By Tom Ehrich
I couldn’t tell if the comment was snarky or serious. I suspected snark – it was Facebook, after all, where casual snarkiness abounds – so I deleted the comment and unfriended the sender. I have had it with rudeness in social media.
But the question bears scrutiny. I had shared my feeling of gratitude at being able to vote in a “free election.” The Facebook commenter said: “Free? Someone is paying for it.”
“Free,” in this context, means without restraint, without having to pay anything for the ballot handed to me (as in the now-outlawed poll tax once used to keep minorities from voting), and without having to satisfy some guard or official that I was going to vote their way.
It’s the usage of “free” that you find in the state motto of my wife’s birth: “Live free or die.” It’s what Patrick Henry shouted, and what millions of people have sacrificed their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to obtain and to defend. It’s “liberty,” “freedom,” “independence.” It’s the opposite of the condition that led immigrants to seek their home in America, and what led early immigrants to revolt against the corrupt monarchy of Great Britain.
It’s the “free” of “free speech” and freedom of religion, of assembly, of the press. It’s the freedom that makes us who we are as a nation. And it’s the freedom that demagogues, religious extremists, terrorists, bigots, corrupt government and corrupt corporations are always threatening to take away from American citizens.
Our freedom does cost them money and power. When workers exercise their freedom to bargain collectively, wages tend to go above management’s desires. When people insist on living freely, it does offend some religious extremists. The corrupt and bigoted would find life a lot easier if people weren’t determined to be free. Corporations would make more money if they could avoid scrutiny for the products they sell and establish monopolies denying freedom of choice. A free people eventually stops believing the lies they tell.
That freedom is ours by right, as guaranteed by the Constitution. The wealthy can live larger than the poor, but they can’t live freer. The poor have as much right to vote, to speak, to assemble and to believe as the wealthy – to the obvious consternation of the wealthy, of course. The wealthy and powerful do everything possible to take away those inconvenient freedoms. Sometimes they get away with it. But in the end, a free people insist on freedom.
Is someone paying for that freedom? My goodness, yes. We pay taxes, we foot the bill for law enforcement, we provide public education to teach citizenship, we maintain armed forces to defend our nation, we pay for media to keep us informed, we provide public funds for elections, we maintain open borders between states, we pay the cost of a national currency and for recognition of state laws. Our system of freedom is enormously expensive.
When I walked freely into the fire barn at Accord, NY, to cast my ballot, I had no impediments whatsoever. That’s the freedom I was extolling. I am also mindful, as I hope we all are mindful, that our freedoms do entail cost. It is a duty and a privilege of citizenship to help bear those costs.