By: Brian Sikma

In order to be mainstream and successful, American political candidates and office holders must profess a strong faith in freedom and declare in resounding terms their belief in the idea and principle of liberty.  Yet often two very different understandings of freedom seem to be present when opposing sides, the right and left, offer their policy proposals to the American people.  Not every opposing, or competing, set of solutions or proposals find themselves rooted in two distinct understandings of freedom.  But often enough it is quite clear that although two very different policies are advocated for with the same language of freedom, it is not possible for the advocates to be sharing the same understanding of that principle.

As our nation continues to struggle economically, the economic and fiscal proposals outlined by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress on one hand, and House Republicans and conservative thinkers on the other hand, give us an insight into the ramifications of competing understandings of freedom.  Although both sides offer us their plans by saying that they are consistent with freedom, it could well be that each side is talking past the other by agreeing on the terminology but not sharing in the same definition.

It is not possible for a plan that involves stimulus plans that must be paid for either by debt or higher taxes, and arbitrary bailouts that are sometimes forced on companies and give the federal government the power to pick winners and losers in the private sector, to be consistent with freedom when freedom is understood to mean the liberty to pursue one’s own choices consistent with a moral order.  Freedom of opportunity and the freedom to rise to one’s full level of potential and meet one’s own destiny requires that government not interfere with and over regulate individuals as they pursue this goal.  Freedom is not a right to do whatever you want to do, it is a right to do what is right.

Those who advocate for stimulus plans, bailouts, and bigger government do not share this view that freedom means freedom of opportunity and the freedom to live up to one’s potential.  In their view, freedom means being free from certain pressures and restraints like individual responsibility and fiscal discipline.  It means an equality of outcomes regardless of the varying levels of investment put in by different people.  It means that we have a “freedom” to achieve the same level of subsistence, no less, and certainly no more.  Using your talents and work ethic to get ahead, to set goals for yourself, and to achieve great things and improve the lives of those around you is not allowed under this very narrow view of freedom.  Just as this view removes the pressures of risk and limits the level of responsibility one must assume, it also imposes a firm and unyielding ceiling on what individuals can do.

When government turns the right of opportunity into a “right to succeed” it must impose a basic floor that allows everyone to have equal, or nearly equal, resources and assets.  But whenever a floor is imposed, whenever a basic minimum of tangible assets is determined to be a right, there is also a cap and a limit imposed on how far one can rise above the mandated minimum.  If failure is unacceptable or even illegal, so is success.

To apply these two distinct understandings of freedom to an issue, let’s consider the matter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To the left, these entities were expanding freedom by making home ownership more accessible and more common by relaxing credit standards and encouraging-and in some cases mandating-that lenders make loans to individuals who would have normally been denied a loan. The program was a success at expanding “freedom” because it resulted in more Americans owning homes, never mind the fact that it did so by placing them in homes that they could not afford and put a tremendous amount of stress on the mortgage industry.

Conservatives viewed Fannie and Freddie as antithetical to freedom because they coerced banks and other lenders to make loans to people who’s financial standing was not yet strong enough to sustain a mortgage, even a modest one. They believe that lenders and their depositors should be free to decide how much risk they want their assets to assume as part of an investment.

If you work for your assets, then you should have some say in how those assets are maintained and invested. The theory of owning your own property actually means something to conservatives.

This does not mean that conservatives mean that people should not be able to obtain mortgages and start on the path of home ownership.  It does mean that conservatives want people to be responsible enough to work hard and earn the status of home ownership, not be handed the opportunity at the expense of someone else’s success.  People value what they earn, and they take care of what they work for.

To the left, freedom means helping people “get ahead” even when that means mandating that other people act against their own interest and against the best interest of the system (in the case of Fannie and Freddie, the loan and mortgage system). To the right, freedom means giving people the opportunity to actually own what they own, and have the ability to pursue upward mobility and set and achieve personal goals-be they educational, financial, or something else-without the government telling them what they can and can’t do.

As the American people sort through the speeches, proposals and actions that surround the debate over the economy and what to do about it, they should bear in mind these two very different interpretations of freedom.  One definition was realized in the founding of our country, with the seeds of this mature tree being planted long before 1776.  The other definition has been around for some time, too.  It has not always been labeled freedom, but well meaning and yet misguided individuals have often tried to persuade people that equal outcomes, and the comfortable chains of paternal government, are the highest form of liberty.  Philosophers can hold either view and harm few, government leaders can hold only one view and be serving the best interest of the people.

In order to survive this economic downturn and climb out of this economic morass and return to the upward leading road of economic prosperity, the American people will need to stand and let their leaders know that while some government action is necessary and warranted, a far reaching expansion of government’s role in business, finance, and personal economic choice will not be tolerated.

The freedom of our founding is not an easy freedom.  It is only worth something to vigorous, rugged, rough and tumble people.  It does not prevent failure, but it does allow for unparalleled  success and it does allow you to work hard, earn, save and invest and own your own property and prosperity.  It allows you to fulfill your own destiny and help your community as you see fit.  We are Americans, and we have chosen true freedom in the past and we must do so again today.

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