Goodbye, Liberty! 10 Ways Americans Are No Longer Free

Our most fundamental rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are under assault. But the adversary is Big Wealth, not Big Government as conservatives like to claim. Consider:

Life? The differences in life expectancy between wealthier and lower-income Americans are increasing, not decreasing.

Liberty? Digital corporations are assaulting our privacy, while banks trap us in indebtedness that approaches indentured servitude. The shrunken ranks of working Americans are being robbed of their essential liberties – including the right to use the bathroom.

The pursuit of happiness? Social mobility in the United States is dead. Career choices are increasingly limited. As for working hard and earning more, consider this: Between 1969 and 2008 the average US income went up by $11,684. How much of that went to the top 10? All of it. Income for the remaining 90 percent actually went down.

These changes didn’t just happen. Wealthy individuals and corporations made it happen – and they’re still at it. Meanwhile, Corporate America’s wholesale theft of your individual liberties has been rebranded as a fight for … the corporation’s individual liberty.

Corey Robin notes in the Nation that this conservative appeal to “economic freedom” has been met by Democrats who present themselves as “new Victorians,” standing for “responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.”

Not only is this politically and emotionally unappealing, it’s demonstrably wrong. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of a “right” is “something to which one has a just claim: as the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled.” Definitions of “liberty” include “the power to do as one pleases,” “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control,” “the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges,” and “the power of choice.”

Is that how you feel when you’re dealing with your bank?

While the Right portrays popularly elected government as a faceless oppressor, large corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals – what we’re calling “Big Wealth” — are trampling on our individual rights and liberties every day. We should be fighting for “economic freedom,” as Corey Robin notes, and explaining how Big Wealth is crushing other fundamental liberties as well.

Here are 10 critical examples, drawn from the headlines and from our everyday lives.

1. Our American liberties end at the workplace door.

If you have a job, the Freedom Train stops at the workplace door. More employees are hired on a part-time or temporary basis to deny them rights and benefits. Many of your privacy rights are gone. Your employer can use your company computer to read your correspondence, and your company cell phone (if you have one) to track your movements.

Free speech? You can be fired for expressing political views online, even when you’re not at work. As employment lawyer Mark Trapp told Bloomberg Business Week, the“freedom to speak your mind doesn’t really exist in work spaces.” Or, in some cases, outside it.

The longstanding right of workers to organize and form a union is also under assault. A corporate-funded group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is coordinating the loss of union rights for public employees. Governors and legislators are using budget shortfalls created by corporate misbehavior and tax cuts for the wealthy to argue that governments can no longer afford to honor union contracts.

Your rights don’t even begin where your, er, bathroom breaks begin. As Mary Williams Walsh reported in the New York Times, “employees at lower rungs of the economic ladder can be timed with stopwatches in the bathroom; stonewalled when they ask to go; given disciplinary points for frequent urination; even hunted down by supervisors with walkie-talkies if they tarry in the stalls.”

2. We’re losing our “right to life” in many different ways–from birth through old age.

It’s always striking when some of those who defend an unborn child’s “right to life” ignore the fact that the United States ranks 49th in infant mortality, according to the latest statistics. Or in the fact that African American infant mortality is 2.5 that of Caucasians. Or that lower-income families of all ethnicities suffer much greater infant mortality in this country than their wealthier counterparts.

The next time you see another story about impoverished North Koreans and their seemingly mad dedication to their deluded leader and outmoded economic system, consider this: The average life expectancy for an African American in New Orleans is roughly the same as that of a North Korean. It’s shorter than that of people in Colombia, Venezuela, of Vietnam. In our nation’s capital, the life expectancy gap between African American and white males is more than 13 years.

For poor whites the story isn’t much better. A 2005 study showed that life expectancy for poor white males in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley is roughly the same as that of males in Mexico and Panama. They can expect to live nearly four and a half years less than average white male nationwide. Opportunities for an affordable education are disappearing — and education correlates closely with longevity.

Then there’s Medicare. Studies showed that mortality among Americans aged 65 and older decreased by 13 percent after Medicare was created, and they spent 13 percent fewer days in the hospital. The corporate-funded right is sponsoring a plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system that will provide less coverage for older Americans’ healthcare with each passing year. They also want to raise its eligibility age. The studies show that these proposals would result in increased loss of life and more hospital days for older Americans.

3. We’ve lost autonomy over our own bodies.

While Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin prattle about “death panels,” many injured or ailing Americans enter a Kafka-esque maze of insurance executives, case managers, billing services, and customer service numbers with interminable hold times. Some of these processes were created as a legitimate response to physician overtreatment, itself encouraged by our privatized education and health financing systems. But they’ve turned into massive operations for delaying, frustrating, and thwarting attempts by patients and doctors to receive permission to provide necessary services.

Millions of Americans have to plead for needed treatment, then argue over a complex and error-prone system of copayments, deductibles, and medical bills denied for payment with incomprehensible explanations. If they’re unable to devote hours to battling their insurer, or if they try and fail, they may then find themselves at the mercy of medical debt collectors whose own actions have been the subject of legal scrutiny and public criticism.

Long-standing assumptions built into our medical system deny virtually all Americans the right to affordable dental care, which is available in most other developed countries, while an antiquated and Puritanical attitude toward mental illness has been exploited to deny them adequate care for these conditions.

The right is attacking Medicare, one of our most popular government programs, and defending one of our nation’s least popular institutions, HMOs. In fighting for Medicare Advantage’s HMO subsidies and resisting wider access to public health insurance, they’re using the language of freedom to rob Americans of the freedom to make their own medical decisions.

There are treatments which have unproven value, have unpleasant side effects, or which studies have shown to be over-used to provide financial gain to medical providers. People have a right to know that, and to be protected from this kind of abuse. But the denial of covered services is an epidemic in American healthcare – and a massive assault on American freedom.

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