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Our Views: Defining freedom

To some, it means government butts out; others seek protection from life’s dangers

POSTED: July 7, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Freedom is the embodiment of all we hold dear as Americans, yet is something we all tend to define differently.

We just celebrated our nation’s birthday a few days ago, and on this Independence Day weekend, the discussion of what constitutes freedom is more spirited than ever, with each day’s news refreshing the content of that debate.

Take the scandal over government surveillance of domestic phone calls. President Barack Obama and others in Washington from both parties claim monitoring such calls from potential terrorist cells is needed to keep us safe from attacks. Others say it’s a violation of our personal liberty and not worth the price for security.

It’s the old debate of freedom vs. security. Oddly, the thesaurus lists one word as a synonym for the other, but in our political and societal discussions, they take on completely different meanings.

This is an argument that has raged since the beginning of our republic, when our Founding Fathers crafted a Constitution that sought to walk that fine line between maintaining a civil society and letting each person control their own destinies.

It was complicated enough back in the 18th century. Now, with email, cellphones, the Internet and myriad forms of communication flying through the air around us, it’s easier than ever for government to stick its nose in our business. How much of it we’re willing to tolerate remains a subjective topic.

And the discussion is a timely one, given that Congress must decide by 2015 whether to renew the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation cited as the source of authority for much of the government’s increased role in snooping upon the governed.

Some believe government not only has an obligation to keep us safe, but should take on an even greater role in trying to maintain our economic security. They claim abuses by the financial sector led to our economic recession of the past five years and believe the feds should clamp down harder than ever on private businesses to prevent such collapses in the future. Those out of work in the recession have tapped into government benefits at an increased rate for their survival. So that line now must be drawn between the regulation of industries and letting the markets run free.

We all believe in free markets, the ability of maker and consumer to forge a deal for their common benefit. But how free? Should the government play referee or should it always be caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, across the board?

And a new factor has cast the free enterprise debate in the spotlight: Health care. The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, was set to create a mandate for coverage when it takes full effect next year. Not only will individuals be required to purchase insurance or face a fine, but businesses with more than 50 employees would be compelled to provide insurance benefits for them.

That sparked an angry blowback from small businesses who say they would be hamstrung by the requirement, some even willing to cut their workforce or shift workers to part-time status to avoid it. So the administration last week decided to suspend that requirement for another year until it can find a solution that will provide coverage without causing people to lose their jobs.

This is another example of how some believe true freedom means providing a measure of security, a blanket of basic protections, while others see such measures as an encroachment upon liberty. As with most issues, it depends on your perspective.

This also can play into the government’s fondness for excess. What starts out as a reasonable concession of personal liberty in exchange for security can escalate quickly into something more from power-hungry officeholders who seek votes in return for their magnanimous attempts to protect us.

Yet, in reality, many of us probably would be hesitant to adopt a policy of total freedom. We still want government to keep us safe from ourselves, and each other, by policing the streets, inspecting food and keeping airplanes from crashing into each other. Even most conservatives believe such government duties are well within reason when it comes to maintaining order and well-being.

Do we really want to go through life without a safety net?

That’s how Nik Wallenda crossed a wire across the Grand Canyon a few weeks back as the world watched. He had no safety harness or net, just himself and a balance pole. He was totally free as he balanced on a 2-inch cable over a 1,500 foot drop to the Colorado River. That’s the kind of total freedom that makes most of us long for the feel of solid ground.

Our pioneers enjoyed true freedom as they settled the wilderness. Left with only their resourcefulness, wiles, courage and a handy shotgun, they built settlements and farmed the land with little interference, save from Mother Nature and some of the indigenous people they encountered.

Are we, with our modern sensibilities, willing to trade places with them and forge our way in a hostile environment without assistance? Again, it depends on the topic and our own life experiences as to just how much freedom we’re willing to accept.

This is why the debate should go on, and will as long as this nation stands. It’s a good one to have, knowing that the back-and-forth pull from each direction may help us find a worthwhile middle ground between liberty and sanctuary.

While we may never fully agree on where that middle ground should fall, it at least compels us to walk that wire across the canyon with a bit of a notion of what happens if we fall.

Keeping that precarious balance between individual freedoms and public security is vital, less we find in the end that Janis Joplin had it right all along, and that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”


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