Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties
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Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying that those who support government programs and oppose tax cuts do so “because tax cuts give people more power and take away from the role of government.”11 But what he and other anti-government pundits cannot see is that taxes and government can in fact be a way to empower people. They view government power as power over us – rather than as our power. Democratic government, when it is working correctly, gives us the power to have much more control over our lives. And as our democratic government has become more powerful, we ourselves have become more powerful and often more liberated as well.
When we see all the various ways that government actions can actually enhance our freedom, it also helps us to see how narrow and stunted the anti-government vision of freedom really is. They refuse to acknowledge that government power can enhance our freedoms. Also, they see freedom as merely being protected from the detrimental effects of government power, not from the equally detrimental effects of private power. And finally, while minimal-government advocates like to portray themselves as the champions of the general principle of freedom, the freedoms they are actually most concerned about are often very particular and only benefit certain limited groups in society, such as people who want the right to own assault rifles, or companies that want the freedom to pollute. They conveniently ignore broader freedoms and rights that would benefit many more Americans, such as the freedom to attend college or the right to adequate health care. Indeed they actively campaign against these kinds of rights and freedoms. Conservatives oppose them because they are only made possible by active government programs that require taxing and spending. In reality, then, while these conservative claim to be on the side of individual rights and liberties, they only truly support those that fit into their anti-government ideology.
Seizing Back the Idea of Freedom from Conservatives
Abraham Lincoln once said that freedom is our “political religion.” Unfortunately, however, anti-government activists have been able to establish themselves as the high priests of this religion; and they have been spreading their simplistic and distorted dogma about how increased government activity will only reduce our freedom. We need to liberate this crucial political concept from the grip of these arch-conservative ideologues. The American people need to be reminded of how much government programs actually protect and enhance their essential rights and freedoms. Defenders of government need to seize back this basic American value and demonstrate how the programs and policies of the modern democratic state have on balance worked to promote freedom, not diminish it. We need to talk about how specific social programs and regulatory rules enacted by government have had a liberating effect on all of our lives.
Consider, for example, the issue of universal health care. Conservatives were able to block this policy for decades in part by convincing many Americans that it would bring a loss of freedom – that we wouldn’t be able to choose our medical treatments or drugs, and that government bureaucrats would be telling us what to do. Of course they ignored the fact that private sector health insurance bureaucrats already restrict our freedom to choose various treatments and drugs. More importantly, the passage of the universal health care bill will have an enormously liberating effect on the 45 million Americans who until recently had no health insurance. It will free them to choose to go to the doctor when they need to, and it will free them from the risk of a serious illness bringing on financial ruin.
Freedom is a public value – along with others like justice, fairness, and equality – that can be enhanced through modern democratic government. So if we cherish freedom, then we must also value the institutions and policies of democratic government that create, protect, and expand our freedoms. We Americans enjoy an unprecedented bounty of rights and freedoms in our lives, not in spite of government but in large part because of government. Democratic government is the main instrument through which we preserve and enlarge our freedoms. That is the real story about freedom and government that Americans should be hearing.
For more on the issue of freedom and government, see “More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom,"
1. Benjamin Barber, “A Civics Lesson,” The Nation, Nov. 4, 1996, p. 21.
3. Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein, The Costs of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
4. Ibid. p. 44.
5. Ibid. pp. 47, 58.
6. “College Track,” WGBY, September 19, 2004.
7. American Civil Liberties Union, “Workplace Rights,” http://archive.aclu.org/issues/worker/iswr.html.
9. Barber, p. 21.
10. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution, p.11.
11. The Rush Limbaugh statement can be found at “Quotes from Famous People.” http://home.att.net/~quotations/rush.html