Many of the Louisianans Hochschild interviews see government regulations as intended to limit rather than protect their freedom. In their view, a person’s freedom to do what they want is more important than ensuring that people are free from the harmful effects of others’ actions (for example, for many Louisianans, a chemical company’s freedom to dump waste in the river trumps a citizen’s right to be free from dangerous toxins). While Hochschild takes pains to understand this conservative viewpoint on freedom, she does not waver in her belief that freedoms cannot be valued for their own sake, without considering their possible negative effects on others. In this way, Hochschild suggests that freedom must be fundamentally predicated on equality.
Conservative Louisianans seem to prioritize the freedom to take risks whereas liberals prioritize their freedom from risks. As a result of Louisiana’s conservatism, the state has few restrictions on gun ownership, motorcycle helmets, and even alcohol sales in drive-through stores; people value their freedom to own guns, forego safety equipment, and buy alcohol where and when they wish. This surprises Hochschild, who has always seen these kinds of regulations as protecting people’s freedom rather than limiting it, ensuring people’s freedom from death at the hands of a drunk driver or a stray bullet.
But these two kinds of freedom, freedom to and freedom from, are mutually exclusive because they often express competing political interests: one person’s freedom to dump toxic waste in a second person’s backyard, for instance, infringes on that second person’s freedom from undeserved suffering. Furthermore, states that prioritize people’s freedom to often distribute those freedoms unequally. While white men are largely free to live without government interference in Louisiana, for instance, other groups face greater regulation there than anywhere else in the United States: it is nearly impossible for women to get an abortion in Louisiana, and the state incarcerates a horrifying proportion of its black men in some of the worst conditions in the country. These examples demonstrate that advocating either the freedom to take risks or the freedom from harm, citizens implicitly support some people’s freedom at the expense of others’—and, generally, the freedom they support is their own. The important question, it seems, cannot be whether a certain kind of policy supports “freedom,” but rather what kinds of freedom it provides for whom.
If appeals to “freedom” are often veiled appeals to self-interest, then how can people decide which policies to vote for? Hochschild—a liberal—implies that the best way to make these political decisions is to consider everyone’s freedom equally, which means that a basic commitment to equality must inform all decisions about freedom. Indeed, she argues that “a national vision based on the common good” is necessary for Americans to truly be free. Hochschild shows that conservatives’ exaltation of freedom often ends up preserving powerful people’s freedom to act while infringing on powerless people’s from harm. And these powerless victims are often the same conservatives who vote in freedom’s name: Louisianans value certain “freedoms from” that limit their own “freedoms to”—Tea Party voters want to be free from taxes and government regulation, for example, but they therefore lose the freedom to decide whether a petrochemical company can build a factory down the street or pollute their backyards. By allowing powerful actors to take advantage of those without power, this one-sided emphasis on freedom cements social hierarchies rather than freeing people from them. By contrast, a liberal vision of freedom—like the Norwegian model that invests public oil resources to ensure that every citizen can “enjoy freedom from need”—deprives some people of certain freedoms to act exactly as they wish (say, by preventing private companies from managing oil reserves) while promoting a more general freedom from hardship for the entire population.
Ultimately, Hochschild suggests that liberals are willing to sacrifice absolute freedom for the sake of equally distributed freedom across society, whereas conservatives value their freedom to act as they wish and therefore decry regulations that prescribe what kinds of light bulbs or water bottles they should buy, what kind or amount of pollution is acceptable, or whether they should eat toxic fish. Of course, Hochschild’s concern that Louisianans’ disdain for regulations actually comes back to bite them demonstrates her emphasis on the common good over individual license, the freedom from harm over the freedom to act. Her own progressivism clearly comes through here, although she has little interest in pushing it on her Louisiana friends.
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom ThemeTracker
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Quotes in Strangers in Their Own Land
Looking out the window of the truck, it’s clear that Mike and I see different things. Mike sees a busy, beloved, bygone world. I see a field of green.
Churches typically ask parishioners to tithe—to give 10 percent of their income. For many this is a large sum, but it is considered an honor to give it. They pay taxes, but they give at church.
“We need Mikes.” Don't be a Cowboy in enduring pollution, he seemed to say. Be a Cowboy fighting it.
Without a national vision based on the common good, none of us could leave a natural heritage to our children, or, as the General said, be “free.” A free market didn't make us a free people, I thought. But I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again.
The “federal government” filled a mental space in Mike's mind—and the minds of all those on the right I came to know—associated with a financial sinkhole.
Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system. Left or right, we all happily use plastic combs, toothbrushes, cell phones, and cars, but we don't all pay for it with high pollution. As research for this book shows, red states pay for it more—partly through their own votes for easier regulation and partly through their exposure to a social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so. In one way, people in blue states have their cake and cat it too, while many in red states have neither. Paradoxically, politicians on the right appeal to this sense of victimhood, even when policies such as those of former governor Jindal exacerbate the problem.
The history of the United States has been the history of whites cutting ahead of blacks, first of all through slavery, and later through Jim Crow laws and then through New Deal legislation and the post-World War II GI Bill, which offered help to millions of Americans with the exception of those in farm and domestic work, occupations in which blacks were overrepresented. And racial discrimination continues today.