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What is freedom, really?

By Scott Tibbs, October 31, 2014

A letter to the editor last week took issue with a "For Freedom! Vote Republican" yard sign, similar to the "Had Enough?" yard signs and billboards from two years ago. The author raised the following complaints:

  • Freedom to live in poverty is what they advocate by voting repeatedly to block raising the minimum wage,
  • Republicans are for the freedom to be hungry by cutting food stamps (SNAP)
  • Republicans are for the freedom to be denied health care by trying to repeal the ACA and cut Medicaid.

Before I go further, let me be clear: I not am saying there should be no taxation or that all taxation is theft. I am not saying that and I have never said that. I am a (small L) libertarian, not an anarchist.

With that established, what we have here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what freedom is. Freedom does not mean forcibly confiscating the property of another in order to give to someone else. Whatever one might say about the public policy benefits of government welfare programs, it is not a policy that advances "freedom," because it uses force on some citizens to provide benefits to others. If you refuse to pay taxes, you go to prison.

Freedom is the ability to live your life without government interference. (Obviously, freedom is limited - you cannot do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. You may not drive 80 mph on a street with a 30mph speed limit, for example.) Freedom is not access to services or material goods provided by someone else, or provided by government with money confiscated by force from someone else.

But in our entitlement society, many people confuse "freedom" with "I want this." In order to have the "freedom" to avoid pregnancy, an employer must provide and pay for birth control. In order to have the "freedom" to earn a "living wage," an employer must be forced to pay an above-market hourly rate for your labor. In order to have the "freedom" to eat, government must confiscate someone else's property to give you food stamps. And so it goes. But using government to force someone else to do something takes away freedom from that other person.

Now, we could literally spend decades arguing about other programs, in addition to employer mandates, the minimum wage and government wealth transfer programs. We could do that because we have done that. Whether it be military spending, roads and highways, jails and prisons, grants to research universities, the government school system, the War on Drugs, the post 9/11 security apparatus or a whole host of other things, we could debate whether people should be forced to fund this program or that through taxation.

But all of those other matters are far too complicated to address in detail in a post like this one, and would need (and have gotten, here and elsewhere) much more detailed treatment in a more specific way. Addressing all of those things is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to clarify the meaning of "freedom" for those who are confused.