The loss of freedom in a culture of radical individualism
Basic to the American dream is the search for freedom. In the 17th century, Europeans facing persecution for their beliefs fled to America. Since World War II, millions of people have come to the shores of this country. Wars, persecutions, economic distress and political unrest have driven them from their homes to seek a better life. Recent statistics show that there are more than 43.7 million immigrants residing in the United States. They make up 13.5 percent of the total population.
As Americans, we take great pride that we are a nation where our government protects the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The word “freedom” belongs to our political discourse, our national debates and our everyday language. From our country’s initial War of Independence until the present moment, America has gone into battle to secure and to defend the freedom of the enslaved and oppressed.
However high this country has flown the flag of freedom in the past, not everyone has enjoyed the same freedoms. In the early days of our republic, only white male property owners were free to vote. Women could not vote. In New Jersey, they did not gain the right to vote until 1807. It took the bloodbath of the Civil War to abolish slavery. Then it took the civil rights movement of the 1960s to begin to establish equality for African Americans as a matter of fact. And, the struggle still continues.
In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. Its purpose was to ensure that freedom in America meant that every citizen enjoy equal protection under the law for life, liberty and property. The Fourteenth Amendment literally changed the battleground in the struggle to ensure equal freedom for all. It “made the Constitution what it had never been before – a vehicle through which aggrieved groups can take their claims that they lack equality and freedom to court” (Eric Foner, “The Contested History of American Freedom,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania).
Perhaps it is time for us to examine how truly free we are and to discern the underlying reason why our freedom as Americans seems to be diminishing. This great nation has always held out the promise that good hard-working individuals were free to move up the social scale. But, recent economic factors are actually limiting this freedom.
Some employers are now choosing to hire individuals only on a part-time basis. This limits their access to health benefits. Employers now claim the right to examine company computers to read the correspondence of their employees, thus limiting their privacy. Is an employee free at work to express his or her religious or political beliefs without facing censure?
In the world of medicine, insurance companies have so many procedures and necessary approvals that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have access at times to needed and timely treatment. Even the move to change Medicare promises to provide less coverage for the elderly. As a result, the life span of the elderly will diminish.
Furthermore, the rising cost of education is limiting the freedom of families to choose private education. Especially in states like New Jersey where there are no school vouchers, low income families are forced to send their children to a state-run school. Is this true freedom for every taxpayer? Since the 1980s, families have been bearing a greater burden in sending their children to our colleges and universities. College tuition and ancillary fees have tripled in the last 30 years. Access to higher education is not equal for all. (Richard Eskow, “Ten ways Americans have lost their freedom,” Alternet, Aug. 31, 2012).
In commenting on Patrick J. Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed (Politics and Culture), Jonathan Leeman gets to the heart of the matter of why we are facing a lessening of our freedoms. Paradoxically, once we make individual freedom the basic value of our society, we yield more and more areas of our lives to the state. In order to ensure every individual’s right to choose and act as they please, the state must make more and more rules and, ultimately, those rules diminish the freedom of some.
For example, to ensure the right of all individuals to marry as they deem fit, the rights of those who hold to marriage as a union of one man and one woman are now lessened. Those who propose the definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman are now seeing their freedom of speech curtailed. The state’s guaranteeing the freedom of a woman to abort her child takes away the freedom of the child to live. In either the case of same-sex marriage or that of abortion, the basis for the state’s position is a radical individualism where the freedom of every person must be safeguarded by the government.
But, the basis of a sound society cannot be radical individualism. Individuals are not autonomous. We are born into a family. We form part of the wider community. “Once a people view themselves as their own highest authority, whatever they most value becomes their god. And that god will rule their nation. Indeed, such a nation will even take good, God-given gifts and turn them into tyrannical idols. Communism did this with equality. Liberalism does this with liberty” (Jonathan Leeman, “How Freedom Became an American Idol,” April 17, 2018).
The ultimate basis for guaranteeing freedom is justice. “By justice a king builds up the land” (Prov 29:4). By justice, a government recognizes itself as subject to a higher rule than itself or its citizens. It seeks to give to each person their rights as determined by God. Once God is removed from the equation and individual freedom replaces justice that promotes the common good, the road is set in the direction of diminishing freedoms. A culture of radical individualism ultimately erodes true freedom.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.