Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties
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Freedom Often Requires a Collective Use of Power
The larger point here is that when it comes to freedom, anti-government conservatives are wrong about how they portray both government and the private sector. Government is not nearly the threat they make it out to be and it is actually the mechanism that allows us to best protect and expand our freedoms. Moreover, the private sector is not the realm of natural freedom that conservatives depict it to be. Minimal-government advocates want us to believe that government is the only source of oppressive power in society, and that if we prevent it from exercising that power over us in our private lives, we are then free. But this ignores the large concentrations of power in the private sphere that can still coerce us – that can still greatly limit our freedom. The fact is that during those periods of our history when the government kept largely out of the private sector, this approach allowed such private abuses of power as slavery, corporate monopolies, child labor, deadly workplaces, and racial segregation. Democratic government is really the only source of countervailing power that is strong enough to rein in the abuses that can result from the concentration of power in the private sector. As Benjamin Barber has explained it: “Big government – or let's call it strong democracy – is for the little guy; it’s how he and his neighbors can take on the big bullies in the private sector. Naturally the bullies resent competition and make war on ‘big government,’ ostensibly on behalf of the little guy.”9
In his book, The Freedom Revolution, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey defines freedom as “the ability and responsibility to control one’s own destiny.”10 There is much truth to this, but he is mistaken when he also maintains that we can best assert that control when government leaves us alone and stays out of the private sector. He forgets that even when the government leaves us alone, there are still many forces in the private sphere that make it difficult for us to control our own destiny. Powerful institutions and individuals, along with large economic and social forces, make it hard for most people to “do what they want.” As noted earlier, most of us work in strictly hierarchical institutions ruled by powerful superiors, and so we often have little control over our work life. More importantly, as private citizens, we are at the mercy of large, systemic economic realities: the ups and downs of the economy, the domestic impacts of globalization, the stagnation of wages, increasing income inequality, outsourcing of jobs, rising and falling stock markets, skyrocketing health costs, and so on. As Americans we no longer live in log cabins on the frontier, where it could be argued that our fate is in our own hands. We live in enormously large and complex economic and social systems – systems over which we can exert little control as individuals. In this context, the promise of Republicans to have government leave us alone sounds more like a threat – it amounts to abandoning us to larger societal forces over which we can have little influence. It’s like someone dumping you in the middle of the ocean in a row boat and telling you that you are free to go wherever you want. You may be the “captain” of your boat, but in all likelihood if the storms and the sharks don’t get you, the sunstroke and dehydration will.
In our world, being free to control our lives requires a great deal of power. If you happen to be rich, then you may have the economic resources to control your life as an individual. You have the luxury of choosing where you live, what job you have, whether you work at all, and what you do every day. But the rest of us do not have that kind of individual power. So we must rely on collective power – one major form of which is democratic government. If freedom really does mean exerting control over one’s life, then it is government and the public sector that are the instruments of freedom for many people. In fact government has grown in the United States precisely because the American people have realized again and again that they must band together politically to gain some control over these forces buffeting their lives. They have sought out government power to neutralize the private powers and social and economic forces that are creating oppressive and harmful social conditions for them. Only the government is in the position to try to control the economy and prevent prolonged recessions and depressions. Only the government has the power to ensure that workplaces don’t make people sick, or that you are not fired because of your race or religion. Only the government can provide a safety net that catches you after you have been laid off, allowing you to pay your mortgage until you get another job. Thus, to the extent that freedom has to do with controlling one’s own life, people working through a democratic and representative government is in fact one of the best ways to realize that freedom. In other words, we can often be freer acting collectively than we can be acting alone – exactly the opposite of what anti-government zealots are preaching.