America is a 'free country', the 'freest country in the world.' At least, that is what is almost universally accepted here simply due to the fact that it is repeated over and over again.
Or is it? I shall examine the evidence a little closer, based on what I have concluded to be criteria for what constitutes free people. I have come to the conclusion that the idea of freedom is like a seed being planted on a particular type of soil. The people inhabiting a particular area represent the soil. And, of course, whether or not that seed of freedom turns into a thriving redwood known as 'enduring freedom' (not to be confused with the name the Bush Administration gave to their invasion of Afghanistan) depends on the type of soil into which that seed is planted.
Whether one is an anarcho-capitalist, anarcho-socialist, syndicalist, agorist, Georgist, or even a libertarian minarchist/constitutionalist, the survival of freedom, much less the flourishing of it, requires a set of habits and attitudes in the people themselves. It is not mandatory that every last inhabitant hold these attitudes and practice these habits, but I would advise that these attitudes and habits be predominant.
I have come up with three habits/attitudes that a particular population must predominantly hold to in order for freedom to last. By no means is this an exhaustive list. Readers may come up with other habits and attitudes that are essential to freedom's survival. I will describe these characteristics and assess whether or not they hold sway in this country.
1. Free people understand the difference between being free and being unfree.
It is not mandatory for a free person to be well-versed in Rand, Rothbard or Von Mises -- although this certainly cannot hurt. What is more important is that people have a rudimentary, street-wise ability to make the distinction between freedom and servility.
James Bovard is no anarchist. Nonetheless he understands the difference between freedom and servitude. In Freedom in Chains: the Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen, he provided this valuable insight:
"A free society minimizes the number of bows and curtsies that a person must perform in daily life . . . . A free society has no legal caste system -- no officialdom with its pretexts to bring everyone else to their knees. Liberty means a social system in which people live as they please, restrained by their duty to respect the equal freedom of others. Freedom encourages the maximum number of people to attempt to find a better way to do something, a better way to live, a better way to produce, a better way to build, a better way to thrive . . . . The value of liberty lies in the value of not shackling people who could otherwise raise themselves, of not locking people in a box." (pages 242-243)
American diagnosis: A lot of people here believe they are free as long as they have the 'right to vote,' or as long as there is a written Constitution, or simply because the United States government has yet to use lethal violence on a large portion of the population who happened to fall out of favor with the ruling elite. Or maybe it is possible that they have yet to experience a severe disruption of their lives and livelihoods at the hands of overzealous government bureaucrats and lawyers.
But they do not consider the fact that every paycheck period the state gets the first cut. It does not bother them that the state imposes one-size-fits-all regulations for people to be allowed to enter certain professions. They do not think twice about the fact that they must annually pay a fee to the state for the 'privilege' of being able to conveniently get from point A to point B. Many of them never question the legitimacy of being told what they can and cannot put into their bodies -- even as fully functional adults.
I could go on and on, but there are other pertinent points to make.
2. Free people take the responsibility to jealously defend their freedom and their neighbors' freedom from transgression.
Bank tellers, by becoming intimately familiar with what a 'real' $100 bill looks like, can spot a 'counterfeit' bill easily. By the same token, free people can spot attempts to transgress freedom from a mile away.
Jealously defending freedom includes, but is not limited to, keeping and bearing arms for defense of one's self, property, loved ones and neighbors from aggressors, be they everyday murderers and thieves or wannabe rulers. As important as defensive arms are, it is equally important that people train their own minds to not become gullible to political snake-oil salesmen. Free people know attempts to aggress against freedom when they see them.
American diagnosis: I find this characteristic, among the three, to be the most lacking in Americans of today. How many times do the masses get swayed by demagogues who promise them the most material benefits, who promise to protect them from the bogeyman du jour, who promise to make their lives safer, healthier, and more fulfilling (sic) if they would just be willing to trust those in charge and sacrifice what remains of their liberty for the 'common good'? How many of them see someone else get their houses ransacked, their kids taken away, their property seized, or their lives ended by the 'authorities' and just uncritically accept the state's version of events?
3. Free people abide by the ethic of 'live and let live.'
More specifically, free people respect other people's boundaries and property interests. They try as much as possible to resolve disagreements peacefully. THEY MIND THEIR OWN BUSINESS!! They do not try to dictate the criteria on which people can associate or disassociate (that means you, Martha Burke).
Readers may disagree with me on this point, but I also believe that free people for the most part don't try to find ideological or political statements in every activity people engage in or everything people choose to consume.
Lee McCracken had a very good point in his article 'The Killjoy Political Boycott":
" Look, I'm not denying anyone's right to boycott any product or artist that offends their sensibilities. In a free market everyone makes the economic choices that best suit their preferences. And each person's conscience may dictate that he or she avoids certain products. But the insistence that every purchase, every act, every thought reflect some political position saps much of the joy from life. One of the great conservative insights, which seems to have been lost by many who sail under that flag, is that there's much more to life than politics. Art, culture, religion, commerce and family are the stuff that real life is made of. These are the things that provide us with the most lasting satisfaction. It is the Left that has historically tried to politicize every aspect of existence ('the personal is the political,' remember?)."
American diagnosis: Granted, most people do not loot places of business, vandalize others' property, shoplift from supermarkets, or shoot people in cold blood. Most people don't engage in witch hunts to try to stamp out people who live in ways that offend them.
BUT . . . look at much of the conversation about the Iraq invasion that just took place. A lot of people who supported the invasion didn't try, with calm, reasoned, measured and dispassionate arguments, to persuade those who disagreed with them that the invasion was justified. They found it easier to simply pillory their anti-war counterparts as 'unpatriotic,' 'Saddam supporter' or other epithets.
Lenin didn't just execute his political enemies. He stated that first (to paraphrase) that 'we must write and speak in such a way that engenders hatred, contempt and scorn amongst the masses towards those who disagree with us.' To this day, no contemporary American politician would have a long career after saying such a thing openly, but, it can be demonstrated that this method is used many times over by the ruling elite.
Again, I believe the three habits/attitudes described above are the most critical for freedom to take root and to blossom. I welcome feedback from readers pointing out other important habits and attitudes I might have overlooked.