Burdens of Freedom

Lawrence M. Mead

Fall 2016

Our politicians love to say that the United States is a free country. In a sense, they are correct: Americans enjoy the rule of law and civil liberties; our government is elected; and the authorities cannot arrest citizens on account of their opinions. While the government enforces certain tough laws, levies taxes, and reserves the right to conscript — prerogatives that some conservatives consider to be excessive — it remains true that Americans are indeed freer than most people in the rest of the world.

This common view presents freedom entirely in negative terms, as a lack of outside constraints. When we casually say "it's a free country," we mean that American citizens can do or be anything they want, that no artificial hindrances will stand in the way of their pursuits. To be free is to be surrounded, so to speak, by empty space, which permits the free person to move in any direction he chooses.

But this sort of language overlooks the many obligations that freedom demands. The constraint is not only that each free person must respect the freedom of others. To say that still assumes a negative idea of freedom. Rather, it is that freedom directly produces obligations. Freedom is not negative but something positive — a set of responsibilities. The burdens of freedom are inseparable from freedom itself. Most immediately, even a free government must make the demands about law-abidingness and taxes just mentioned. But other burdens follow from the nature of a free society and even from living a "free" life.

Not freedom but the burdens of freedom, which impinge upon us at many levels, are the real center of American life. Despite living in a free country, most Americans do not experience life as free at all. Instead, life is a constant struggle to satisfy mundane demands, some of them coming from government, but some from other people and others from one's own goals. Freedom is precious, not because it liberates us from constraint, but because it enlists citizens in worthwhile efforts toward life's central purposes. In every arena of life, American institutions work to transmute freedom into responsibility. And that is exactly what a meaningful life requires.


Consider above all the economy. By most measures, America is the wealthiest country in the world. And yet, in spite of that fact, ordinary Americans face constant economic pressures. Many people struggle every day simply to make ends meet: to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs. Few feel surrounded by empty space; rather, they slog forward daily as if through a solid substance. There are several chief economic burdens our country faces:

First is the job market. Unemployment reached 10% of the labor force during the Great Recession. It has since fallen to under 5%, which some economists regard as full employment. But long-term unemployment persists, with over 2 million people remaining jobless for more than half a year. And the share of the adult population that is working or looking for work has fallen below 63%, more than three points lower than before the recession. Why do so many Americans seem to have trouble finding and keeping jobs, and why have so many — especially older men — given up on work entirely, even in good times?

The second is increasing income inequality. Historically, Americans boasted of their affluent society, which continued to grow still richer to the benefit of all. But, for decades now, most Americans have seen little gain in their standard of living. Some of the lowest-skilled have even lost ground. The country is still getting richer overall, but most of the recent gains have gone to people who were already affluent or rich — including the top 1% derided by liberal commentators. Why can't the economy, or the government, spread the wealth more evenly?

The third burden is growing debt. Hardly able to afford the bare necessities, many Americans have gone heavily into debt to pay for home mortgages, college educations for their children, or health care. Many have been unable to save much for their retirement. While the federal government subsidizes all these expenses, it is now heavily in debt itself. Despite recent improvement, the government budget deficit is still over $600 billion a year, and the national debt has soared to $19.4 trillion. As the Baby Boomers retire, debt is projected to rise higher still. Why can't a rich country, with a high standard of living, afford to pay its individual and collective debts?

In an effort to explain these travails, our leaders often blame some error or injustice wrought by the hands of government. Conservatives say taxes are too high or government has mismanaged the economy, while liberals say the rich enjoy unfair privileges. Both sides, that is, fasten on some unfreedom that could be avoided, and then, they say, the economic pressures would ease. Then America could be freer and richer than it is now. For politicians, freedom is always seen in the negative, as freedom from something.

That view, however, is an illusion. While both parties point to more-or-less serious problems, no reform drawn from either of their platforms is likely to free up American life. Conservative rhetoric sometimes depicts the market as a deus ex machina that produces wealth without much effort. It certainly outperforms the statist economies of the old communist bloc. The market is simply more efficient than collectivism, yielding more for the same productive effort. However, it also increases that productive effort. In a market, incentives to work hard are far stronger, for both producers and consumers, than under collectivism. The "free" market, just as Marx said, is a taskmaster that demands far greater effort than any other system. Affluence exacts a price in elbow grease.

Liberals, for their part, suggest that those at the top have it easier than the masses struggling beneath them. In a plain sense, that's right. But it's also true that the affluent become that way, in part, simply from working hard. Lower-income people typically work far less. In 2014, less than half of family heads in the bottom fifth of the income distribution worked at all, while in the top fifth more than 70% worked full-time and full-year. That is the reverse of the pattern during the Gilded Age, a century ago. Then, New York plutocrats relaxed at their seaside vacation homes while immigrant masses toiled long hours just to survive. If today's poor worked this much, they would seldom be poor at all, and incomes would be a lot more equal than they are. Of course, improved opportunities would also help them, but in the economic struggle nothing can substitute for sheer working hours.

The economic burdens that the American people endure are not avoidable but deeply rooted in the nature of a free society. The struggle arises, in the first place, simply from competition. If freedom in America were given to just one person, he might indeed be able to do or be anything. But the rule of law opens opportunities for a great many people. And the vast majority of them want the same basic things — like good jobs and income — so they compete to get them. The very freedom to compete is what generates great wealth, but at the cost of great effort.

Liberal critics blame economic burdens on the power producers have to charge what the market will bear. To them, that license is exploitative. But for the producers, too, there is no free lunch. As Adam Smith showed, if the market is at all open, any successful business endeavor will attract competitors. Unless there is a monopoly or producers collude, competition will drive prices down closer to costs and thus minimize profits. Most Americans feel better served by capitalism, despite its demands, than they do by government, which faces no market test. In the end, the market enslaves the producers to serve the society. So both buyers and sellers must work hard and endure the risks of buying and selling — and no policy reforms will change those basic facts.


Like the economy, our society is apparently open to all. That means a citizen can live wherever he wants, however he wants, with his chosen associates, and so forth. The rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness as one sees fit are written into America's founding documents. Recent social trends, such as the growing acceptance of gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and the proliferation of charter schools, indicate that Americans are constantly expanding their idea of personal liberty.

But again, as with the economy, competition restricts access to the things people want most. That includes careers that are interesting and pay well, in contrast to low-paid, monotonous work. Many people also aspire to live in affluent communities where good schools will give their children a head start in life. The economy can raise absolute levels of reward, at least for the society as a whole, but it cannot similarly elevate rewards that involve standing relative to other people. Status is a zero-sum contest. For some to do well, others must do less well. That places a limit on how productive even a free society can be.

In today's America, the meritocracy — meaning especially competition for success in school — largely determines social status. Children who do well in the classroom are the most likely to ascend to elite colleges, which propel them toward well-paid careers and to nice houses in the suburbs or high rises in New York or San Francisco. That largely explains why, for many families in the middle class, the competition for top colleges has become all-consuming. It is one reason why marriage has firmed up at the top of society compared to several decades ago — parents know that their children need two parents behind them if they are to compete successfully for high social rank.

In the meritocracy, even more than in the economy, the rich get richer. The most talented have the confidence that goes with their gifts, and then they also win the best social positions as well. The less talented lose on both counts. Yet here, as in the market, it is socially optimal that competition reign. The most demanding careers have the greatest impact on the society as a whole, and therefore require the highest talent available. Though the market does not distribute talent perfectly, it does so in a relatively efficient way.

Some say that the playing field is far from level. The affluent can pour funds into their progeny, which helps them to succeed educationally and professionally in ways the less affluent cannot. And yet very few of the very successful can bequeath their eminence to their children: According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, only about 60% of children born into the top quintile of families will end up better off than their fathers, compared to 85% of those born into the bottom quintile. Mostly, heirs have to make it on their own; chances for success and failure abound for everyone, no matter their social station. Standards are much higher at elite high schools and colleges than at lower-ranking ones. And even among the most privileged there are not enough top colleges and careers to go around. So even the most favored must still work quite hard to "make it."

Schooling was not always the stern arbiter of success that it is today. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our most gifted president, succeeded with hardly any formal education at all. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college before founding their world-beating companies. Many people still rise to the top of politics or business from obscure backgrounds. But the chance to do so has declined in recent decades. Competitive success through education has a grip on the culture that it never had before.

Social competition seemed inclusive during most of the 20th century because the whole society rose to higher levels of education and employment. A large majority of Americans gained at least a high-school education and, along with it, white-collar employment and homes in the suburbs. It seemed as if almost everyone was "making it" together, although in terms of relative status many probably gained little. Only the poor, who usually lacked skills and regular employment, dropped off this upward escalator. But in recent decades, "good" jobs have come to require at least some education beyond high school. That is more than many, maybe most, Americans can achieve. So now far more people are manifestly not making it, and class divisions appear much deeper.


In government, too, the institutions appear wide open. At all levels in America, governments are elected, so they largely do what the people want. Yet polls show that voters are deeply alienated from the government they elect. Somehow, it has failed to save them from their current struggles, especially the fear that middle-class jobs are disappearing. Why can't the government do more to help ordinary people — for instance, by reducing income disparities, making jobs more secure, or shielding American producers from foreign competition?

In part, government cannot accomplish these things without denying the economy the freedom needed to sustain America's general welfare. There is a tradeoff between security and dynamism. With less struggle, many people would not work so hard, and affluence would decline. In part, as well, the voters are inconsistent; the will to punish government is stronger than the will to use it to enact protections. So the current alienation has pushed public policy mostly to the right rather than the left. Republicans share in the general debunking of government, even though this weakens the very institutions they hope to lead.

Popular economic grievances have not generated a coherent economic program. One might have expected a New Deal-like movement from the left to do more to protect struggling workers. But what most Americans want from the economy is simply the availability of good jobs; concern about inequality in any wider sense is surprisingly tepid. On the left, Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders got far more vocal support from students flexing their ideological muscles than from workers trying to protect jobs. On the right, lower-skilled white men may have powered Donald Trump's campaign, but what concrete, detailed government action could assuage their grievances remains unknown.

Economists say that, in a democracy, political incentives always favor redistribution, since the distribution of votes is far more even than the distribution of wealth. Indeed, in the past, government has done many things to help struggling working families. But as mentioned already, today it is hamstrung by the debts it has already incurred. So government can do little more to shield ordinary people from the demands of the economy or society.

The real obstacle is, again, competition. The political arena may be open to all, but to prevail in it one must organize support from others, and today mass mobilization has withered. For lower-income Americans, asserting their political will is harder than ever. Most of their time and energy goes into coping with confused private lives and irregular employment. Nor do they have the strong local institutions to rely on that they once did. The aggrieved are now usually spoken for by better-off advocates, but that is a lot less effective than marching on Washington themselves. In the 1960s, oppressed African Americans did march, and they were largely successful, since they had strong families and churches to mobilize support. It would be tougher to do the same today.


Thus, American institutions transmute freedom into obligation. They do not produce "justice" in the sense of some final deliverance from life's trials. Some will say that with all institutions the problem is really class. The system may be formally open, but in the competition for rewards the rich enjoy huge advantages. The sharpest edge of Marxist rhetoric was always to contrast the formal fairness of a democratic regime with its actual biases toward the rich. As Anatole France famously remarked, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread."

In response, as mentioned above, advocates typically seek out some denial of opportunity or equity that explains the struggles; reform it away, they promise, and freedom will expand. The Progressives a century ago persuaded most Americans, with some difficulty, that bigger government could serve individual freedom. Even successful reforms, however, have not produced the hoped-for deliverance, because the rest of the competitive system remains intact. The labor movement did indeed produce expanded opportunities for workers, as the feminist movement did for women, and the civil-rights movement did for African Americans. But once formally liberated, those groups still had to compete fiercely. The playing field was now more level, but they still had to go out there and win the game. Only in a few places does America provide even partial shelters against the storm.

Besides competition, another aspect of a free society that generates burdens is democracy itself. Individualism promotes a democratic spirit, which encourages individuals to seek the respect of others. One's competitors are also one's peers. The point is not only to best them, but also to impress them with the ability, effort, and character one has shown. In principle, that reward is not competitive. It is potentially available to all who give their best in the competitive struggle. In that contest, all may emerge with honor and self-respect — even the losers — a fact that can considerably assuage the ruthlessness of the competitive scramble.

Alexis de Tocqueville described such a society in America in 1835. The fledging nation celebrated an egalitarian vision of itself. In class-ridden Europe, most people accepted the place into which they were born, and society was "calm and immobile," Tocqueville wrote. But in democratic America, with its far weaker class divisions, "all [was] activity and bustle" as people strove to get ahead. Such a society could also generate cooperative effort for common ends, such as running local government or founding schools. That capacity partly reflected the respect that Americans won from each other through their own efforts to succeed.

To gain this reward, however, takes effort. Winning is not required, but one must at least be in the game, striving to get ahead. Americans still look for that effort — the thirst for competition — today. What many find hardest to accept about poverty is not the cost of social programs but rather the faint effort that many poor adults appear to make on their own behalf. In America, we would rather the poor were more assertive than they are, even if that made them more formidable as competitors.


American life could become less burdensome only if it became less free, or less competitive, or if protections against competition were given. Freedom might decline, for example, if the country installed a dictator to solve its current struggles — similar to Franklin Roosevelt and his "first 100 days." It could also become less competitive if people cared less about getting ahead than they once did. Europe, for instance, has recently become less competitive than it once was. It has thus lost much of the vigor and dynamism it once had.

The United States has limited competition in several areas where we view it to be unnecessary or unjust. One of these is education and employment, with affirmative action, or preferential selection of the beneficiaries of the recent reform movements, especially minorities and women. More important is probably government employment, protected as it usually is by civil-service rules. While unions have declined in the private sector, they remain strong in government work — in fact, membership in public-sector unions has actually grown by 1.5 million since 1983. Those protections have allowed public-school teachers to resist serious accountability to the public that pays their salaries, except where charter schools are strong. Another protected niche is academia, where many faculty enjoy tenure and, effectively, cannot be fired.

All of these protections are under attack today, partly because they are costly but also because of populist resentment. Most Americans struggle in the market, and they wonder why anybody should be protected against it. If some must struggle, everybody should. The majority still might favor more general protections, but not privileges for these or other specific groups.

More important is the welfare state — public programs that support certain vulnerable groups outside employment. The recipients include people whom no one expects to work, such as children and the elderly, but also groups like the disabled and unemployed whose inability to work is more subjective. At its origin in Europe and America more than a century ago, the welfare state was seen as a "safety net," meant to catch those thrown out of work by impersonal forces such as injury or mass unemployment. The recipients were seen as convalescing from economic injuries before returning to work. They were seen as more vulnerable outside employment than in.

Recently, however, doubt has arisen as to whether many, even most, of the working-aged recipients living on benefits are really unable to work. Could not most of the jobless find work if they were willing to take low-paid employment? To many Americans widespread illegal immigration indicates that many such jobs are available, even during hard times. We used to see poor single mothers as unemployable because they had children to tend to, thus qualifying them for aid. Today we expect them to work like most other mothers, with public benefits merely supplementing wages. Even the disabled face rising pressures to undertake at least some useful activity in return for support, unless they are totally incapacitated.

The United States reformed family welfare radically in the 1990s, requiring more welfare mothers to work and driving most of them off the rolls and into jobs. Even in Europe, where generous benefits for the working-aged once went unquestioned, demands that recipients work in return for aid have toughened. Europe is no longer a land of social democracy, as Americans used to think, where no one really has to work.

Again, the motive behind these reforms is not only to save money. Welfare for the poor is relatively cheap in the United States compared to larger middle-class benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare. Rather, the motivation stems from the deeply rooted belief that all employable adults must share the burdens of a free society. The nonworking are now seen as less, not more, vulnerable than the employed. Because they avoid the competitions that freedom engenders, many of them are free-riding on the majority who struggle to get ahead — the effort that generates affluence for everyone. So community is expressed precisely by insisting that more people pursue employment, not by excusing them from it.


Freedom is the supreme American value, but its current burdens are enough to make some question it. The problem is not fundamentally inequality or class. "Liberty to all," Lincoln said, is America's "apple of gold." The worm in the apple is not capitalism, whose excesses can be tamed, and social reformers have tamed them to an extent, as already mentioned. They have not, however, challenged the fundamental character of American society. They have not made it uncompetitive, and they have not stilled the democratic demand that citizens show effort that other citizens can respect. Thus the prophets of socialism were far less radical than they imagined: Even if the economy were totally collectivized, and even if the rich were totally expropriated, American life would remain competitive, strenuous, and insecure. The less-favored would still have to justify themselves by effort.

True radicalism, rather, must question American individualism, the very idea that one person's success can be separated from another's. The deepest critic of a free society is therefore not Marx but Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The great Swiss anti-liberal saw the competition of individuals to get ahead, which Americans prize, as the great evil in modern society. As we each struggle on behalf of our own amour propre, we tear each other down and lose the harmonious life that we might have together. Only a communal society could really achieve freedom or democracy in any form worth having.

European social democracy went partway down that path, but Rousseau would go much further. His social ideal was not Athens but something like classical Sparta — a traditional, communitarian polity into which citizens sunk their identities in order to become the greatest soldiers in Greece. They thus triumphed in war but gave up the individual striving that empowered Athens — like America — to lead an entire civilization. Just as Athens was the "school of Hellas," so America has led the entire West toward the furthest reaches of what individualism can achieve. To give up those sunlit heights for a more tranquil life is a bargain most Americans reject. American freedom cannot be carefree. The labor to compete and to excel is too central to it.

The answer to current strains, then, is not to give up individualism but to bear its burdens more gracefully than we now do. Education, broadly defined, has replaced structural reforms as the main basis of American social policy. Despite the ongoing kerfuffle over inequality, little fundamental change is likely on that front, and, following Obamacare, significant expansions of the welfare state seem impolitic. More likely, we will pour further money and effort into improving education so that more young Americans gain the ability to earn better wages in the current, demanding economy. We will also use the social programs we do have to promote employment rather than escape from it. Our chief goal is not equality but competence.

This focus on individual skills disappoints many on the left. They view it as superficial, even a form of "blaming the victim": Why focus on individuals' shortcomings when we need changes in the basic institutions that weigh heavily on ordinary people? But society cannot just award status to people at one moment in time. To achieve belonging, it is far more important that citizens be in motion toward their own goals over time. That depends on lifestyle and ultimately on capacities. A free society always moves onward. Without capacities, the less-favored will always be left behind, no matter what resources are transferred to them.

From Aristotle through John Rawls, political philosophers defined justice as giving everyone his due. That typically meant assuring people of more equal rights through some reform of basic institutions. But recently, some thinkers have reformulated justice in more personal terms. To Amartya Sen or Martha Nussbaum, the substance of development is not simply that society becomes richer and fairer overall, but that it promotes the capabilities that people need to live well. Justice now connotes not equal claims but some common minimum of talents.

That idea suggests the actual substance of a free life today. It captures the shift we need in how we conceive of freedom, from the negative to the positive. Freedom no longer means to be surrounded by empty space into which one may move. Nor is it to be granted additional freedoms or rights from the society. Rather, it is to have the capacity to lead one's own life well, and thus share in a democratic society. The answer to struggle is not freedom but strength.

Lawrence M. Mead is professor of politics and public policy at New York University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is drawn from his forthcoming book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Roots of American Power. 


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