Jim was my temporary boss. He was training me in position and pay management for the Federal Government. A successful, single, and highly intelligent man, he had been raised in a somewhat wealthy, white family. It could have been said of him that he benefited from white privilege. He owned a rather nice, if somewhat moderate house, one that he had purchased for an investment and for the party pool in the back yard. However, it housed only the very barest of necessities in the way of furniture and adornment. Most of the rooms were simply empty. One day he came to work quite down on life. I asked him what was bothering him. His reply was interesting. He related to me how his mother had come for a visit. The problem was that his mother had been shocked at his Spartan lifestyle and had been quite insistent on his improving his standard of living. This was the source of his depression. He had the means, he just didn’t want to. His idea of happiness was to get drunk in some mountainous back country and pass out in a snow cave. The idea of becoming a slave to possessions was not his idea of fun. His pursuit, the reason he worked, was to party. A good party was his freedom, not his wealth.
I relate this story as an introduction to a topic a friend of mine brought up. The other day we were talking about his first college Political Science class. He told me that his initial assignment was to define what freedom meant to him. Belonging to a new generation, he described how he and his mates centered their discussion around an individual only being free when they have the means to enjoy that freedom. A very materialistic concept. Shades of income equality and progressive ideas lurked close to the edges of his thoughts. While some of his concepts were intriguing, they loomed precariously close to a very slippery slope where one misstep would slide right into oligarchy, oppression, and totalitarianism.
The conversation caused me to think one more time on… what is freedom?
In claiming independence from England, our founding fathers described what freedom meant to them. The Declaration of Independence lays out man’s inalienable rights as bequeathed by God with the preservation of those rights leading to the role of government. These rights include: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is what my friend, the student, was discussing. What the founding fathers were declaring was the inalienable right to acquire and accumulate wealth or goods and to enjoy the benefits of one’s own property.” Their word “pursuit” would imply that it is not the government’s duty to ensure that all its citizens are wealthy but rather to provide the opportunity for those so desiring wealth, to pursue it and then enjoy it once achieved. The “pursuit” of happiness. By implication, the document could be seen to say that a government which steps beyond that removes freedom rather than preserving it.
It would seem to be so. For example: If my pursuit of property results in my achieving some form of wealth and the government slips in and takes it away to simply give to another, my freedom to enjoy the benefits of my pursuit is lost. Conversely, if the government steps in and simply gives me wealth, again my opportunity to “pursue” is lost and I become dependent on the state for my happiness. “Dependence is not freedom.” My freedom has been lost. If goods are forcibly taken from one to give to another, neither the loser, nor the receiver, are free. On the other hand, if I choose to share my accomplishments with others less fortunate, my freedom is maintained as it was my choice. Concomitantly, those receiving the benefits of such willingness to share are free to accept or decline. Additionally, as I am under no obligation to continuing sharing, they do not become dependent but rather more appropriately assisted. (Willingly sharing also brings God’s blessings. Something we are not as likely to receive when coerced to share. That is important for we, along with this great nation, need all of God’s blessings we can get.)
Some people chose to work hard. Some chose not to. Others are not capable. I believe that where there are those not capable, the government has a secondary obligation to provide a subsistence safety net along with opportunities to improve one’s self. (That obligation most appropriately is secondary to family and voluntary charity.) That is not the question. Here we are dealing with those, like my friend Bill, who simply chose not to pursue riches with the same furor as their neighbor. Those who decide that happiness is not found in industry, thrift, and accumulation.
Many argue that some in this country do not have the same opportunity to pursue “happiness” as others due to systemic racism. That was true fifty years ago. In a nation where a black man has become the President and our movies, industry, and sports heroes are so diverse, systemic racism no longer exists to the point of preclusion. Bigotry still exists today, but it is no longer exclusionary. Often, that bigotry is now pointed at white America. White privilege has become a myth often confused with the privileges enjoyed by the wealthy. Being white does not mean you are wealthy. Indeed, white poverty is a very large and unaddressed problem in our nation. On the other hand, minorities, as a group can be very successful when their culture embraces education and hard work. Some such groups would be Cuban and Chinese immigrants, people of Jewish decent and those belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. These groups have been successful in American despite heavy persecution and minority status simply because their culture has embraced those qualities needed to be successful.
So, with the obligation to uphold freedom, what should the boundary of government intervention be? Government needs to create an environment which is favorable to individual success. Simply put, it is to support and encourage individual accomplishments and to provide a subsistent safety net for individuals incapable of supporting themselves. That is, it. Large scale income redistribution is simply not a valid pursuit for a government which claims to support freedom.
The American government has no intrinsic right to take money from any individual simply to give to another. That is stealing. The government’s role in the pursuit of happiness must be limited to providing opportunity, teaching, and encouraging, while providing only for those who are not capable.
Freedom includes the opportunity to pursue and enjoy the fruits of our individual labors.
It also includes the right to be poor.
It took some time but my friend and his mates eventually hit upon the correct answer.
“The essence of freedom is the proper limitation of government.”
Samuel Waen Jensen