Monday, January 19, 2009

Philosophy: Money as Freedom

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On this day on which the United States celebrates civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, many people spend a lot of time contemplating whether or not they are truly "free at last" regardless of their race. Unfortunately, I have the distinct impression that freedom in the United States is viewed differently than how I learned it, and now means freedom with respect to money, not personal freedom.

The definition of freedom that one finds in the dictionary--which I think is the same "freedom" fought for in the US Revolutionary War as well as part of the fight for "equality" during the civil rights movement--is usually something to the effect of "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." Indeed, on paper this would seem to be the emphasis of the Bill of Rights, the first set of amendments to the US Constitution.

Yet, there doesn't seem to be much resistance when the right to act or speak is infringed in the US (to my knowledge, freedom of thought is still pretty secure). The most extreme examples may have occurred since the attacks of 11-September-2001, but the groundwork for tolerance of such measures was already there, ready to be exploited. Want to take a picture of transportation infrastructure? "You can't do that; it might get into the hands of terrorists" is the new line, but I was first detained for photography in 1993, way before anyone thought domestic terrorism was a real threat. Want to take a soda on an airplane or to a public concert? "It might be a bomb." I first remember having a beverage taken from me in 1997--and that was clearly for commercial reasons as the same product was for sale beyond the entrance of the park, but even then it was for "security." Want to criticize the government's war effort? "You must hate freedom." Does that explain why even in 1994 a fake news report that I did for a relatively small audience came close to getting me kicked out of a university?

I would bet that had I actually been arrested instead of just detained for taking pictures of a railroad junction in 1993, kicked out of a university for an April Fool's report that President Clinton had been assassinated in 1994 (which was considered a "fundamental standard" violation) instead of ultimately just being ostracized by many peers, or arrested for trying to bring in orange juice to a public concert instead of just having it confiscated, that almost no Americans would care except for the the American Civil Liberties Union--and the ACLU has such a negative image with the public at large that it actually contributed to the defeat of "card-carrying member" Michael Dukakis in his presidential bid in 1988. If one's behavior is the least bit out of the mainstream, Americans usually don't rise to its defense.

So if matters of personal freedom don't excite Americans, what does? Threats to their ability to use money, better known as taxes. Nothing gets Americans more upset than a proposal to raise an existing tax, or impose a new tax. They cry "socialism" and "you're impinging on my freedoms" and claim that the government is trying to control them and keep them from doing what they want. They look at places with higher taxes and declare that citizens of countries like Germany and Canada are just a bunch of controlled beings doing the will of their governments, not really free.

The concept of money as freedom has been taken to extremes at times. The Supreme Court of the United States in Buckely vs. Valeo actually equated money with speech in political campaigns. I decided things had gotten out of control when people in Washington state started asking their representatives to stop the anti-trust investigations of Microsoft, citing the impact of the reduced stock price on their personal finances and ability to retire.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the whole point of money was to ration freedom. Because not everyone could have every object or service, a way had to be devised to manage their distribution. The system of trading one good or service for another that eventually developed into modern money was the answer to this need. Unless one views that whole system--which includes government and taxes--as illegitimate, then it should be pretty hard to argue with a straight face that it's a terrible thing that everyone has to pay taxes.

So, those making the argument are correct--taxes do inhibit their freedom. Of course they do; that's how the capitalist republican system of civilization works. So, rather than get all worked up about taxes, how about paying attention to freedoms that don't generally collide with capitalism--personal freedoms. It's not a coincidence that I feel more "free" to do what I feel like doing on the streets of Zurich, Paris, or Toronto and find more free entertainment in those places than I do on the streets of Chicago or New York--there's more emphasis on personal freedom in places with less financial freedom.

The amazing thing to me is that the two are not mutually exclusive--bigger government and higher taxes are not necessary for personal freedom to exist. A Libertarian would argue that smaller government is actually better for personal freedom. The United States could have the best of both worlds, but it puts so much energy into maintaining individual financial freedom that other freedoms tend to be lost in the shuffle. Maybe in this current financial crisis, that will start to change.

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