As I read about the presidential candidates’ stated views, and as I watch the televised debates, I see the battle lines clearly drawn over competing ideologies separating not only individual candidates, but also differentiating political parties in the United States and also throughout the world concerning the structure and purpose of government.

One argument rests on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who theorized that economic growth and reduced unemployment can be supported through governmental fiscal policies including spending to stimulate the economy, adjusting interest rates, and placement of certain regulations on market economics.

Another and competing philosophy has come to be known as “neoliberalism,” which centers on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, including such tenets as reducing the size of the national government and granting more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatization of governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanent incorporation of across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, market driven and unfettered “free market” economics.

These tenets taken together, claim those who favor neoliberal ideas, will ensure the continual growth of the economy while protecting individual autonomy, liberty, and freedom.

Neoliberalism rests on the foundation of “meritocracy”: the notion that individuals are basically born onto a relatively level playing field, and that success or failure depends on the individual’s personal merit, motivation, intelligence, ambition, and abilities. Those who are, however, born or enter into difficult circumstances can choose to “pull themselves up by their boot straps,” and they can rise to the heights that their abilities and merit can take them. People, therefore, possess “personal responsibility” for their life’s course, and the government should not give them “stuff.”

I can remember back to the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign and the CNN-Tea Party-sponsored Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Florida. (The former Congressional “Tea-Party Caucus” has since changed its name to the Congressional “Freedom Caucus.”) The debate facilitator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, asked then presidential candidate Ron Paul the hypothetical question of what we as a society should do in the case of a 30-year-old man who chooses not to purchase health insurance and later develops a serious life-threatening disease. Before Paul had a chance to answer Blitzer’s question, a number of audience members shouted “Let him die. Let him die.”

During this current presidential year, the lines seem clearly demarcated with the Republicans generally taking more of a neoliberal stance and the Democrats taking more of the Keynesian policies. Though the neoliberal battle cry of “liberty” and “freedom” through “personal responsibility” sounds wonderful on the surface, what are the costs of this alleged “liberty” and “freedom”?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when the upper 10% of families controls approximately 75% percent of the accumulated wealth in 2013 and 85 percent of the stocks and bonds, when the wealth gap between white families and families of color is enormous with the mean net worth of white families standing at $679,000, Latino/a families at $112,000, and black families at $95,000, and the Right’s agenda will only increase this enormous imbalance?

And how “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when before the Affordable Healthcare Act, 50 million people in our country went uninsured and their only form of health care was the hospital emergency room, which the remainder of the population paid because our government will not provide a single-payer health care system, but instead, we all must accept the exorbitant profit-motive insurance premium rates of private health care insurers?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when governmental entitlement programs are cut or privatized, thereby eliminating the safety net support systems from our elders, our young people, people with disabilities, people who have suffered hard times, and others struggling to provide life’s basics?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when the rights of women to control their bodies have increasingly and incessantly come under attack, and when doctors and others are intimidated and even killed at family planning clinics?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* people are still denied their basic human and civil rights in many states that are accorded to heterosexual and cisgender people on a daily basis in employment, housing, and public accommodations, and when they are vilified, scapegoated, attacked, and murdered, or when affirmative action programs to improve the chances of people of color and women are branded as nothing more than “reverse discrimination,” and steps are taken to abolish these strategies without replacing them with acceptable alternatives? I ask, when will the political Right take the Black Lives Matter Movement seriously?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when conservative politicians push for school vouchers to funnel public money into parochial institutions at the expense of public education, when forces are gathering to reintroduce prayer into the public schools? And how “free” are we as the political and theocratic right tear down the wall separating religion from entering into the affairs of government and push legislation based on their notions of “morality”?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when politicians and business owners attempt to co-opt and decertify labor unions and eliminate collective bargaining?

How “free” are we as the National Rifle Association claims in its literature that “GUNS SAVE LIVES,” or when people can own and use assault rifles, and carry concealed firearms into bars, political rallies, and college and university campuses, and when the NRA and its many supporters fight to dismantle governmental regulations further on weapons ownership and use?

How “free” are we as college and university tuition increases and governmental student assistance programs dry up, and students are left with gigantic debts following graduation or are pushed out entirely from the institutions of higher learning?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when the Right passes legislation to build walls, to deport, and to further restrict immigration and social and educational services to young people, and breaks up families?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when some presidential candidates promise to abolish the Consumer Protection Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Education, and other governmental agencies, as the U.S. Congress threatens to privatize our national parks, and to loosen environmental and consumer protections of all kinds, and when mining, oil, and lumber companies lobby to exploit the land further, and when they are granted enormous tax breaks and subsidies?

How “free” are we as individuals and as a collective nation when residents of the U.S., who represent approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the Sierra Club’s Dave Tilford, “…uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper. Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world”? And in spite of this, some on the Right are calling for further deregulation of environmental standards.

How “free” are we when we deny the youth of our nation their basic civil rights to make many of their own decisions in the guise of “protecting them”?

So I would then ask, do we as individuals and as a nation have any responsibility and obligation to protect and to support people from falling off the ledge of circumstance to their harm or death because they simply cannot “pull themselves up by their boot straps.” Actually, have you ever tried to pull yourself up by your boot straps? If you have, you know that by doing this, you literally fall on your face!

Can we begin, for example, to view health care not as a privilege for those who can afford it, but rather, see it as a human right? Can we begin to perceive the actual crack in this beautiful notion but unmet reality of meritocracy, and respond in common purpose and sense of community to help lift those who are in need of assistance?

I was extremely encouraged last year as I witnessed news reports of a horrendous traffic accident between an automobile driver and a motor cyclist, which resulted in the cyclist being thrust under the burning car. A group of stunned bystanders immediately and without hesitation turned into courageous upstanders by joining in unison, with flames raging around them, to turn the car on its end ensuring that others could pull the young cyclist to safety, thereby saving his life and the life of the automobile driver.

I hope that as residents of our country, we will use this incident as an analogy to come together in unity to work as hard as we can to pull our country and its people to safety according to their needs and abilities. I argue that government has a vital place in this.

We must not, therefore, let the promises of neoliberalism’s “freedom” seduce us into inaction, because I find that singer and songwriter words in his legendary song, Me and Bobby McGee, hold true when he says that: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).


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