America is often praised as a symbol of freedom to the world, but the exact definition of the nation’s freedom is less understood. Freedom is quite multifaceted and very tricky to grasp. Countries all over the globe have caught up, each adopting their own brand of the abstract concept. And though America’s version is lauded as the parent, even it is not what one would regard as freedom in its simplest form. The country started off with a very specific flavor of liberty, one forged during colonial times.
In early America, settlers experienced equality of opportunity in that each individual had the freedom to accumulate wealth extensively. When this liberty helped precipitate relatively egalitarian colonial conditions and high upward mobility, the Founding Fathers sought to preserve it. This established the belief that the freedom to follow one’s economic drive would lead to a satisfactory social balance. Specifically, a balance ripe with equal opportunity. Thus, freedom and wealth became intertwined. As the nation evolved, the intense pursuit of wealth persisted, but social advancement became steadily less feasible. What resulted was a nation whose fixation on money undermines rather than empowers many of its people’s freedom.
(for the TL;DR, skip to the final subheading)
Accumulating wealth was a centerpiece of America’s fun, exciting, and genocidal colonial days. European men immigrating to the land generally did so with monetary motives. These varied from wanting to improve one’s own life to just typical human avarice. And the prepubescent U.S. provided the perfect conditions for increasing one’s wealth. There was a large quantity of land available for stealing, and any free man had the freedom to amass property. The sheer abundance of land made it reasonably easy to acquire more and, in turn, become richer. This allowed the distribution of property to become relatively equal.
It also created many opportunities for economic advancement. Land was a social escalator, and the ease with which one obtained it enabled remarkably permeable class lines. This meant social mobility was at an all-time high, and the wealth was spread out. With no one person at the top, the social structure took on the shape of a truncated pyramid. (Imagine an upright mountain with the tip sliced off.) The portion of total wealth owned by the top 1% was not nearly as high as it is today; historians and economics professors place the figure at around 6.1% in 1774, not including slaves.
The Gini coefficient (which measures wealth inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, 1 being perfectly unequal) during the same year was also only 0.4. (Naturally, when including the slaves, the figure rises slightly, to 0.437) A Gini of 0.4-0.437 puts the colonies at adequate income equality. The picture of an egalitarian colonial system is even clearer at a regional level, looking at colonial New England (Gini 0.354), the Middle Atlantic (Gini 0.381), and among free Southerners (Gini 0.328). For comparison, the Gini coefficient was 0.57 in northwest Europe at the same time. Take that, Europe.
The material standard of living for a typical white family was the highest in the world at the time, even over England. The colonial “middle class” was large and virile, just the way the colonists preferred it. In fact, the middle class was the highest stratum, since the middle of the distribution of wealth claimed 41.6% of all income, versus only an average of 24.4% in northwest Europe.
On top of that, most (excluding the minorities, as is often the case) had land and could read or write, creating similar starting points. The young country was even moderately favorable to women, for the scarcity of labor meant jobs for them and gave them new economic importance.
All in all, the free colonial men enjoyed impressively egalitarian conditions, which only strengthened their materialistic drive and reinforced the idea that economic gain, and the freedom to pursue that, was the key to a comfortable, satisfactory life. It set the stage for the future’s zealous assertions of equality. These egalitarian ideals became a distinct characteristic of American society, and colonists had a strong belief in the equal potential and opportunity of men.
The founding fathers
These new egalitarian beliefs, plus inspirations about government from various Enlightenment thinkers, greatly influenced the Founding Fathers when they set out to courageously forge the country’s political systems. They wanted to somehow secure in place the social balance that had been achieved during their time period. For not only was it incredibly egalitarian, but it also had allowed them to attain elevated positions.
The two motivations, one being the desire to craft a country ripe with the same equal opportunity and economic liberty as the colonial times, and the other being the desire to preserve their own assets and social standings, are evident in the nation that followed.
Their desire for equal opportunity and economic liberty was not only reasonable but fairly logical. The similar opportunities offered to the free European men who settled in America had seemingly led to a wide distribution of property, weak and undefined class lines, and adequate wealth equality. Every man had the freedom to religiously indulge in their fervent economic drive, and it was believed that that freedom was what had allowed for such desirable conditions.
Thus, when the cash-strapped, debt-consumed British casually decided to end salutary neglect in 1763 and start taxing the colonies without any colonial representation at the table, it kicked the American men where it hurt most: in the coin pouches. (Or more accurately, in the wallets.) It made the settlers cognizant of the tremendous liberty they’d enjoyed in simply being able to chase wealth without a chaperone. That realization, coupled with the newly emerging sentiments of equality, eventually birthed the Revolution, the glorious battle for freedom and self-government.
It enshrined in place a taut bond between freedom and wealth and a belief that the equal freedom of individuals to pursue wealth would engender an egalitarian society.
The Founding Fathers wanted to seal that bond, for they were quite satisfied with the fruitful colonial social balance. They also, no doubt, wanted to secure their own assets and keep themselves at the top, as well, for the Founding Fathers were not just “ordinary” citizens. These important, intelligent figures of America’s origins, with their lustrous, snowy tresses, largely came from privileged backgrounds. Most were born into affluent families, slaveholders, and/or inherited large sums of land and wealth. And they received elevated education during a time when college attendance was rare. “They were the elite of the day, involved in the highest levels of the society,” explains Brown University history professor Gordon Wood.
A few, such as Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin, were, notably, born into poverty. Franklin harnessed the classic self-made American dream. He rose from rags to riches and became one of the wealthiest Americans of all time. Hamilton himself married into the affluent Schuyler family.
Even the 55 men of the Constitutional Convention, who circled up with one another to painstakingly hammer out the U.S. Constitution, were not common people. The National Archives described them as “well-educated men of means who were dominant in their communities and…prominent in national affairs.”
Evidently, the Fathers were quite well-off, at the top of society in terms of wealth, education, and social status, though many did struggle with debt. And they were quite content with their present social balance, partially due to the way it favored them and it substantially attributed to their genuine appreciation of the conditions that made life comfortable for most of the free men.
Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence writer, billionaire by modern standards, and owner of hundreds of slaves, described their society in a letter to Thomas Cooper, saying, “we have no paupers. The great mass of our population is of laborers.” (He does not appear to consider the fact that enslaved people made up over a fifth of the colonial population at the time.)
Jefferson classified the rich as “being few, and of moderate wealth.” He accurately declared that “most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, [and] have families.” The wealthy, he said, “have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life.” He saw the egalitarian state of his world and asked, “can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
Thus, when they set out to forge the nation’s future, they sought to prolong this colonial balance, desiring a nation where one’s property is protected, opportunity is equal, and each citizen has the freedom to pursue economic gain. This finished in a very hands-off way, as they opted for a laissez-faire approach to the economy. Inspired by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the raw economic freedom of their colonies, they favored a free market, fierce consumer individualism, the devout accumulation of capital, and minimal commerce regulation. They also championed property rights. Many adopted the defective, age-old view that only those with property held a stake in the country’s operations.
They also fully understood the dangers of wealth concentrating too much in one place; after all, they despised aristocratic England and the tremendous economic inequality there (Gini 0.57, remember?). James Madison, born into wealth and the Constitution’s main author, cautioned that stark property inequality would topple liberty and potentially lead to an “oligarchy founded on corruption.” Jefferson wrote in an 1816 letter to George Logan that he hoped to “crush” the birth of “the aristocracy of our monied corporations,” which he claimed, “dared already to challenge our government.”
But at the same time, many of them were irrationally distrustful of the general population, believing that economic and political power should remain in the capable and calloused hands of men like them—the wealthy elite. Alexander Hamilton believed that “all communities divide themselves into the few and the many,” the “many” being the “mass of people,” and the few being the rich. He claimed that this mass of people “seldom judge or determine right,” ostensibly because they’re far too “turbulent and changing.” He, therefore, believed that the rich and well-born deserved “a distinct permanent share in the government.” According to him, “nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.” Strange, it’s almost as if he forgot that he himself grew up impoverished.
Hamilton’s words, dripping with classism, assert that a handful of rich representatives could determine what was best for the common people better than the common people themselves. Which makes total sense.
Rich-born John Jay, Founding Father and abolitionist, similarly argued that “those who own the country ought to govern it.” James Madison believed the Senate should “come from, and represent, the wealth of the Nation.” He claimed that pure democracy endangered property rights. It was vital to “secure the rights of property against the danger from an equality and universality of suffrage,” he insisted. Quite a peculiar, alien sentiment considering the enormous value placed on universal suffrage in today’s age.
Considering that a government that keeps the wealthy in power would benefit them and their ilk, their assertions were likely a touch biased. One would not think that men so committed to egalitarianism would express such flagrant prejudice against the poor.
It is important to note that dissenting voices did exist; the founders were shockingly not of one mind. Second President John Adams, for instance, wrote that unless restrained, “the rich and the proud” will hold economic and political power that “will destroy all the equality and liberty.”
The Fathers did not all hold the same opinions. They spent a substantial amount of time with their noses buried in coarse discord. Disagreement grew on their tongues like moss, and they expended innumerable hours hacking away enough of it to inch towards unanimity. But generally, very few of these men had a problem with a bunch of wealthy elites like themselves making all of the decisions. They also didn’t see the need for a separation of state and business interests. Freedom, equality, and the economy were far too entangled for that.
What resulted was a system of government that, while enshrining ideals of equality, also served the interests of the rich, further cementing the influence of money in America. They decided popular vote would elect the representatives of the House, to appease the general population. But of course, only white, free, land-owning men could vote anyway. They restricted even the lowest level of political clout from the citizens that weren’t well-off. And the Fathers did not trust direct democracy for selecting the Senators, instead, they assigned that to state legislatures. This was done ostensibly to stimulate camaraderie between the state governments and the federal government, but Madison himself also said that the Senate should protect “the minority of the opulent against the majority,” illustrating their fear of the general population.
The electoral college, a body of select individuals responsible for choosing the country’s president, rather than the popular vote, further illustrates their distrust of the majority. The electoral college system also reduces the value of a citizen’s vote, making the vote of a person in a less populous state worth much more than that of a state with a greater population, when ideally everyone’s vote should be equal.
But when examining the Preamble to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, one sees that their systems of government simultaneously enforced genuine values of equality and liberty. The Fathers were very well-educated, and that allowed them to devise and implement logical, functional systems. But their knowledge was at least somewhat tainted by the classic flaw of humankind: ego. They strived to preserve a certain balance that not only retained egalitarianism and liberty but also kept their own type at the top of society. (That also partially explains why, despite the enormous hypocrisy it unveiled, they didn’t do more to dissolve slavery. The practice was far too fundamental to the economy to be abolished for silly things like inalienable rights or morality.)
Historian Howard Zinn supports this, writing in his book A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present that the “Constitution illustrates the complexity of the American system,” for it “serves the interests a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support.” Economic interest is the thread with which the Constitution was woven.
The combination of the Founding Fathers’ motivations to preserve their own favorable assets and positions while also securing the egalitarian balance of the colonial system, with its equality of opportunity and economic liberty, established a government that was tailored to the wealthy while simultaneously securing the classic fundamental U.S. values and linking those values to the economy, thus defining America’s liberty in terms of money.
An evolving nation
But nothing lasts forever.
America today, a nation fixated on economic gain, is a product of the Fathers. They established a definition of freedom that is nearly inseparable from the accumulation of wealth.
Which wouldn’t be as terrible if the equality of opportunity had also survived to the modern age. Unfortunately, the egalitarian conditions didn’t last long. By 1860, the Gini coefficient reached 0.51 (versus the previous 0.4). And the top 1% owned closer to 10% of total income, versus the previous 7.1%.
Part of the problem was that America was no longer a “new” land. For the colonials, there’d been plenty of property to remorselessly steal, and even more towards the West for future generations. As the country’s population skyrocketed, there became less land but more demand for it. The people that had bought land early were getting richer while everyone else competed for jobs and property.
Plus, the colonists had been able to rely on slaves and indentured servants for labor. Neither of those could or would remain in a country that purported to value equality.
America’s financial system also, thanks to the lovely Mr. Hamilton, gained popularity overseas, and foreign investors were leaping to get a foot in the new market. Unfortunately, the system favored those who could get into the market early and those who were already economically stable enough to actually invest. This allowed the rich to steadily pull further ahead.
Another part of the issue was the lack of explicit laws to actually ensure equality of economic opportunity as the nation grew. The Founding Fathers often spoke of general welfare but curiously failed to actually implement specific ways to protect it. But they weren’t witches (unfortunately). They were men. They didn’t foresee the danger of stoking their country’s untamed pursuit of economic gain without specific provisions for ensuring that each future citizen was able to participate in the chase for wealth. Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams (yeah, T. Jeffy wrote a lot of letters) that he was convinced “rank, and birth, and tinsel-aristocracy [would] finally shrink into insignificance,” due to the lack of European laws like primogeniture and entail.
But the true witch had been John Adams. He predicted many outcomes that came true as the country evolved. He disagreed with Jefferson and found it amusing to assume that America would rise above the globally ubiquitous pattern of economic inequality. “As long as Property exists,” he insisted, “it will accumulate in Individuals…the snowball will grow as it rolls.” He anticipated the unraveling of income equality.
No one heeded Adams’ warnings, however. Poor dude. And when opportunity in America became less equal, there was little in place to guard it. Economic inequality would only continue to surge in the U.S, and it has continued to spike in recent periods. In 2016 the Federal Reserve reported that the top 1% owned a whopping 38.5% of the nation’s wealth. Quite a contrast to the 7.1% of the colonial age.
After all, the U.S. had gone with a more laissez-faire approach to economics due to the every-man-for-himself, make-your-own-way-in-a-fresh-new-land mindset of the colonies. In contrast, other developed, mixed-economy countries like those in Europe more energetically redistribute wealth, in turn precipitating smaller wealth gaps and larger middle classes. The capitalism in these countries plainly isn’t as brutal as America’s. Once so ahead of Europe in economic equality, the U.S. has fallen behind.
And America continues to cater its most gourmet delicacies to the rich. Around half of the members of Congress are millionaires, according to recent data from personal financial disclosures. Which, of course, is disproportionate to the common people. Bloomberg also reported, using data from the Federal Reserve, that the top 1% of U.S. households experienced large stock market returns in the last 10 years, leading them to now control over half of the equity of American companies. And then, of course, there’s that little nuisance with the top 1% also owning 38.5% of the total wealth.
So…still the land of the free?
Today, the link between freedom and economic drive is alive and robust. To be truly “free,” one needs economic security. But America’s lagging in that category threatens its reputation as the land of opportunity. (Though that is not to argue that income inequality is a uniquely American problem.)
The fact that one needs financial security to be “free” is true in nearly every developed nation. But in America, the relationship between freedom and money is much more intimate.
As such, the U.S. raises its children to be good at making money. The typical path for an American—the path most encouraged by society—involves getting an education in order to get a good job. At school, one ideally learns skills and knowledge that help set one up for the professional world. One then attends college in hopes of obtaining the most profitable job possible. The more lucrative the profession, the better.
And since money is the foundation of America’s freedom, it means that the worse off one is financial, the less freedom one has. Well— obviously, right? That isn’t exclusive to America. Except America’s systems do less to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to attempt to stay above the poverty line than other nations.
In other developed countries, education takes up more of the federal budget to ensure equity in schooling. But in America, one has to live in a well-off area with high property taxes to attend an adequate school. Education is the conventional ticket to a stable, well-paying occupation, yet America spends little to ensure egalitarianism in this category.
As college admissions become increasingly competitive, children must work extremely hard to get accepted to universities with any hope of financial aid. And to get into the most elite, prestigious, expensive institutions, students must toil themselves to near-death, with perfect stats and grades, jam-packed schedules, and rigorous, heavy-workload courses. Almost as if all of it is in preparation for the incredibly work-intensive lifestyle of an average American. The entire school system implies that the more a child is willing to sacrifice for their work—whether it be health, sleep, social life, family time, sanity, happiness—the more successful they will be.
The school environment in the U.S. is also much more competitive and reliant on quantitative analysis than other developed nations. It’s as if they assume education can be managed the same way as a stock market. It doesn’t optimize learning, collaboration, or knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Instead, it pits kids against one another, preparing them for a brutal, individualistic workforce. As a result, U.S. education is declining, and American kids are being outperformed in math, science, and reading. Not a great look, especially considering depression, is growing among American teens.
College, also, is incredibly expensive. And though one can petition for financial aid and scholarships, even after those, the cost of tuition can be nearly impossible to afford. Plus, many middle-income families make too much to qualify for monetary assistance but too little to meet the expenses of a university. Student loans end up crippling Americans long into their adult lives, hurting the middle-class most. Other modern countries contribute more to the costs of college. But America, for some reason, tosses education into the backseat; hence, the country’s educational success has plummeted in comparison to other developed nations.
America also locks up more people per capita than any other nation at 698 per 100,000. Incarceration is one of the most blatant impediments to freedom. Obviously, there are many cases where prison time is useful to maintain order and justified as a form of punishment. But authorities jail many people for non-violent crimes and crimes specifically related to their socio-economic status.
For example, of all those imprisoned, 25% aren’t even convicted. They’re merely held because they’re unable to pay the bail. And nearly 75% of all incarcerated persons were locked up for low-level drug, property, or non-violent transgressions. Ultimately, the poor are most affected by the plague of mass incarceration. They are more likely to use drugs due to the way poverty and drugs perpetuate each other. They are also more likely to be homeless or unable to pay the money owed (like fines or child support). They’re three times more likely to be arrested. And children born poor are more likely to have developmental problems that can contribute to them committing a crime.
And the key thing to note is that poverty traps people. Upward mobility and equality of economic opportunity have been deteriorating. Those on the bottom are likely to experience less of both. This issue refers to the Great Gatsby Curve, which illustrates “the connection between the concentration of wealth in one generation and the ability of those in the next generation to move up” the social ladder. Americans are increasingly less likely to make more money than their parents, especially for the middle class.
For the supposed land of opportunity, the U.S. only ranks 27th in social mobility. That puts it behind Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Portugal, South Korea, and a multitude of European countries, including the UK, France, Germany, and Denmark. The U.S. middle class is also no longer the richest in the world.
Undoubtedly, America is a geopolitical superpower. It has the largest economy by GDP (factoring out COVID-19 blows) and the most millionaires per capita in the world. But a large number of its citizens do not experience the benefits of its formidable economic stats. It’s those who are already rich who benefit most directly.
So, yes, unemployment was achieving record lows. Yes, the percentage of people below the poverty line has been marginally decreasing. Life expectancies are high and fewer babies die. America is a first-world country, and its population enjoys a great deal of rights often taken for granted. Unquestionably, America’s capitalism and robust economy have excreted many positive, advantageous results.
But those figures also do not accurately measure the livelihood or freedom of the country’s people. They do not convey the personal, specific financial struggles facing citizens. These are the seemingly small things that, in actuality, inhibit the ability of Americans to feel and live freely— particularly middle and low-income Americans.
For example, 40% of its citizens don’t even have $400 in the bank for emergency expenses. 40% of Americans report on a Gallup Poll that they’re either running into debt or barely able to make ends meet. Only 25% of the polled group say they’re saving enough for retirement. Nearly as many (18%) have saved nothing at all. Salaries are stagnating, the cost of healthcare is increasing, and the eroding minimum wage means “low-wage workers have to work longer hours just to achieve the standard of living that was considered the bare minimum almost half a century ago.”
The country’s economy is improving, but the financial anxiety of its people is rampant. Individuals feel too precarious in their finances. They live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay for the basic needs that allow them to enjoy their freedom, including food, housing utilities, healthcare, child care, transportation, college, rent or mortgage, and unexpected financial shocks—like layoffs, broken bones, or leaking roofs. 70% of Americans say they are struggling financially. The same percentage of households report facing financial strains on income. And a mere 29% report being financially “healthy.”
America is so work-intensive, always looking for the next dollar, that its people’s work-life balance is terrible. They work substantial hours in volatile jobs and work harder than most other countries’ citizens. The belief that work is vital to one’s life’s purpose and identity has endured from colonial times. And consequently, people are much more likely to work weekends and nights. They also receive the fewest vacation days out of all the developed nations. In fact, the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation is America’s. Too busy with manifest destiny, one supposes. It’s just embarrassing that a whole 25% of private-sector workers don’t get any time off at all.
And it goes to show how entrenched the “work-is-life” mindset is in America’s society that not only do the people receive the shortest breaks, but they also continue to turn their backs on time off. In 2014 they took the fewest vacation days in four decades. This could also be due to a fear of layoffs.
So many Americans are drowning in continuous toil; it’s unsurprising that they’re one of the most stressed peoples in the world. In 2007, the APA warned that stress was a massive health problem in the nation. For 75% of those surveyed by the APA, money, and work were the primary causes of stress.
Americans are also incredibly depressed. WHO called the U.S. one of the most depressed countries in the world; a mere 14% of adults say they’re happy. The sources of unhappiness vary, but in general, there is a strong link between financial security and satisfaction with life. In contrast, European countries dominate global happiness and are ahead of the U.S. in social mobility. And that is including the capitalist European nations.
To top it all off, residual financial shackles still damage historically discriminated against minority groups in the country. This includes women and people of color, who were politically, economically, and socially oppressed from the beginning.
All in all, there exists the freedom for corporations to avoid paying taxes and distribute bonuses to their CEOs in the middle of an economic collapse, but not the freedom for a citizen to take a few days off. Everything about American freedom worships money. It’s a result of the classical American dream—the idea that anyone, regardless of what class they’re born into, can achieve success and that all it takes is hard work.
But the country has spiraled into a state where it’s focused more on the raw accumulation of capital rather than whether each of its citizens actually has the ability to pursue an increase in their wealth. It traps people at the bottom, leaving them unable to participate in the contest at all. Meanwhile, the rich get richer, sprinting full-speed ahead in a race with no contenders. Considering freedom is so dependent on an individual’s ability to partake in the money-making, it’s a danger to the fundamental value of liberty for so many Americans to remain unable to make ends meet.
More inclusive capitalism
The country need not do a 180 and plunge headfirst into socialism. There will always be inequality where there is freedom. Ironic, yes.
But a government can work to ensure that each individual at least has a chance to forge their own destiny. To be free. America can employ a more inclusive form of capitalism, taking some pointers from friends over in (brace yourself) Europe. (Don’t worry, American Pride. Humility isn’t deplorable).
The U.S. can compel its capitalism to work for its people again, and not against them. It’s not about hand-outs; it’s about ensuring that each person has an equal chance to compete for the nation’s prizes.
Ultimately, it all depends on what type of freedom is the best for the people. Paul Constant, writer at Civic Ventures, explains it well. “When you decide that the goal of your economy is to create more happiness for everyone rather than to optimize shareholder value, it’s amazing to see how your definition of freedom can change for the better,” he says. Instead of making liberty all about chasing economic gain, “getting rich” can take up a seat beside other images of success, under a broader umbrella of freedom—one that incorporates more diverse sources of citizen satisfaction and understands that there should be more to a content life than how much money is in one’s bank.
As long as we continue to define our freedom in terms of money and remain so obsessed with the pure accumulation of wealth, people’s liberty will be subverted. It is a definition of freedom that is not sustainable. Indeed, it has already begun to chip away at the freedom of so many Americans.
Thank you, Founding Fathers, but maybe it is time for another revolution. One that brings the U.S. closer to the egalitarian balance and equal economic opportunity you originally sought to preserve.
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