on the right, but also in the center and on the left must consider their relationships to freedom.
If we do not address these problems in an effective manner, we ensure less freedom not only for millions of Americans today, but for many more in future generations to come.
Fragmented Reality and Free Government
In his farewell address, George Washington used (thrice) a phrase that has, unfortunately, become somewhat alien to the American ear: “free government.” In this simple phrase is encapsulated the idea that the ultimate goal of freedom is not the atomization of the individual or the disassociation of the people from the government, but, as Daniel Webster put it, “the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” This was the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s pithier version: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
In authoritarian states, politics is closed off to the vast majority of people. Free government means that not only is politics open to popular participation, but that it depends on it. Yet the great metaphysical cleavages that characterize our politics are making productive participation almost impossible.
Americans are losing faith in each other and in important institutions at an alarming pace. Unfortunately, this lack of trust has extended to key actors and institutions responsible for creating and disseminating knowledge, including universitiesand media institutions. Some of this is of course warranted. But one alarming component of this trend is Americans’ loss of faith in notions of truth, facts, and expertise generally.
In the U.S., democratic ideals seem to make us believe that all opinions are valid, regardless of how little a person may know about a given subject. Isaac Asimov observed it. Tom Nichols updated and expanded Asimov in his book, The Death of Expertise: “Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learn anything.”
In recent years, the gatekeepers and guardrails that managed this anti-intellectualism have been breaking down at a remarkable pace. The Trump administration was guilty of an egregious disregard for facts and notions of truth, but it is a problem that is much broader than the former president. A variety of factors—including misguided notions of equality (“all opinions are equal”), innumeracy, scientific illiteracy, civic disengagement and political illiteracy, a decline in trust in people and institutions, a culture of narcissism/individualism, extreme partisanship, ideological silos and echo chambers, the internet, the decline of traditional news, the democratization and commodification of higher education, and social media—have helped to undermine notions of truth, facts, a shared reality, and the value of expertise, sending mass ignorance into hyper-drive.
Free government depends on public debate, the competition of ideas, and the possibility of consensus. It should be no surprise that when the possibility for resolving issues in the public square breaks down, murmurs of secession grow louder.
Social psychologists have uncovered a variety of human tendencies which, in the context of the post-truth age, can have devastating consequences for our society. To identify just a few: When our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are misaligned, we seek a resolution to the psychic discomfort which matches our beliefs to our feelings (instead of the other way around), and preserves our sense of self-value. We are highly motivated not to accept information that questions our personal identity and the identity of the groups to which we belong. When we are surrounded by ideologically similar people, we tend to adjust our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to align with theirs. We all want to seem literate, and therefore pretend we know more than we do. We tend to seek out information which confirms our beliefs, accept facts which bolster our preferred vision of the world, and avoid/reject information that contradicts our beliefs. People often overestimate their abilities, and sometimes our ignorance on a particular matter is so severe that it prohibits us from even identifying our own incompetence. If we hear a claim enough times, we may begin to believe it is true, and forget its original source. And when confronted with evidence that our beliefs are wrong, we often reject the evidence and maintain our incorrect belief—or worse, we double-down.
These are tendencies that humans have always had. But in the current environment, we can resolve cognitive dissonance without having to accept the shared reality of a dominant culture. One can find enough supposedly “legitimate” sources to confirm a variety of what would have previously been considered fringe beliefs, helping to confirm faulty ideas. When millions of other Americans are doing the same, one can socially conform to those within their ideological bubble, rather than a larger shared American experience. While research suggest that when repeatedly presented with corrective empirical evidence, even partisans can begin to change their beliefs over time, in our polarized society where we are increasingly living in ideological silos, and such repetition is becoming increasingly less likely.
Lee McIntyre, author of Post-Truth, explains some of the dangers of our current moment:
There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he is in the room with all of these goblets and chalices and doesn’t know which one is the Holy Grail. That’s where we are right now. We have the truth right in front of us, but we don’t know which one it is. There is a slogan that science deniers use, ‘Do your own research.’ If science is about facts, why can’t I just go out and find my facts? But you need guidance to know what is factual, you need experts.
Careful regulation of social media would help tremendously, but this would face intense political resistance and legal obstacles. There are habits we can adopt as individuals that can help: We can read outside our silos. We can avoid cynicism. We can defer to experts on the matters of their expertise (though not necessarily on other subjects). We can avoid making or accepting sweeping, general statements that we can’t back up empirically. We can keep our own cognitive biases in mind, so when we hear information that makes us feel a certain way, we can remind ourselves to be open but skeptical. And we can be especially vigilant about distinguishing between what might be true, and what we desperately want to be true.
Climate Change and Future Freedoms
There is significant agreement among leading climate scientists that climate change is occurring, the situation is serious, there are thresholds beyond which the damage cannot be reversed for many years, and human activities are a major cause.
Failing to respond appropriately will have severe consequences for the planet, as well as serious social and economic implications for society. Agriculture and fresh water supplies are under threat, animal and plant habitats are being ruined, extreme weather is more frequent, and public health concerns abound. Climate change will likely impact migration patterns, and political instability may result from competition over resources. By failing to address climate change now, we are placing drastic restrictions on the freedom of future generations. The sooner we act, the less damage there will be to our ecosystems and the lower the cost to societies.
It will take nothing short of a coordinated global effort to combat climate change. Unfortunately, the U.S. spent the Trump years undermining this effort, threatening the health of the planet’s ecosystems and societies for future generations. This is particularly unjust considering the disproportionately large impact the U.S. has on climate change.
This is of course very dangerous, and the crisis of truth only compounds the problem. Climate change is happening and will be devastating if not confronted. To decide facts do not matter, be unable to identify credible information and sources, misunderstand the scientific process, search only for facts one likes, assume both sides are equally valid, attack expertise, question the very notions of knowledge/truth/reality, spread falsehoods, and/or weaponize doubt, is to endanger the freedom of the planet’s population when it comes to an issue as important as climate change.
Inequality and Opportunity
Social inequalities clearly restrict the freedom of millions of Americans. These inequalities stunt people’s development and limit their access to crucial resources and opportunities. As a result, their happiness, health and longevity, educational attainment, and economic security are restricted.
The top 10 percent of Americans owns almost 73 percent of all wealth and receives 47 percent of all income. The top one percent of Americans earns 40 percent more in one week than the bottom fifth earns over the entire year. The Gini coefficient, a standard measure of income inequality, puts the U.S. near the very top end among OECD countries, even after accounting for taxes and transfer payments.
Research shows that, compared to countries with low economic inequality, countries with high inequality tend to come out worse on measures of academic performance, child well-being, drug abuse, educational attainment, incarceration, infant mortality, life expectancy, mental health, obesity, social mobility, teen pregnancy, trust, and violence. Or, put another way, high levels of economic inequality correlate with circumstances that reduce people’s freedom. Living in fear of violence, and societies where children face unjust barriers to upward mobility, are restrictions on freedom.
One of the negative consequences of living in a society which allows such high levels of inequality is highly unequal opportunities for children. One way to examine equality of opportunity is by measuring social mobility, which is commonly done by estimating a country’s intergenerational earnings elasticity (IGE). The higher the IGE value, the harder it is for poor children to be upwardly mobile in a country. The IGE in the U.S. is at the top end among OECD countries. In fact, a child’s likelihood of rising from the bottom of the income hierarchy to the top would almost double by simply being born in Canada.
Mobility rates vary not only across countries, but across geographic areas within countries. The table below compares the different mobility rates across U.S. states, measured by the percentage of men who were raised in low-income families in childhood in these states who reached the top 20 percent in total household income in adulthood. The range is extraordinary. In South Carolina, for instance, only around 4 percent of low-income men make this climb, but around a quarter achieve such mobility in North Dakota.
Average County Upward Mobility Rates in Adulthood for Men from Low-Income Backgrounds, All U.S. States
Note: Average for all U.S. counties: 9.92 percent. Authors’ calculations using Opportunity Insights data.
There are a variety of methods that could remove these fetters, including restoring the power of labor unions, building a high-quality vocational-education system, expanding and redesigning the social welfare system, adjusting the tax system in a more progressive direction, creating more democratic workplaces, and reducing the influence of money in politics. Some efforts will require significant international coordination, however, such as combatting off-shore tax havens.
Like economic inequality, racial inequality constrains freedom for millions of Americans. A history of racism in the U.S. means that compared to whites, black Americans, on average, inherit lower social positions, grow up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, attend lower-quality schools, have access to fewer resources and opportunities, and face documented discrimination in a variety of social arenas (such as employment, as Devah Pager and others have documented). This explains why black Americans lag behind whites on indicators such as educational attainment, health, income/wealth, marriage rates, and criminal involvement.
African Americans are confronted with a form of concentrated and multi-generational disadvantage that is not really characteristic of the experience of virtually any other group in the U.S. outside of Native Americans in reservation territories. Black Americans are much more likely to grow up in struggling residentialenvironments, with over three out of four black children growing up in highly-disadvantaged neighborhoods, compared to only about one in twenty white children. Around half of black families live in poor neighborhoods over consecutive generations, compared to only 7 percent of white families. A majority of African American families (67 percent) who start out in poor neighborhoods remain there in the next generation, but only a minority of White families (40 percent) do. Likewise, black families who start out in affluent neighborhoods are less likely to remain there in the next generation (39 percent) compared to whites (63 percent). Even for children in black families with high incomes (in the top three quintiles), around half (49 percent) live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to only 1 percent of White children in similarly high-income families.
In addition to facing more concentrated disadvantage, African Americans also face it for a longer duration of time and are more likely to face it across generations than whites—which studies clearly link to adverse outcomes.
Black Americans are also more likely to face adverse residential conditions compared to whites, including income/wealth and educational attainment of neighbors, degree of segregation and inequality, quality of institutions (such as childcare, churches, health services, parks, police, etc.), stability of neighborhood populations, available peer networks, available adult role models and adult supervision, degree of social cohesion (including trust, collective efficacy, social support, social connectedness, shared norms and expectations, formal and informal social control, etc.), prevalence of violence and gangs, quality of leadership, amount of political power, exposure to environmental burdens, predominant family structures, local marriage and labor markets, characteristics of nearby neighborhoods, foreclosure/vacancy/eviction rates, housing density, and perceptions of order/disorder (including prevalence of garbage, vacant lots, rundown buildings, etc.).
Concentrated disadvantage has a devastating impact on the development, well-being, and life chances of black children, including their cognitive skills, educational attainment, physical and mental health, economic performance, chances of social mobility, and likelihood of criminal involvement/victimization and incarceration. As Robert Putnam explains, researchers have “steadily piled up evidence of how important social context, social institutions, and social networks—in short, our communities—remain for our well-being and our kids’ opportunities.”
In a notable 2014 study, Raj Chetty and his colleagues calculated the variables most strongly associated with low social mobility across American commuting zones, revealing five particularly important factors: widespread single parenthood, high income inequality, segregation (both race and income), poor school quality, and a lack of social capital among neighbors. Black Americans are not only much more likely than whites to live in areas burdened with each of these characteristics, but they are much more likely to live in areas with multiple challenging characteristics.
This concentrated disadvantage makes black Americans much more likely to encounter violence in their communities compared to whites. Low-income Americans are three times more likely to be assaulted each year compared to high-income Americans. Males born into families in the bottom income decile are about 20 times more likely to be in prison in their 30s compared to males born into families in the top decile. A disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans were raised in economically distressed neighborhoods with high child poverty, single parenthood, and unemployment, as well as a disproportionate number of non-white residents (and African American or Native American residents in particular). Incarceration rates of children from single-parent families are about double the rates of children from two-parent families, even when correcting for income. Three years prior to incarceration, only about half (49 percent) of prime-age men are employed, and for those who are employed, their median earnings are $6,250, with only 13 percent earning more than $15,000 (see here for more).
While only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, black Americans are a slight majority of murder victims (52 percent) and a disproportionately-high proportion of perpetrators (39 percent) (see here). This is of course not because African Americans are more prone to violence, but because violence is prone to erupt in areas of intense disadvantage—and a history of systemic racism has geographically segregated black Americans in such areas. As Robert Sampson explains, “race is not a direct cause of violence, but is rather a marker for the cluster of social and material disadvantages that both follow from and constitute racial status in America.”
Our own analyses reveal the clearly visible confluence of racial segregation, concentrated disadvantage, and violence. The figure below comes from an analysis of New York City. This figure demonstrates the extraordinary overlap among clusters of gun homicides and areas of disproportionately high concentrations of black residents, poverty, and single parenthood, and low concentrations of college graduates, high-income earners, and upwardly-mobile residents. Such overlap is present not only in New York City, but is typical in a number of American cities. Not only does violence overlap with all of these measures of disadvantage, but all of these measures of disadvantage overlap with each other. Research suggests that each individual dimension of disadvantage constrains people’s freedom in significant ways independently of other dimensions—so facing multiple dimensions, as these residents do, restricts freedom and opportunity more than facing any one dimension individually. Research suggests that it is areas like these, which are burdened with not just one but several disadvantages, where violence seems to crop up most.
Concentrated Disadvantage and Gun Homicides in New York City
Note: Maps include all gun murders from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019. Map rows 1-4 and 8 are characteristics of tract residents. Map rows 5-7 refer to the adult outcomes of men who were raised in low-income families in these tracts (percentages upwardly mobile, incarcerated, or married in their mid-30s). Authors created maps using NYC government and Opportunity Insights data.
In a country that prides itself on freedom, individual rights, and the American Dream—where conservatives emphasize equality of opportunity—access to resources and opportunities should not be more difficult for some racial groups compared to others. As long as these trends are allowed to continue, we will intentionally be allowing true freedom to elude the grasp of millions of Americans today, and their children and grandchildren in the future.
Freedom and the Welfare State
Properly designed and well-funded government policies and programs expand people’s freedom by enabling them to develop their abilities, acquire resources, and access opportunities. Social Security, which is arguably America’s most effective anti-poverty program, is a clear example of a government program which expands people’s freedom. In a recent analysis, it was estimated that without Social Security, the elderly poverty rate would be close to 40 percent, rather than below 10 percent. It is no wonder the program is so popular. Social Security is not in crisis—or, at least, it doesn’t need to be. As Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains:
[Social Security] can be easily tweaked and fixed, and the fixes are affordable… The most popular tweak is to raise or remove the cap on taxable wages. That would be at the top of my list… People should know that Social Security is working, the structure of it is sound, and it will be there for them.
Americans surely recognize that all people will eventually age, and that aging constrains people’s freedom through no fault of their own. Yet two areas where the U.S. is failing to expand freedom for the most number of people possible are healthcare and parental leave.
Other countries have found a way to deliver healthcare quality on par with the U.S., yet do so while covering all of their citizens and at a fraction of the cost. In the U.K., for instance, per-capita costs are about half of those in the U.S. What is perhaps most shocking about this policy failure is that well-designed healthcare reform would expand freedom while saving Americans money.
The U.S. spends more than any other country in the world on healthcare, despite other countries delivering equal quality. On a variety of measures, for instance, healthcare quality in the U.K. is comparable to or better than the U.S. The U.K. has a reputation for long wait times, but the problem is more specifically driven by specialist care. A recent survey found that 57 percent of adults were able to get a same- or next-day appointment when needed in the U.K., compared to 51 percent in the U.S.
Some health economists observe that one reason American healthcare costs are so high is that Americans effectively subsidize foreign healthcare systems by paying for a disproportionate share of the research and development in the industry. While this may be true to some extent, a large part of the answer lies in the prices of health services. The higher spending on inpatient and outpatient care provided by doctors and hospitals in the U.S. drives the vast majority of the disparity in health spending between the U.S. and similarly-large countries. For example, the average price of a bypass surgery for a privately insured patient in the U.S. tops $78,000, compared to just over $24,000 for the same surgery funded by the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).
The lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. is also far out of line with the rest of the wealthy world, and contributes to a number of social ills, including the gender pay gap. Most wealthy countries offer some form of guaranteed parental leave that replaces a substantial portion of workers’ wages. The U.S. offers no federally-guaranteed paid parental leave. This restricts the freedom of millions of American families. The burden falls disproportionately on women, and negatively impacts their careers as they are forced to “take their foot off the career pedal” somewhat to better balance work and family.
Some women choose, if they are able, to step back from work to focus on raising children. This is their choice, and it should be no less commendable than choosing to keep working. The aim of an expanded parental leave system would not be to change people’s choices, but to give more parents, especially more mothers, the choice in the first place. For too many mothers, especially single mothers, there is no freedom to prioritize the family.
Speaking the Same Language
We should be able to come to some general agreement about the manner in which these challenges constrain the freedom of millions of Americans. What to do about them is of course debatable, subject to preferences, trade-offs, judgement, and politics. The answer is not always major government interventions or significant increases in public spending. But we should not stand for them to be left unaddressed. Tribalism and extreme partisanship distort our perceptions of why these problems exist and distract us from the way that we all lose when these problems are allowed to persist.
Our elected officials should always be in pursuit of solutions to our most pressing social problems. They should always be committed to the long-term American project of securing the highest degree of freedom for the most people. They should always design social policies from behind a veil of ignorance so that people’s life chances are determined as little as possible by forces outside of their personal control.
Among the obstacles to addressing these issues is that we tend to deal with them as discrete, unrelated policy challenges; or, if we do associate them, we tend too often to lean on opaque jargon like “climate justice” that communicate only contempt for the out-group rather than any productive political idea. By thinking about and talking about these and other questions of social and public policy as issues of freedom, we can not only group them together more effectively, but we may be able to bridge ideological divides and build coalitions more easily.
We can also begin to refine and elevate our concept of freedom, reclaiming it from those who see it merely as a shield against wearing a mask, and recasting it as a duty and a calling for responsible citizens. Americans’ belief in the importance of the U.S. remaining democratic has been weakening, their openness to nondemocratic forms of government has been growing, and their support for anti-system parties and movements has been increasing. Our democratic institutions and norms can be saved, but we need to act now, as the “warning signs are flashing red.”
America was founded on lofty ideals centered around freedom. These were clearly aspirational, as they were not realized at the founding, but our history has been one of gradual (although uneven) progress toward a free society. Our elected leaders will be obligated to continue this pursuit only if they are held accountable for their failures. We should all therefore examine the constraints on freedom in America, and reward politicians truly dedicated to unlocking freedom for all Americans.