The Price of Freedom

The other night I was discussing the problem of gun-related deaths and violence with some friends. One declared that he saw no need for gun owners to have fifteen or fifty bullet magazine clips or high caliber long range sniper rifles. The other immediately asked, “How many domestic murders have involved sniper rifles or expensive specialty firearms?” Off-hand, none of us could think of any, although I’m certain that there must be some. Then we wondered about background checks… and something else struck me – the underlying issue behind much of what has polarized the political system.

It’s actually pretty simple… and appalling, and I’ll get to it in a bit, but first, a few observations in the way of background. Two generations ago or so, in the United States, there weren’t near as many abortions as there are now, for several reasons. First, abortion was essentially illegal, as well as morally condemned, and unwed motherhood disgraced both the mother and her family [not the father or his family, for some reason]. But there were a great number of “shotgun” weddings and “premature” births involving recently married couples. Likewise, despite the outbursts and spectacular recent killings, the murder rate is at fifty year low, but accidental deaths from guns tends to track the number of firearms in circulation. For all that, the rate of deaths from firearms in the U.S. is almost twenty times that of the average of other industrialized nations, and the reason is very simple. Most of them simply don’t allow the number and range of personal firearms that the U.S. does. With over 300 million firearms in private hands in the U.S., banning or eliminating them is a practical impossibility. So what else can be done to reduce gun deaths? Stricter background checks? The Newtown shooting wouldn’t have been stopped by that, nor by the checks most are proposing. Nor, most likely, would the Aurora theatre shooting . Far stricter standards would be necessary, standards at which most Americans would balk.

Now… add the issue of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. What has the far right up in arms is what they see as a denial of freedom, the fact that the goal of the ACA is to require everyone to have insurance. Without such insurance more than 30 million people will not have equal access to health care, and quite a number of them will die, or die earlier, from such lack of access [and the rest of us will pay for expensive partial care for those who don’t, but that’s another issue].

There’s a pattern here, and, as I said above, it’s pretty simple… and brutal. The freedom to have guns, to have abortions, and to refuse to require to insist everyone have health insurance – and for other “freedoms” as well – results in a far higher level of deaths in our society than would otherwise be the case.

To maintain the degree of freedom that we apparently insist upon means that we will incur, as a society, a great number of deaths that would not occur if we were less “free.” And the associated question that goes with that is whether those costs are willingly being paid by those who largely incur them – the poor, the uneducated, the innocent victims, often just bystanders, of shootings – or whether those costs are being foisted off on them by those who cite their need for “freedom,” because, like it or not, the freedom to bear arms or have an abortion, or not to have health insurance imposes costs, often in lives lost, on others. So does the “freedom” to hire part-time workers instead of full-timers.

In short, the price of these kinds of freedom is paid in blood, often the blood of innocents, and more often than the price is not paid by those who lobby and tout such freedoms, but by those who don’t have the advantages of those who insist on the need for those freedoms, yet I don’t see this argument being raised, except in the case of abortion. Why not in other matters? Aren’t the lives of those already born as valuable as those of the unborn? Either way, it’s a double standard that continues to go unrecognized.

14 thoughts on “The Price of Freedom”

  1. Jonathan B says:

    Hasn’t this always been the case for most Democratic governments?
    I tend to side with the Freedom is worth it crowd, as I don’t trust the politicians to make a better decisions. Lets look at the Department of Education. Since its inception, has education gotten better or worse? I am in my 20s and my education was crap for the most part. I have issues with time management, concentrating on the task at hand, and thinking critically(and I’ve been working since age 13/14 so its not lack of work experience). I can pass any test you want me to(passed my CPA exams), but to use those items critically for clients is another issue entirely.
    Freedom is not free, but Free thinking people tend to be better off in the long run. You books tend to be a great example of this. The protagonist is often a benevolent type of dictator(or uses their power in benevolent ways)while the villain tends to be seen as the evil thoughtless dictator that uses power for the sake of using power. The problem with the real world is we don’t get to decide which dictator/user of power gets to control our lives, and I’d rather say hey I lived to be 60 had a good life and lived it the way I wanted to live, rather than living to be 80 and having someone tell me how to live for those 80 years.

    P.S I loved the analogy of Abortion, I honestly had never thought of it that way.

  2. Justin says:

    Placing the burden of freedom on the backs of the poor and uneducated goes beyond legal issues. Those groups also bear the brunt of our military costs, particularly in last century’s drafts. Those who take us to war risk neither themselves nor their progeny in the process – they’re too old and their kids too rich to have to put on a uniform. In fact, most politicians enjoy a financial status that keeps them very distant from many of the laws they make.

    I wonder what it would take to make politicians bear more of the burden from their decisions? Could we do something to allow poorer people to run for office, either through limited public campaign financing and better pay structure for politicians? Having broader demographic representation would at least put some personal risk in more decisions.

    If that’s impractical, how do we increase accountability? Making representatives buy into the new health care plans seems like a reasonable, albeit tame, example. What about risk mitigation rules? If there’s a freedom with a known associated risk (i.e. the rate of deaths due to casual gun ownership), force the choice between allowing the freedom and funding mitigation services like low-cost shooting ranges for training and family support for gun victims?

  3. Jim S says:

    That’s a powerful insight. Freedom includes the freedom to make bad choices and do dumb things. Bad choices and dumb things may have negative consequences, including death. One of the problems I see with the Affordable Care Act is that, as far as I understand it, there’s little downside to not getting insurance until you get hurt or sick, and then the insurers are required to accept you. But health insurance is currently essentially a two-sided gamble: insurers are betting that premiums collected will exceed costs, while the insured essentially bet that they’ll get more out of it than they put in. The ACA is supposed to hedge that bet by requiring everyone to participate — but people are seeing that the penalties are less than the premiums.

  4. Corwin says:

    I think Justin makes a very good point about politicians being so wealthy that they are not impacted by the decisions they make. Perhaps reform in the area of who can afford to run for public office is a place to start. Unless your ‘leaders’ are impacted by their decisions they will never stop behaving like spoiled children, which from my observation point, they are.

  5. Steve Newton says:

    What you cite are the externalities of any public policy choice. Public policy generally moves total risk around rather than eliminating or even reducing it. The debate over speed limit laws has used this language but not this logic for years. Because most people believe the simplistic mantra that slower is safer, many roads in the US and Canada have significantly lower speed limits than research suggests they should, ironically leading to more accidents and more risk as people evade the law rather than follow it.

    You could apply your argument to defense spending in terms of either people killed (elsewhere) to maintain our “freedom” or resources that could be “better spent” on solving social problems here at home. Few people argue that no defense is necessary, but the devil is in the details of where along the continuum to place the relative costs and benefits.

    That’s what I believe your argument slights. Social cost of abortion in terms of “murdered babies” must be balanced against a significantly lower violent urban crime rate since about 15 years after Rowe v Wade (see Dubner, Freakonomics). Social cost of universal access to firearms in terms of deaths and accidents must actually be weighed against successful use of firearms for defense and deterrence of crime and abuse.

    Social cost of the lack of health insurance is trickier: we are stuck there because thirty or forty years ago we decided, as a society, to tie insurance to employment rather than the government as other nations did. Then we created a patchwork, organically grown (rather than designed) system to try to bridge the gaps. As population grew and circumstances changed this patchwork system became significantly less effective. Your argument here has merit but ignores a couple of unlovely realities: (A) the bloom is off the rose in research terms about how much good preventative care does on a demographic basis; and (B) nobody is tackling the issue of geriatric care at all.

    The reality is that even the US does not have the resources to afford every single citizen every single piece of high-tech care that might be the “most efficient” in any given situation. Don’t have it, never will. So health care in this country IS rationed, HAS ALWAYS BEEN rationed, and WILL ALWAYS BE rationed. The only real question is what are the most just policies for such rationing (marketplace, regulated marketplace, government, etc.) and who decides? Your argument implies that there is a commodity–“health care”–that can be given in roughly equal measure to each person if we just decided to do so. I don’t think either economics or biology work that way.

    Still, your overall argument that we don’t actually discuss “the price of freedom” in our society is actually correct. The facile answer is that we don’t discuss many serious policy issues seriously–we debate sound bites. The honest answer is that representative democracies are structured to have a tough time doing that, because the ultimate deciders are a self-selected non-representative portion of the population–the people who vote, primarily out of their own self-interest and not (unfortunately) the greater good of society. Theory says all these self-interests should level out in large numbers; history disputes this.

  6. Steve —

    I think you’re mistaking some of what I’ve said, because I agree with almost everything you’ve said. My basic point was that we’re really not facing the issues, and not facing them leads to bad choices. I also agree that there’s a limit to what preventive health care can do; my point is that almost any form of BASIC health care for the uninsured is likely to be less expensive over the long run than what would result if the ACA is repealed and nothing is done. I agree whole-heartedly with your point that health care will always be rationed, and I believe price [with some regulation, since the medical device and pharmaceutical types make the robber barons of the 19th century look reasonable]is the best mechanism for regulating care above the BASIC level.

  7. R. Hamilton says:

    Those who would gladly ignore Franklin’s advice about not giving up freedom for security can always move to Europe. Have a nice trip!

    With freedom, if one survives, one can pursue anything else oneself. And if one doesn’t, there are plenty more that will.

    Nothing is worth surrendering freedom for, nor compromising with its enemies (and there are no lack of those in either party).

  8. Except… absolute freedom is anarchy… and disaster. The question is always the degree of freedom that is optimal.

  9. Brandon says:


    The Second Amendment makes it impossible for the U.S. to make the structural changes that could possibly reduce gun-related deaths. We all know this, but outside of academic circles I rarely hear the 2nd Amendment discussed in its proper historical context. Keep in mind this was written in the late 18th century as a measure intended to preserve hard won freedoms gained through military victory in a civil war. The amendment’s origins are largely the result of anti-standing army rhetoric that came out of the English Civil War, where standing armies were wielded by corrupt and powerful (think Cromwell)leaders in terrible ways. Simply put, peacetime standing armies were a terrifying prospect for most of our republican-minded founders because they were expensive and they concentrated power in the hands of corruptable men. The 2nd Amendment was designed to eliminate any justification for having a standing army, which was seen as a grave threat to people who just fought their own military in a lengthy war.

    So what do we do now that we have the most expensive and capable military on the planet and a civilian populaton that is armed to the teeth? These two conditions were not supposed to be able to exist together. Complicating this even further is that our military is now a perpetual institution that enjoys wide public support, or at least minimal condemnation. Armies went from being perceived threats to liberty in Revolutionary America to being the protectors of liberty in modern times, at least according to public opinion.

    So I guess what I am saying is that if you place the 2nd Amendment in it’s correct historical context I would argue that either we disband the Army (navies were not seen as threats since their power stopped at the shore back then) or abolish the 2nd Amendment. Either you get the best armed forces or you get the armed citizenry with its associated costs that you laid out.

    Obviously I write this in partial jest because both options are completely unrealistic. But it is something to ponder I hope. For more on the anti-army ideology that influenced the founder’s, namely the anti-federalists, to include the 2nd Amendment in our Consitution check out Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution or his Origins of American Politics.

    To really confuse all of you…I am a supporter of the 2nd Amendment, firearm owner, war veteran, former jarhead, historian, and a near pacifist.

  10. Steve Newton says:

    L. E.–
    I would have preferred, if we were going to extend 100% health care to all, to have done so via an expansion of Medicare and not via another patchwork program that still will not cover millions of Americans and which results in yet another gigantic wealth transfer to large corporations. That said, I view myself as a libertarian and believe that freedom is one of those values that has to be considered in the making of any policy choice.

    I believe we are no longer having the discussions you are talking about because we are no longer having discussions. Gun rights advocates ONLY want to talk about freedom, self-defense, and government encroachment. Gun control advocates ONLY want to talk about school shootings, suicides, and etc. It makes for good TV perhaps, but bad policy.

    Freeman Dyson had a great metaphor in his 1980s book on arms control (Weapons and Hope) in which he pointed out that the people in the two different camps (deterrence vs the peace movement) were actually not even communicating because they were speaking two different languages. The deterrence folks were speaking a heavily quantified language and the peace movement folks were speaking a heavily qualitative language. In his view little progress could be made until a new third language was created to bridge that gap–sort of a pidgin that required everybody to speak in the same terms.

    Likewise Eleanor Roosevelt once said that you truly do not know your own position unless you can state your opponent’s position as well as he can.

    So I think we can agree on the idea that these things have to be discussed.

    My problem (and I think yours, if I am not misreading you) is the apparent futility of finding a roadmap to get there, especially in a world that now has so many specialized channels of communication that there is no longer any great leveling single common communication event or events that binds us together.

  11. Ryan Jackson says:

    Sadly there is a relatively easy way to increase gun risk and increase gun safety that no one wants to deal with, the right tends to ignore it because they fight anything that comes close to a “check” on their rights. The left tends to fight it because they claim it encourages usage of the weapons.


    No one I know in my personal circle of friends or family would be likely to accidentally injure someone with a firearm. Similarly, very few are likely to decide to end someone’s life unless they were pushed to such a point that the gun wouldn’t have any relevance to it happening.

    This is because each of these people grew up with guns around them, they learned both how to be safe with them and how devastating they can be. At the age of five I knew how to handle rifle and shotgun both with supervision, though I wouldn’t be allowed to fire them or hunt until I was eight. I knew a lot about them and was very clearly educated in what they did and that I did not play with them.

    A close friend has two small children, he has explained the same things my father explained to him. He actually came up with a way to push the issue. He has a prop gun, very real looking but very completely useless that he has, on occasion left laying out in the open. His children have not only learned that seeing a gun means to go get an adult or otherwise leave it alone but have given that type of advise and push to friends who tried to pick up the fake prop.

    Training and proper respect for firearms isn’t going to eliminate all deaths or violence with guns, but it would significantly lower it, Both in helping lower and prevent accidents, or stupidity by people who don’t realize what they have. But, in a statement that may vilify me some, more people trained with these weapons and owning them safely could dissuade others from committing crimes if they believe there’s a potential that their victim will respond badly.

  12. Brian K says:

    “…The rate of deaths from firearms in the U.S. is almost twenty times that of the average of other industrialized nations…”

    I went in search of information to support this claim and found that it is not correct in terms of (reported) homicides/100,000 people. The most recent stats I was able to find are for 2010. The link at the bottom provides a summary of the original United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime statistics compiled for 1995-2011. Scroll down to Reference #7 and click.

    Using the UNODC document obtained above, a comparison of the statistics for the G-8 nations for 2004 and (2010) are as follows (and you will notice that they have decreased for all G-8 nations):

    1 Russia–18.9 (10.2 for 2009)
    2 USA–5.5 (4.8)
    3 Canada–2.0 (1.6)
    4 England & Wales–1.7 (1.2)
    5 France–1.6 (1.1)
    6 Italy–1.2 (0.9)
    7 Germany–1.1 (0.8)
    8 Japan–0.60 (0.4)

    The worldwide average was 6.9/100,000 for 2010.

  13. Brian K says:

    An addition to the above which I forgot:

    Homicide deaths by firearm:

    Worldwide: 42% of total
    North America: 60% of total
    Southern Europe: 45% of total
    Western Europe: 25% of total

    Multiplying these percentages with the figures above will not approach a 20x rate.

    Source: United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “Global Study On Homicide, 2011”, UNODC Homicide Statistics, Percentage of Homocides by Firearm graph, pg. 10.

    1. The 20 times number was based on 2003 data. According to more recent reports, depending on how one analyzes the data, show a U.S. homicide rate that is 10-15 times greater that 20 other industrialized nations.

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