We Live in a Free Country—We Are Also Free to be Ignorant

Independence Day is upon us. This is our time to reflect upon this remarkable experience called the United States of America. There is no place like it in the world. Through the years, despite our shortcomings, the spirit of this nation  strives to better the human condition. Each generation has struggled to cast off some vestige of unjust power, hate or inequality. After tumultuous and destructive battles, somehow the soul of our country arrives at the correct place.  Something in us begs for redress of issues until we  find that common ground that allows the American Spirit to soar.

Freedom of expression as guaranteed in our constitution is among the greatest rights we possess.  Our commitment to it makes us unique.  It allows us to express our convictions with confidence, including the belief in equality we cherish so much.  However, a simple expression magnifies some of the downsides of our freedom. I don’t remember where I first heard or read it, but it goes something like this, “We live in a free country and we are free to be ignorant.” Basically free speech allows anyone to  say anything about any subject anytime they wish. The statements need not be decent or true or rooted in any known fact. The words can be repeated and magnified until they are accepted when in reality they are false. Today purveyors of ideology at all extremes are spouting all kinds of garbage confusing the public discourse and the masses. Many people do not know what or who to believe.

The ongoing debate over our national debt, including the federal budgets for 2012 and the “debt ceiling” are prime examples of being free enough to remain ignorant. As a nation, we are due to hit the upper limit of what we have allowed ourselves to borrow early in August. All the experts agree up to this point.

Some folks feel strongly that we shouldn’t increase the amount we can borrow as this only encourages more wasteful spending.  They feel letting the ceiling expire without any increase is the only way to ensure no increase in federal expenditures.  They do not seem to share the economists worries about what this might mean in terms of interest rates for future federal loans. The least well-informed pronounce that this is all a shell game that all the economists are lying and we really shouldn’t worry about it that much. In other words, the national debt-ceiling expiring is either a terrible thing to let happen or it’s no big deal.

It can’t be both.

Tied to the issue of our national debt is another great challenge facing our nation: the number of people who are unemployed or under employed. In recessionary times when jobs are few and unemployment is high, the system needs to create jobs.

Questions abound. Does government have a role in stimulating the economy or is it solely up to the private sector to turn things around? Should the federal government use taxpayer funds on public works projects or would it be more effective to give tax breaks to the private sector while hoping they will dedicate these funds to expanding their worker base? Does our history show that tax breaks to individuals or corporations automatically translate into increased tax revenues going to the federal treasury? In hard economic times if government just gives tax breaks, can the infrastructure that government maintains be sustained?  Or in desperate economic times should government increase revenue to meet the needs of the system? Should government only tax those sectors and persons of the economy that can least afford to pay taxes as a percentage of their incomes? Better yet, should government only tax those persons and sectors of the economy that can most afford to pay taxes as a percentage of their income?

Some might say that the government shouldn’t tax at all except maybe for the maintenance of the military. Should it have a role to play in helping citizens such as the poor, elderly or impaired, or should we leave those concerns to the religious, non-profit and philanthropic communities to handle? Should the federal government assist with educating through the public schools and collegiate systems or should those expenses be left to the respective communities? How about government services to those without financial means in need of medical attention?

These are the questions surrounding the debt ceiling debate which bedevil us today. I wish some true patriots on the right and left would rise from this confused legislative echo chamber to speak clearly about what needs to be done. Political posturing is preventing both sides from  meeting the task at hand. Hopefully this posturing and the ignorant rhetoric which accompanies it will subside before we hit the drop-dead point of no return on this issue.

Time and time again in our country’s past, in situations more dire than this, we have risen to whatever challenges we face. I must believe we still have the moxie to do the right thing. I must believe ignorance will not rule the day.

by Arley Johnson