What Is Freedom?

In the age of ideological budget hawks, a defense of social democracy

When the guillotines were still hovering over UNLV earlier this spring and it was unknown on which departments they would fall, I spoke with a nervous student of mine who is into the third year of her degree in communications. She was worried that her department would be one of those to be extinguished and that she wouldn’t have accumulated all the credits she would need by the July, 2012 cut-off date for closing departments. “I’m already $30,000 in debt,” she said. “That’s a big investment, along with the three years. And if they close the department and I go somewhere else to finish my degree, a lot of the credits I’ve earned won’t be transferable.”

Didn’t the state of Nevada enter into a contract to educate her in exchange for what is, for a 20-year-old, a very large investment in time and money? Would the breaking of such a proportionately large contract be tolerated in the commercial sphere? If you did it to a bank or any other corporation, wouldn’t you expect to be run into the ground by their lawyers and bailiffs? My student acted in good faith. If her department had closed (which it didn’t), she still would be liable for her debt. Why do the citizens of Nevada countenance this reneging on their government’s obligations to their young people? Why are they willing to watch their university, which has steadily expanded over two decades, which provides some cultural and intellectual life in a city that has so little of either, which educates young people for a future of economic diversity in what is now a one-industry town, slide back toward the status of a disabled community college? Why are they unwilling to pay income tax for the sake of a better communal future? Why do they let their politicians listen to the lobbyists for the mining and gaming industries instead of to their own children? I don’t know, but I do know that it sounded right to me when I heard the British politician Tony Benn say, “If you want a compliant population, saddle the young with debt.”

I grew up in the United States and moved to Europe more than 30 years ago. In this time, the costs of health care and education in America have escalated out of all proportion to anything else in the economy (the catastrophes of the past three years have not deflated these bubbles, as they did with property prices). In these two areas in Europe, the costs to the individual citizen are assumed by the state (though not all European countries pay for the entirety of university education).

When I returned home to Chicago to visit my parents over the years, I’d get together with a friend I’d grown up with. We have daughters of a similar age, his born in Chicago, mine in London. His was a gifted student who could not go to Dartmouth or Yale, which had accepted her, because the $45,000 or so per year costs were greater than my friend could afford. At that time, eight years ago, he was paying $400 per month for what was basically a minimal, bankruptcy-prevention health insurance. His daughter is now out of college; she went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., which was more expensive than a state school but substantially less expensive than the Ivies. She now does community work in Chicago, and her education debts from undergraduate and graduate education are into six figures.

My own daughter has birth-to-death total health coverage provided by the state. Despite American insurance industry propaganda, both she and I have found this health care to be first class (if a little slow in nonemergency cases). She has a total debt of $20,000 for her undergraduate and post-graduate education, and this is only for loans taken out for her living expenses while she was studying. Her tuition was free. I am paying this debt, but if she were doing so it would be taken out of her salary at a rate of around 5 percent. She would not be liable for any payments at times when she would be unemployed. She’s paid well as a grammar school teacher in London. She lives in a spacious, Edwardian-era apartment in the center of the city run by a state-subsidized cooperative which charges her a rent about one-third the market value. After three years of working, she has been able to take a year off to travel around the world. She has entered adulthood unencumbered.

My friend with the beleaguered daughter in Chicago, incidentally, pays income tax at a rate around 15 percent higher than I have been paying in Europe.

What has struck me more than anything else about American society during my year as a visiting professor at UNLV is the atmosphere of fear and hatred toward government. Government appears to be seen by many Americans as a conspiracy designed to deprive them of their freedoms. Assistance provided to the poor or the sick or the old or even to curious, ambitious young people is seen as a form of moral corruption. Politicians—the governors of Wisconsin and Nevada, for example—seem to think they look better as budget-slashing hard cases than as ameliorators. But cannot debt, ignorance, poor health and unliveable wages be seen as forms of indentured servitude—something a revolution was once fought here to do away with? I have lived for three decades in the social democracies of Europe. People there argue with their governments, like anywhere else, but no one suggests that the state should cease to provide education and health care for all. These are the things that remove stress, improve chances, make choices possible. Without them you are less free.