On Freedom

We can talk all we want about freedom and opportunity, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but what does all that mean to a mother or father who can’t take a sick child to the doctor?

That, my fellow Democrats, is our frontrunner for our party’s nomination for President of the United States, Sen. Hillary Clinton.  Sen. Clinton made that statement in presenting her plan for health care reform which, like that of former Sen. John Edwards, would compel all Americans to enroll in a health insurance program.  Citizens would have an option of many private insurance options, or a public option similar to Medicare.  Tax credits would ensure that no American is forced to pay more than a certain percentage of their income on health insurance.

I have little desire to speak out against health care reform, or against plans that would make affordable health care available to all Americans.  It is, for certain, a very noble pursuit.  What I’d like to talk about is the deeply disturbing cavalier attitude towards freedom as expressed by Sen. Clinton in that quote, which is endemic among elected officials of both political parties.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

The above quotation is from Thomas Paine, in December of 1776.  John Adams once said of Paine that if it had not been for his writings, the “sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”  These are the ideas without which America could never have come to be.  But what is freedom, anyways?

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

The above quotation would never be uttered by Sen. Clinton, or likely by any elected official in America today.  It was written by John Stuart Mill, in the famed treatise On Liberty, who is perhaps the greatest philosopher on the subject of freedom in human history. 

Men such as Paine and Mill were essential to spreading the idea of freedom to political thinkers world wide.  But we all know that the desire to be free is a universal human truth.  We have all seen the often bloody struggle of people to be free played out on the global stage, from the success of the Solidarity movement in Poland in ending the communism of the Soviet Union, to the worldwide campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

Yet freedom today is often little more than a slogan.  President Bush speaks of bringing freedom to Iraq as his State Department covers up the use of slave labor in the construction of the US Embassy there.  Sen. Clinton speaks of freedom as an irrelevancy if one cannot have health insurance.  Forty-two Republican Senators and Joe Lieberman blocked a bill to restore the right of habeas corpus just yesterday.  More than half of all Americans believe that the Constitution establishes the US as a Christian nation and a quarter of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in the freedoms it grants Americans.

It ought to go without saying that if we do not hold freedom as our highest of values, that our representatives will not.  And if those of us who do value freedom do not speak of its virtue, those Americans who do not believe in or appreciate it will rule our nation.

Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err. It passes my comprehension how human beings, be they ever so experienced and able, can delight in depriving other human beings of that precious right.

– Mahatma Ghandi

Few people, no matter how callous, would wish any Americans to be deprived of access to health care.  I salute the desire to help Americans which is implicit in Sen. Clinton’s health care plan.  But as much as I like its intent, I cannot abide the decision to take away from Americans the freedom to make the wrong choice.  What does my freedom mean if I cannot go to a doctor when I am sick, Sen. Clinton?  It means that my life is my own, free to do with what I wish, even if those choices do me great and irreparable harm.  Compelled virtue is no virtue at all.

It is not your health plan which scares me, Sen. Clinton, and which makes me inclined to support other candidates in the primaries.  It is your failure to understand and respect the value of freedom.  And since I cannot possibly express it any more eloquently, I turn once again to the words of Mr. Mill.

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

(Cross-posted from Daily Kos)


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    • Jay Elias on September 20, 2007 at 15:33

    …hope it doesn’t piss anyone off too much.

  1. is not the same as being compelled to go to a doctor.

    while i believe that the option of not having health insurance should be yours to choose, having it doesnt necessarily have to change the choices you make.  people with health insurance choose not to see the doctor all the time…

  2. any more than people have to “enroll” to drive on a public road. It’s infrastructure. All citizens should be eligible for care, and the only requirement should be to get an ID card to verify eligibility.  Funding for this should be provided the same way it is with roads, via a progressive income tax system that backs the various nonprofit and Medicare insurers.  Hillary’s plan, in my view, is a necessary first step to get us to the eventual modifed single payer system that we will have to have to survive.

    I would also submit that most of the people who would “choose” not to enroll would not be acting out of a real choice. They would be acting out of poverty. economic coercion is not a statement of freedom.  In a plan like this there would likely be exceptions for Christian Scientists and others with ideological objections. But they should be required to opt out. 

    And when the libertarian who opted out gets into a car accident, he’ll happily pay the 100k for his surgery and feel he’s stood up for freedom…

  3. On the one hand, I agree with pico above that we have certain obligations to our community that do and should “infringe” on our freedom.

    On the other hand, I see some really dangerous tendencies right now that do scare me. For one, the whole thing about second hand smoke has, in my opinion, gotten out of control. There are now places that actually ban smoking in pubic places outdoors!!!

    But perhaps more seriously, I have had very personal experience with the lies being told these days about weight and dieting. I really fear the day we start being told what we can and cannot eat because some lawmakers have decided “what’s good for us.” And it will all get justified by our “shared” health care costs.

  4. You’re forced to pay taxes.  That is an impingement on your freedom.  But I assume you don’t complain about it, because you understand that your taxes go to provide vital infrastructure that protects and serves not just you but your whole community.

    “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

    – right, like preventing them from finding themselves in a situation where they can’t afford the treatment they need.

    The flip-side of Freedom that everyone conveniently forgets is Responsibility.  We have a collective responsibility to look out for each other.

  5. and the writings and biographies of the founders.  I thought I had an average grip on US history and the way the Constitution works.  However, I didn’t, and I still don’t.

    I started dabbling in history – read some of Thomas Paine’s works.  Saw John Adams’ personal library – did you know he was fluent in seven languages, and that he routinely wrote letters to Abigail so that they could use each other as debate opponents and strengthen their respective arguments?

    Then I started in on Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, the wily, crafty brilliant diplomat.

    I have such a long way to go to be even just barely competent in my understanding.

    We have lost the common language of the founders.  And with that loss, we have lost the art of civil discourse (I know – but I’m using it in the academic sense).

    We are so far away from the original debates and calls for a form of equitable representation that I weep for the fiddling we do while Rome burns.(apropos of the film set that I’m working around today – the Pope’s bedroom – Ha!)

    That’s why I am so desire a group blog which focuses on developing a second blogging generation of meaty issues.  How about a series on the relative merits of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense?  What about a Jeffersonian model critique?

    My fellow Americans (how long has it been since we’ve heard THAT phrase), we have to clean up our own house before we go out into the world.

    • tjb22 on September 20, 2007 at 17:08

    Clinton’s health care plan.  That said, I’m all for a universal system which we all pay into.  We live in a day and age in which we are not going to leave sick or injured members of our society to die for lack of care.  If you got hit by a car, you’d be taken to a hospital regardless of your ability to pay.  Since we won’t leave people to die on the streets, we must have a system in which we all share the burden.  Otherwise, those of us willing to take on the burden will forever be paying for those who don’t.  And frankly, I don’t like my freedom being abused in that way.

  6. That sounds ominous.

    I don’t have a problem with using taxes to pay for healthcare or roads or libraries or research or schools or the armed forces, etc. I believe that people living in a particular country (and thus benefiting from the infrastructure of that country) have a responsibility to pay taxes. 

    I realize that’s not quite what she said, however. I would have phrased it differently.

  7. John Gray on John Stuart Mill (http://oll.libertyfu…)

    In the Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill distinguished between ‘necessary’ and ‘optional’ state functions, and divides ‘optional’ into two types: ‘authoritative’ and ‘nonauthoritative’…

    [Mill] concluded pragmatically that the range of necessary government functions … could not be identified by any universal rule, save the simple and vague one: that we should permit governmental intervention only when the case of expediency is strong.

    Even if you believe that universal healthcare is optional rather than necessary, the only debate for Mill then would be whether it is ‘authoritative’ or ‘nonauthoritative’:

    [Nonauthoritative interference] avoids all coercion beyond that involved in the exercise of the state’s taxing power, authoritative interference involves the state as order-giver and tends to stultify the spirit of independence.

    So on these grounds I guess Mill agrees with you – if you order people to buy insurance you are being authoritative and restricting their freedom.  If on the other hand you levy taxes and pay for it that way, you’re OK.  Personally I don’t see a whole lot of difference except that taxation is more efficient.

    One more interesting quote on public services:

    Mill believed that the larger utilitarian considerations on the one hand supported noninterference, but on the other hand allowed the state a wide range of functions, when it is clear that private institutions cannot adequately supply certain desirable things (public goods, as we should call them today). In this way, the state might properly assume a share of responsibility for such items as poor relief, colonization, scientific research, and the financing of education.

    PS sorry for spamming your diary with comments, I take the scattergun approach.  😉

    • plf515 on September 20, 2007 at 18:51

    A long time ago, my rabbi told this story (not original with him).

    A man immigrates to the USA.  He is so happy to be here, he walks down the street, swinging his arms.  He hits someone in the nose

    “Watch what you’re doing!  You can’t swing your arms like that!”

    “It’s a free country, I can swing my arms if I want to”

    “Yes, but your freedom stops, where my nose begins”


    How long is your nose?

    As a libertarian, you are saying that you have a long nose, indeed.  You are asserting your own rights to as you wish, over the rights of others to not have you do that unto them. 

    But whose freedom ends where?

    And who protects whose nose?

  8. …my visceral take on Clinton is that she has no real clue about human freedom.  That said, almost any issue she takes on is going to seem a bit smarmed on to me, this one included, to the extent she’s advocating it.  My own libertarian streak trusts her as far as she can be thrown by rabbits.

    But even if I take Mr. Mill prima facie:

    That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

    I am still left wondering exactly what harm comprises in a civilized community.  To be sitting next to a machine that can save your life, and laugh at you when you need it, because my concept of civilized requires that you have an immediate source of exchange, earned in a way I approve of, is — to me — harm to the civilized community.  A profound one.  So, of course, is pointing a gun to my head and requiring the use of my machine.  Ideally — since the machine is expensive — people agree on some fair way, as that civilized community — to apportion out its use, so that people who need it (and can pay for it) do so, and those who need it (but cannot pay for it) do so as well.  In the end though, I think what’s at stake is not our liberty, or even our healthcare, but our ability to define fair, inclusive action.  If we can’t do that, somehow — we’ve lost far more than health.

  9. Common good comes to mind. But who decides what’s good is troubling. I see our freedoms.s and liberties being taken away at an alarming rate. Using fear as the stick and security as the reward. I don’t mind paying taxes for services that we have as a society deemed essential and basic to say the four freedom’s FDR named:

      The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

      The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, everywhere in the world.

      The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

      The fourth freedom is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.

    I want my taxes to pay for what we deem the common good, including these freedoms. I do resent the role that corporations play in all these essential freedoms and that they have power over my ability to choose and decide what I can or cannot purchase for my health, my food, my information, this is not freedom but extortion. The function of government should be regulatory not pimping for corporations.  Hilary’s plan makes me give money to an industry that I consider useless and immoral, and  stands in the way of my right to health, by exacting money for what? Profit and sadly not health at all. 

  10. I own all of Thomas Paine Work, I even have one of the original booklets of his trial…

    You wrote December of 1976- it should be 1776… sorry I know I have no room to talk, I just thought you might want to fix it?

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