The Moment of Truth — March 20, 2010

The False Choice, Freedom or Justice

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Here’s a phrase that came out of a discussion on my facebook page the other day: “It depends how much personal freedom you’re willing to exchange for government enforced social justice.” Needless to say, I’m not the person who wrote that. It’s no one you know, I’m sure. I’m not sure I even know the person.

But it doesn’t matter who said it, it’s a formulaic sentiment that has lodged in the windpipe of our social conversation. One must give up freedom to have social justice. It’s a formula that says a society can either be free or just, but not both.

I could see where the idea would make sense under a totalitarian government. Then government enforced social justice would be “social justice.” Like military enforced “peace.” But we don’t live in a totalitarian state.

When the right wing in this country suggests we do, it is usually invoking an antagonism toward the totalitarian regimes of the former Communist Bloc. Apparently, being totalitarian wasn’t what the Commies did wrong. It was being governments.

While our government might resemble those defunct governments in certain respects, as in the convolutions of their labyrinthine bureaucracies, our government is actually under constant public pressure, to which it often responds, sometimes the way a circus animal will respond to its trainer. Sometimes the way a cornered animal responds to its pursuer. And sometimes by playing dead. Any flipping of news channels or skimming of front pages reveals a species of conniving, chaos and pandering among public servants only possible or indeed necessary in a democracy.

There are institutions which resemble totalitarian governments, though, right in our midst. They are capitalist corporations. Most of them are run by politburos very much like those of the soviet model, where what is going to be produced, and how, and how much, is decided by an elite group of arrogant know-it-alls. Our government is supposed to make sure that these corporations don’t turn into actual politburos. They’re supposed to do this by keeping their power decentralized. The government is failing at this, mainly thanks to the policy of dismantling the consumer protections enacted in the 1930s and 40s, protections meant to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression. They are nearly all gone.

Which means we are under threat from monopolies, de facto monopolies, and near-monopolies. The closer an industry is to being dominated by a monopoly, the more like a politburo system and the less like a competitive marketplace that industry becomes. Thus the more likely it is to make huge arrogant mistakes and collapse. This is what caused the Great Depression and it is what caused the current collapse of the financial industry, except this time no one’s fixing it.

The only entities who stand to gain from pitting freedom and justice against each other are those who want to break the law with impunity. Imagine a rapist who argued, “I was just exercising my god-given freedom. Your government-enforced social justice is taking away my personal freedom.”

The idea that it’s a zero-sum trade-off between personal liberty and “government-enforced social justice” has been the key erroneous point in all the right wing’s rhetoric since I’ve old enough to vote.

In actual fact, social justice and personal freedom are all but synonymous. How do you have freedom without justice? Is it not just to have freedom? Is it not an injustice if one is not free? Of course it depends on your definitions of freedom and justice—what kind of freedom you want and how fair your justice is.

“Government-enforced” as a pejorative is part of a double-standard in rightwing-speak. We have government enforced property rights—if you don’t think so, go over to a neighbor’s house and snoop around, peep in their windows, throw rocks at it, burn a cross in front of it, see if the government sits idly by. Isn’t the right to own property a personal freedom and isn’t its enforcement in principle by the government socially just? I’d like to meet the rightwinger who would argue that the government’s protection of property rights is unjust.

There is a direct, not indirect, relationship between social justice and personal freedom. The idea that they are antithetical has turned from a rhetorical device of insincere capitalists who don’t want to obey laws into a guiding principle of “conservatives.” I believe it is on the locus of this very point that the right has gone horribly, stupidly, dangerously wrong. And they have infected political and economic discourse on an international level with this truly obnoxious false dichotomy, to the detriment of economies and societies everywhere. But where they’ve done the worst damage to the political discussion is right here in the USA.

The government is meant to be the public’s way of enacting its will. But much of the public has been convinced to allow the destruction or atrophy of this mechanism. Who has convinced them? Those who stand to gain most from a powerless public. Ironically this nation which values so much its right to bear arms has allowed the greediest among us to talk the rest of us into surrendering our weapons.

Who was made less free because the government requires buildings be wheelchair accessible? The people who for one reason or another didn’t want to obey that law. Who was made more free? People in wheelchairs. Who had the more just claim? Those who said, “I don’t want to build a ramp” or those who said “I want to get into the building without having to have someone push me up a flight of stairs?” I don’t think it’s an easy answer, but I do think, if the expense of a ramp drove you out of business, you might have been in over your head. If a neighborhood theater company can build a ramp and not go out of business, you can too.

Personal freedom. You talk of personal freedom, you haters of government. Imagine if you lost your personal freedom because you couldn’t walk, not because you couldn’t build your swimming pool out of asbestos. Think about what personal freedom means then. The freedom to have the same access to the world as most other persons do. To do what persons do.

The freedom v. justice dilemma was not a dilemma at all when I was growing up. The moral case that it was just to be free from racially-based restrictions was made by heroic people. Such freedom was unenforceable without government.

And that’s still the case in these primitive days when humanity is at best in its adolescence. Humans are as afraid of freedom in one area as they are desirous of it in another. What they’re afraid of is freedom from ignorance. Or maybe they believe ignorance is freedom.

Freedom from hunger, freedom from illiteracy, freedom from poverty—there are many economic factors making a lot of Americans unfree. This recognized by much of the public. Unfortunately, it’s also recognized by those for whom such freedom would cut into their outrageously excessive share of the wealth. And there are those who believe any freedom that can also be called social justice is an infringement on their freedom to be unjust. And there are those who are just afraid of losing their freedom to be ignorant. But ignorance alone is not freedom to be ignorant. You have to know what you’re ignorant of. Then you can choose to be ignorant. Only if you have a choice are you free. But once you know what you’re ignorant of, the genie’s out of the bottle. You can only go back to being ignorant of it by lying to yourself. Lying to yourself so you can lie to others.

That’s called hypocrisy. Hypocrisy and propaganda. And where in either of those do freedom or justice abide?

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!