Freedom + Government: It’s Complicated

The relationship between freedom and government is complicated.

Trailer trash was an intentionally created social class. Trailer homes have existed since the 1930s but during WWII, they were popularized as a quick, cheap way to set up housing for soldiers and construction workers in manufacturing communities to fuel the war effort.

After the war, cities and towns pushed the poor out the fringes by creating zoning laws that forbid the use of trailers within city limits, and limited their plots to a small size so that families with means would buy bigger lots with permanent houses instead of opting for cheaper trailers. On top of that, the FHA didn’t get around to ensuring trailer homes until much later, meaning that socially mobile, middle class couples had few incentives to live in trailer parks, so they were filled up with only the poorest folks.

I grew up, for the first 10 years of my life, in a trailer park. All of the stereotypes about trailer trash exist for a reason. The places we lived were infested with roaches and fleas. I was shot by the neighbor kids wielding BB guns. There were cars on blocks and my home was on wheels.

All of the Jeff Foxworthy “you might be a redneck” jokes were my daily reality, until I moved into a house. It was a tiny two bedroom house that might have actually had less room than one of the double wide trailers I lived in, but it was in a better neighborhood. That’s where I met most of my best friends, and I was able to invite over some of the higher class kids from school. Living in that house changed my life.

People used the power of the government to create trailer parks. By creating laws that forbid trailers from being built in the better parts of town, they shut the poor out of communities with good schools and safer neighborhoods, pushing the poor together. When you push any disadvantaged group together, it compounds their problems, creating a self-reinforcing environment of violence, drugs, and poverty.

This is bad government in action. It wasn’t the Federal government. It was state and municipal government. Big government types usually push for better local control, but that doesn’t prevent the abuse of power.

The free market contributed to this problem. Neighborhood associations pushed home owners to sign binding covenants that they wouldn’t have mobile homes in the area, and they wouldn’t sell their homes to people of color or to white trash. This wasn’t the government, it was home owners colluding with banks, real estate agents, and builders. For years, courts ruled that people were free to do this.

Freedom from government interference is a beautiful thing. Freedom allows you to build a home as you see fit, and to build a business that brings you money, and to motor around the country looking at the beauties of nature.

But freedom from government doesn’t necessarily make you free. It makes the rich free to create the environment that they would like to have. It makes those with resources free. Freedom from government often favors the status quo.

Freedom alone is not enough. A good life requires not only freedom, but also education, and opportunity.

I was educated in a public school. My family sometimes bought food with food stamps and paid our rent with a welfare check. I attended a public university. The Internet, where I make my living, was created with public research funds.

Without some people giving up some of their freedom, I would not have received an education. I would likely have stayed in that trailer park. I would have done less well in school because I would have been hungry. I might even have had to drop out of high school to get a job to support myself.

So, thank you, to those who are willing to sacrifice a portion of your freedom so that I could have more freedom. Thank you to those who sacrificed your income so that I could eat and go to school. Thank you to those who sacrificed a portion of your freedom so that the world can be a better place for a larger number of people.

Government is not a binary good or bad. The free market does not always produce a better outcome for the larger number of people. Sometimes its necessary to pick winners — but we must do so carefully.

We have an opportunity now, with a ideologically flexible President, to do some good. Ignore the extremists who want to completely dismantle the government, and ignore the extremists on the other side who want to turn the country into a nanny state. The government is not a monolithic “other.” The government is a bunch of people have a heated discussion about how we should live together. You can be one of those people.

The next big government agenda item is going to be tax reform or infrastructure. Educate yourself and figure out where you stand. What freedoms are you willing to give up so that the most good happens for the most number of people?

Get involved. Call your representatives. Tell them how you want them vote. Consider running for office. The 2018 elections are not far away.

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