Krugman on Freedom

Paul Krugman, writing at the New York Times:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

Thus goes, tacitly, one side of the debate over the meaning of freedom. It’s more slippery of a word than we might think, simply because first of all, it doesn’t actually exist materially in the world. The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind explores in its early chapters the idea that language is the main thing that separates human beings from other animals, because it allows us to work in very large and disparate groups. Key to our language its ability to describe ideas that do not physically exist, like freedom or human rights. We use these ideas as motivators toward group action, but defining them is harder than, say, defining a banana or a lion or fire. The truths of the Declaration of Independence are not actually self-evident, but we talk about them as though they are so that we can motivate each other to different actions.

To some, freedom means freedom from coercion. That is, freedom from someone telling you what to do. No one should be able to tell you that you must pay this tax, buy this product, etc. To others, freedom means freedom to live up to one’s potential, or the ability to act on one’s wishes. You should have all you need to start your business, to receive medical care, etc.

The competing echo chambers of our country are trapped in many cases, unable to think about or give credence to another conception of freedom. There is room for both, even in the same person, across different issues. Hypocrisy and cynicism well up when the balance is off.

The balance is definitely off when politicians are saying that what matters is access to purchase health care, rather than ability to afford healthcare.

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