In America, we value our freedom. The Constitution was written to make sure that citizens of this country had certain rights that were inalienable. The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the line “… with liberty and justice for all.” Even the Star-Spangled Banner concludes by singing “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” Here in the United States, we talk up our personal freedoms, as if nobody does it the way we do. It makes sense, of course, seeing as the United States was a country founded by emancipating themselves from the British Monarchy. (Nevermind the fact that this country was also built upon the genocide of the Native Americans, and let’s just gloss over the tiny part in our history when slavery was a significant part of our economy.) Yes, we as Americans pride ourselves on the liberties guaranteed to us by the Constitution.
But, what is freedom? What are we saying or implying when we talk about the United States as being that shining city on the hill? Well, Merriam-Webster defines freedom as such:
1. The quality or state of being free: as
a : The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.
b : Liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another.
2. a : A political right.
There are some other definitions of freedom, but none of them really fit with what is being discussed here. Now, using this definition, how free are citizens of the United States? I would argue we are not as free as we would like to think we are. Rather, we are free to operate within the confines of the society that banks and corporations have created for us. If we try to go outside of those confines, there are built-in consequences made to push us back inside.
Let’s just start with basic, everyday necessities. You want a place to live? Okay, you have a couple of options: 1) You can become indebted to a bank for 30 or so years and purchase a home; or 2) You can sign a lease with a landlord and throw your money away for a property that will never give you a return on your investment. Do you need a car to drive you around? Good news! You can also take on some more debt to either purchase or lease your transportation. And, hey, don’t forget education, because college graduates are the ones who are better off nowadays, even when the economy is down. So, go ahead and just take out some more loans. What? That costs a lot of money? You’re financing your future! You can’t put a price on your future! Now, you look as if you need some new clothes. I mean, you may not be rich, but you at least need those $500 shoes and those $300 jeans. And, while your at it, you’re going to need a matching handbag to go with those shoes. Now, now, now, I don’t want to hear that it costs a lot of money. You can just charge it to one of your many credit cards. If you don’t, what will everybody think if you’re not up on all of the latest fashion trends?
I could go on and on, but I hope you can see the point. All of these things that we see as part of our normal, everyday life (although, I wouldn’t put shoes and handbags as part of my everyday life) constrains us. Basically, once we turn 18, or even 16 in some cases, we become shackled by the debts of society; home loans, auto loans, credit cards, etc. Of course, some will make the argument that nobody has to utilize any of these products provided by banks. But, what is the alternative? Public transportation is designed well enough in some places that a personal vehicle is not necessary, but for a majority of Americans, this is not the case. If you don’t want to purchase a house, fine, you can rent. However, you have to go through a landlord to do anything to the place in which you reside, and you never get any of the money that you put into that particular property back. And, credit cards, you don’t have to get those, either. But, when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, like 76% of the country is, you can’t afford to have a medical emergency, to have your car breakdown, or to have any other large unexpected expense. So, hey, if you have enough money lying around that you don’t have to have a credit card, more power to you. I’m sure most people in this country wish they were able to do the same. The fact is, once you enter adulthood, you automatically become an indentured servant to the banks.
And, it’s not just our financial system that we become indebted to, we also have no choice but to sell our labor for a living. Of course, nobody actually goes to our home and forces us to enter the workforce. Instead, if we want to eat, have a roof over our head, and just have some semblance of a “normal” life, we need to work at least 40 hours a week, and often times more. In this country, we sell people on work by telling them to “do what they love for a living.” Follow their passion. Funny thing is, many of the jobs out there aren’t what most people love. People are guided into a college major based upon what job pays the most, as if money is the root of all happiness. Instead, 70% of us are “emotionally disconnected” at work. Most people live for the weekend, and dread when Monday comes around. And, that’s assuming that you’re lucky enough to have a job that gives you a set schedule. Many people are forced to work nights, weekends, and holidays, and do so for little pay, performing tasks that nobody would ever describe as their “passion.” These folks are not just inherently lazy, either. In fact, worker productivity has continued to go up year after year, while wages have stagnated since the 1970’s. In other words, today’s workers, are doing more work for less pay than they were 40 years ago. Corporations continue to find new ways to become “more efficient” and “cost-effective.” Unfortunately, these terms are usually code for firing or replacing people with machines or moving jobs overseas. Thus, even the people who want to perform menial tasks for little pay, in crappy working conditions just so their families don’t starve, have trouble finding work. On top of all that, corporations keep finding innovative ways to get around providing workers with basic benefits. Whether it be through shifting non-managerial staff to part-time only, to hiring temporary workers, or even using zero-hour contracts, it doesn’t matter. They are all designed to cut labor costs and increase profit. And what can we do about it? Nothing, because we’re all at the mercy of the system that is in place.
The question is, how does any of this sound like freedom? Doesn’t it sound like necessity, constraint, coercion? We are coerced to participate in the system out of necessity, and, as a result, we are constrained by the limitations it places on us. And is that not the exact opposite of how Merriam-Webster defines freedom? Sure, we are free from many of the totalitarian forces that people in the Soviet Union were under, but let’s not act like today’s democratic governments are above intimidation if you air some of their dirty laundry. Instead, what we are free to do, is to consume. Our economic system lives and dies with our ability to consume. Companies study everything about us in order to sell us a bunch of crap that we really don’t need. They build a culture around their brand, and then make us feel that we need to buy their product in order to fit in with everybody else. It happens with children, when they want a certain pair of shoes for school, and it also happens with adults when they want a house in the suburbs or a Louis Vuitton purse. We are constantly under pressure to live a certain way.
So, I would argue that we are not as free as we appear. Which is funny because our western ideals take pride in the existential idea that we are free to create meaning to our life in whichever way we want. However, this is just not the case. We are free to do what society allows us to do; namely, work and consume. And we are forced to define ourselves through those narrow categories. Certainly, citizens in the United States are better off than many people in the developing world, but let’s not pretend this country is perfect. Much could be done about the inequality that holds this country back from being the existential meritocracy that we like to think it is. Until we make those changes, though, the plutocrats are the true existentialists. The rest of us are simply shackled by the chains of the society they create.