Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties

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Government as the Way We Expand our Rights and Freedoms

Government not only protects our long-established constitutional rights and liberties, it has also enabled us to expand our freedoms significantly, especially during the last 75 years. As the power of government has grown, it has not resulted in significant losses in freedom for the average American – it has produced significant gains. In fact, government power has often grown precisely because citizens have demanded more rights and freedoms. Faced with harmful and debilitating social conditions, the American people have turned to government again and again to free themselves from these oppressive situations. And the government has come through and repeatedly expanded the rights and freedoms available to the average person. Social Security has liberated millions of citizens from destitution in their old age. Thanks to federal legislation, all Americans now have the right to vote. Our state and federal governments’ public health efforts have freed millions of Americans from devastating and deadly diseases like polio and smallpox. Because of laws banning housing discrimination, all families are now free to live in any neighborhood they want. Millions of elderly Americans are freed from agonizing and worrying about how they will get medical care – thanks to federal programs like Medicare. Government-sponsored right-to-strike laws and workplace safety rules have freed countless American workers from oppressive and dangerous working conditions. Millions of minorities and women are now free to get jobs and receive equal pay, as a result of government anti-discrimination laws. Millions of handicapped citizens are now literally freer to move around their world due to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And we all now have the right not to be fired simply because we are getting old.

All of these are examples of how the programs and actions of the modern democratic state have made most Americans more free, not less free – how government programs have more often worked to increase our opportunities and rights, not restricted them. So the reality has often been exactly the reverse of the contention of anti-government activists: more government has actually produced more freedom. Consider one final example of this: Indiana now has a policy of guaranteeing a college education for every low and moderate income child in the state. One mother of three, who never went to college and who couldn’t afford to send her kids there, remarked about how this program was expanding the freedom and the career horizons for her children. “Now they can choose what they want to do,” she said.6 At last count, seventeen thousand Indiana teenagers have taken advantage of this newfound freedom.

The Real Threat to Rights and Freedom

Imagine for a moment a dictatorship where your rights and liberties are being constantly violated. There is no free speech and you can be punished for espousing your political views. Associating with groups that oppose official policy can invite reprisals. If you complain about the behavior of officials or blow the whistle on their illegal activities, you will be punished harshly. Privacy is non-existent. The authorities constantly spy on you. They tap your phone and use hidden cameras to monitor and record your daily activities. They know what you do on your computer and where you go on the internet. They open and read your mail; they routinely test you for illegal substances. Officials know virtually everything about you – your employment history, your financial situation, your medical problems, and even your genetic information – and will not hesitate to use this information to their advantage when necessary.

This would be a totalitarian nightmare. It is just this kind of situation that many anti-government ideologues fear, and it is exactly why they so desperately want to limit the power of the state. But they are too late – we already have this situation in the United States. It’s called a corporation. Today, many of the main threats to our rights and freedoms do not come from the government – but come from the businesses we work for. The American Civil Liberties Union has noted this trend with some alarm.

The Constitution does not apply to the workplace. In the 18th century, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, only the government was seen as a major threat to individual rights. Today, many if not most Americans are more vulnerable to violations of their rights by employers than early Americans were by the government. Private sector employees that are not unionized can be fired for any reason, without due process. They can be compelled to submit to urine drug tests on pain of losing their jobs. They can be punished for their political views. They can be subjected to secret computer, video and telephone monitoring.7

 

Believe it or not, your employer can fire you for expressing your views about a candidate, political party or a particular political issue. So much for free speech. And you can also get sacked for keeping company with people whom your management dislikes – like union organizers. So much for freedom of association. And some companies have even installed cameras in their bathrooms. So much for your right to privacy. In a very real way, when you go to work, you lose the protections of the Constitution. As one worker explained: “Every time I passed through those plant gates to go to work, I left America, and my rights as a free man. I spent nine hours in there, in prison, and then came out into my country again.”8

“Prison” is probably not the most accurate analogy – most workplaces are not that punishing. But “dictatorship” would be an apt description. Workplaces are not democracies with civil liberties or the ability of people to affect their working conditions through elected representatives. They are virtual dictatorships: strictly hierarchical organizations where rules come from the top down, and where workers have few real rights and no say over who is running the show. This may sound too harsh, but it is a description to which any candid business owner would readily admit. And when employees complain about management practices, a typical response is often “This is not a democracy.” Ironically, then, even though we live in a “free and democratic society,” we in fact spend most of our waking lives working in quasi-totalitarian private institutions that are largely devoid of traditional democratic rights and freedoms. And the kinds of problems just described are just the legal actions that business can take to deprive people of their rights in the workplace. They don’t include the illegal practices that some companies use to frustrate workers’ rights to unionize, to violate child-labor laws, to ignore worker compensation rules, or to discriminate against women and minorities.

But anti-government conservatives seem largely blind to these routine violations of our rights and liberties. Their ideology assumes that the private sector is the realm of freedom and the public sector the realm of oppression. So they continue to point at the public sector as the source of threats to our rights, while in many ways, the main threats exist in the private sector. The average citizen is much more likely to have their rights violated in the workplace with phone taps, video surveillance, or drug tests, than they are to be beaten by the police or to have their house illegally searched by federal agents.

 

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