Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The Meaning of Freedom


During the last campaign, when I was a candidate making an appearance at every meeting of any sort in my district, I frequently asked myself what Tea Party speakers were driving at when they spoke of "freedom". As I gazed over the crowd, I had trouble making out any ignorant red-necks, as President Obama was urging his followers to see as the enemy. They were mostly small business people, and they were at least as well educated as their opponents. I've heard Democratic partisans denounce the Tea Party as being so poorly educated they didn't even believe in Evolution. But I didn't hear a word about that, either.

As these things were going through my head, my eyes swept over the room, trying to make out what the common characteristics might be. True, there were scarcely any people who looked as though they had gone to Ivy League universities, but that is true of almost all crowds you mix with, and anyway I would say most Ivy Leaguers avoid anything having to do with politics, of any variety, on either side. But there definitely was something characteristic about Libertarian crowds. Small businessmen and women were there in abundance. Housewives and farmers were numerous. Older, more conservative people. But all of them dressed alike, which is something I attribute to everybody's clothes coming from China, no matter what their station in life. When you are in Europe, the nationalities seem to blend together for much the same reason.

And then it occurred to me. Almost all of these people worked for themselves, to some degree, or at least all of them had enough freedom to come to meetings when they please, wherever they please. Trying this idea out on some passing strangers, it seemed to resonate. One man, in particular, was vehement about not being able to stand an employment situation in an office, on a schedule, with a boss. When you talk to doctors, they generally express a wish to be solo practitioners or members of a small on-call group. That is true even if they work for a hospital or a group practice; the freedom to be an independent actor was why they went into Medicine, or Law, or started their own business. Most of them acknowledged they made less money that way, but they were willing to do so, in order to be "free". Lots of them are employed people, but that's the one feature they dislike about it.

In Democratic groups, however, many of them work for the government -- the ultimate indignity. And those who don't are happy to commute with regular hours, endure the eight hours cooped together, get home in time to release the baby sitter. But even these people prize the weekend highly. To them, it's the time they are really alive and enjoying what America is all about, wouldn't think of using that precious time at a political meeting.

So one group thinks of the weekend as their time of freedom, while the other group wants to have all of its time left to its own decision. The two groups aren't all that different, except the Libertarians act out their principles, acknowledge a somewhat lower income as an acceptable price to pay for it, and glory in the company of other like-minded Freedom fighters. There's surely more to the political differences than this, but Freedom from having a boss is definitely a big part of it.

Originally published: Thursday, November 07, 2013; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019