All That Freedom, And a Bag of Chips (eh?)
“We don’t need two bags of chips,” I scowled, “but, I reckon they’ll keep.” Who was I to turn down a Publix BOGO sack of Ruffle’s. I expected full well that they’d be devoured in time for the next week’s grocery trip; all we had to do was pay full price for the first bag. We started with the All-American Classics then scoured the shelf for the gimmicky “get-one.” Four curious eyes zeroed in on the maple leaf-decorated ‘All-Dressed’ flavor. Since our autumn visit to Toronto, we were open to things that our northern-nation neighbors had to offer. We joked, right there in the snack aisle, about poutines-as-fake-nachos. We laughed about how a kilometer was only two-thirds of a mile and how a loonie was only three-fourths of a dollar. Even their easy-on-the-eyes leader is a scaled-down version of our own odd, party-sized POTUS.
“Canada’s #1 Flavor,” proclaimed the bag. Even if only half as good as ‘Cheddar and Sour Cream’ then we’d find value. We bit.
Anybody who’s taken an Intro Economics class remembers learning that, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” In mine, we discussed “free lunch” programs that were meant to ensure that every student had equal access to the sustenance needed to keep young, hungry minds learning.
But, the cafeteria cooks earn salaries.
But, the school food buyer pays suppliers.
But, electric bills and administrators are covered.
While that “free” meal may not require a down-on-their-luck family to reallocate their shorted valuable resources, the cost side of the societal profit and loss statement is not empty. Of course, as a village, my astute professor reminded us, we also understand that we all gain by feeding education. Economists quantify meal assistance benefits by cause-and-effecting lower incarceration rates, higher lifetime earnings, and more responsive citizenship.
We also learned, perhaps in Econ II, that there are certain resources—goods and services—which, in their creation, cannot be efficiently rationed. Public goods, such as national defense and interstate highway systems are immediately available to all citizens because the infrastructure necessary to enforce payment for the benefits-of-use outstrip the revenue they’d generate. No rational person pays, without gimmicks or coercion, for something they can get for free. Society cannot, and shouldn’t want to, prevent a non-paying neighbor from reaping the benefits of protection by the strongest military in the world or from driving on I-75 from Detroit to Tampa.
We won’t address deficits here.
To the extent that the pay-per-use barriers—think Lexus lanes, college tuition, and insurance premiums—can be reduced and the incidence of enforcement can be spread more widely, certain goods and services can take on the deceptive appearance of public goods. Our Canadian neighbors have bought into a paradigm in which, through the dilution of incidence across the entire populace—taxes—an individual’s costs for certain valuable goods approach zero. To many who can take advantage of these private-turned-public resources, they seem free: without sacrifice or value.
Economists remind us that such freedom is a myth that leads consumers to misappropriate resources away from valuable providers of the goods and services which should have the most value. Witness the effect that “free” education has had on teacher salaries in America and what “free” healthcare has done to the earnings of doctors in Canada. Both systems—driven by the conversion of private services into public goods—undervalue the most consequential professions in the world: teachers and doctors directly affect our quality and quantity of life.
And so, with their dreamy, silver-spooned head-of-state and their systemic redistribution of resources from the wealthiest to the less wealthy, our Canadian neighbors upend not only the market-valuation of life-quality, but also slow the capitalization of innovations that might support their long-term sustainability. And all of this would be reasonable lest we oscillate our understanding of freedom from economic terms to the historical-poetic.
Freedom is also liberty; liberty isn’t free.
Like any other public good, we cannot efficiently limit freedom’s consumption. Our enemies, both within American borders and without, have reminded us that freedom is the ultimate public good. We enshrined freedoms in our Constitution so as to remind us, with every human interaction, that freedom is our most valued national product. America’s history is one of fighting for freedom, for valuing the cost of freedom in terms of, not merely dollars, human souls. In 1867, Canada gained its partial independence from a monarchy that it still serenades. By 1867, America had twice fought in bloody and protracted wars for independence against a tyrannical Britain and reified freedom in a Civil War that preserved the union and ended slavery.
In 1867, America tasted Whitman’s, “Freedom - to walk free and own no superior.” Freedom, in America, is valued—not because the incidence of sacrifice was small—because it cost so much.
America may not have perfected freedoms all at once, but has never misunderstood their eminent pricelessness. Americans have coveted and protected freedom, sometimes to the deplorable exclusion of our fellow citizens. The denial of freedom to other Americans over time, while gut-wrenching to own, highlights the extreme value that Americans have placed on freedom. We do not take the extension of liberties lightly.
As we continue to expand freedoms and rights, we do so with organic deliberation, calling upon the forces of culture to right the systemic failings to which a prudent society has reacted sometimes excruciatingly slowly. Perhaps, in 2017, freedom means more than simply liberty from a tyrant king or plantation owner. Perhaps, in 2017, it means widening the safety net, reducing barriers to health and education. Perhaps, in 2017, freedom means extending the right to love and marry and choose one’s own gender-identity. New rights alongside historical freedoms are fought for and earned and protected each day anew. In America, freedom is right-valued.
Third-full bag of stale, bland potato chips: free, to anybody who wants them.