On Freedom, China, And ObamaCare

Happy Fourth of July! Here are some thoughts about freedom.

My friend, Susan, attends a very liberal liberal-arts college. It offers no majors or class requirements. The intention is to remove all roadblocks from a student pursuing their interests. I thought it sounded great. In high school and college I hated having to take classes I didn’t want. Also, I thought about the whiz kids whose gifts were being held back by requirement detours and the other students I knew who wanted to be in shop class but were forced to read Dickens.

Susan contrasted her college experience to her older days at a parochial boarding high school. There she had curfew. But Susan is a bird of her own feather and would often stay up late studying. For this, she was punished.

I see the best in people when they are free to spread their wings, unfettered by policy holding them back for being “too young”, “too irresponsible”, or because “it’s too late to be up”. “Treat people like adults, and they’ll act like adults,” I liked to say. Broad-brushing policy groups people and removes a sense of identity and responsibility.

But there was a problem with my thinking. It wasn’t that I was wrong; I just always failed to see the other side.

Last summer, I took part in a nine-day stay at a tai chi school on a mountain in Hubei Province, China. There, myself and the ten or so other attendees awoke at 5:30 each morning and were on the road jogging by 6:00. We practiced together; we ate together. Days were structured, directing my time and actions, and the group provided support to strive higher and stay focused.

Restrictions and control may rub me the wrong way, yet my freedom at this school was restricted, indeed, and my life was enhanced from the experience. Counter-intuitively, the structure concentrated my activities, freeing up more time.

Sure, I could have done this activity on my own, relying on my own discipline to get up early and out the door. But I hadn’t. And following my training, I tried to keep the routine going. That first morning after, I rose out of bed and noticed immediately how much harder it was to do so when there wasn’t the expectation of a schedule given to you.

So my motto about always treating people like adults simply isn’t always true. (Or maybe it isn’t so juvenile to have rules.) Being over-concerned about the wrongs rules may lead to misses the boat for the majority, if not all adults who benefit, at least at times, from being given orders.

Susan spoke more about her liberal, liberal-arts college, saying that many seniors she knows have no idea what topic to write their graduate thesis on. This is unnerving as they’ve spent 4 or 5 years of their life, shelled out a ton of money ($43,000/yr tuition), and now can’t decide why they did so. (And this is after a competitive screening process accepts only those who would succeed in this kind of environment.)

I had to think that some of these students would have benefited from a few orders.

Cannot this same argument for directives and mandates be made in support of the Affordable Care Act?

Let’s continue the examination of freedom by realizing that it’s a malleable notion:

In China, I saw two teenage boys playing one of those claw crane games—you know, that fun arcade/vending machine that requires the user to direct a claw over their desired item, hit a button, and then hope that the claw grasps and retrieves it. Well, back in China, inside the machine weren’t cute fuzzy froggies and teddy bears.

Inside were packs of cigarettes.

In this strange example—and others—I saw that in the literal sense, China was freer than America in areas of smoking, drinking, seatbelt use, car seat use, and driving laws. Figuratively, China also offered a camaraderie of people out in the streets interacting and relaxing, kids walked home by themselves after school, and the police were more approachable. Things just felt more free. Meanwhile, though, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shapes their people’s lives by preventing many activities—speech, religion—that we in the West believe are fundamental human rights.

So while residing in more of a bubble, within the sphere people relied on personal choice. America, conversely, is more consistent from top to bottom and is more rigid when it comes to drinking laws, curfews, and no toys with McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Depending on who you ask and how you define freedom will determine which place is freer. And what we in America think is universal—what makes a country better—isn’t always so. The Chinese I got to know preferred their system, and from looking around while over there, I could see why. Looking across the Pacific, I could see why. Americans get on China’s case for not having democracy but freedom of choice for one’s leadership doesn’t look too promising when people repeatedly elect bad leaders.

Even within the U.S. different people prefer different versions. Some will forfeit pieces of economic freedom for the freedom felt from not having to worry about paying for education or healthcare. Others don’t mind forfeiting some personal freedoms for the freedom felt when their country is more secure. We all have to get along.

I’m one of 300,000,000. I share the country with a lot of people. If what I prefer isn’t what most others want, than I have to appreciate the weight that that gives to their preference. If most want the Affordable Care Act to pass, then there’s value to recognizing that this may mean this law is better for the country because so.

Also, one can’t know the repercussions of this ruling. So I try and ignore the cheerers and the moaners about the recent Supreme Court ruling. Anyone happy or upset probably isn’t so because they care about people getting healthcare; they’re overjoyed or angry because they’re either relieved or scared their ideology was supported or threatened. It’s either Heaven or Hell to them, and we all know we’re on Earth.

The truth is, there’s a lot to consider when reviewing this case. I saw the way orders benefitted me, but there’s also a difference between voluntarily committing oneself to a period of structure and having it forced upon you.

The strongest point I do believe in is what the law indicates.

Let’s say this law does benefit our country. What does that say about America that we have to force people into an activity they ought to make on their own anyway? This is nothing to cheer.

Also, I believe, in a death-by-papercuts kinds of way, that each freedom lost is another slit into our humanity—so small that you may not detect the cost. But paper cuts add up. More people get healthcare now—because it’s a law. Less people smoke now—because we tax the heck out it. More people wear seatbelts—because we fine them if they don’t. Get the picture?

By making an action a law, the state is replacing the right reason to do it. The law has the capability of shunting an activity of self-care into the realm of “because the state says so”.

And while I appreciate China’s own version of freedom—that it showed me how different can also be good—I also saw while living there a culture lacking the independence and initiative in technological and expressive endeavors that America has historically exhibited.

It’s this I’d hate to see papercut.

4 Responses

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  2. Me

    “The Chinese I got to know preferred their system, and from looking around while over there, I could see why.”

    You asked people in Chinese people in China which they thought was better. The Chinese system or the American system and they answered you “The Chinese system.” You took this answer at face value?

    The fact that you have been to China and don’t understand how ridiculous this is is astonishing.

    1. Chinese people will always say Chinese (anything) is better. This has been drilled into their heads since they started school. This is not a real opinion based on any experience. I have first hand experience in China where I have seen that a Chinese person to showing any preference for foreign things or failing to say China is the best in whatever topic or category we are discussing is immediately answered with admonishment and a playful slap or punch and the inevitable question / insult “Are you a Chinese?!?!” by his friends or colleagues. Growing up in China you have your individualism beaten out of you at a very early age. No personal opinions wanted.

    2. The people you asked had absolutely no idea what they were comparing their system to. The world outside China is so unknown here. What they learn in school or reading books published in China or watching Chinese TV and movies about life outside China is so inaccurate and skewed by nationalistic propaganda that having a conversation about anything international with a Chinese main lander is an exercise in incredulity.

    3. If you listen to Chinese people speak amongst themselves about society in general you will listen to fatalistic opinions about their future, government and complete mistrust of their fellow countrymen. However as soon as a foreigner enters the conversation they are patriotic and nationalistic to the extreme. Their patriotism doesn’t really come from a love of their country but more from an extremely molar xenophobia based on their political education and history classes / TV shows which focus entirely on foreign powers (unnamed foreign powers btw, ‘foreign’, ‘the West’ or ‘Japanese Devils’ is about as specific as it gets) bullying and invading a peaceful innocent China.

    Stay a little longer in China and you’ll start to see the bullshit for the bullshit. To make it all the more apparent go to a place in China where they actually have built decent a society and see Chinese people who aren’t totally brainwashed and are able to give individual opinions on whatever topic you like. Ask them a few questions. I’m speaking of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

    1. Settle down, Me.

      Yes, their individualism is repressed, but I found the Chinese preference for their country not just in the Chinese in China, but with Chinese I met here in the U.S. So you’re wrong in suggesting they don’t know another system.

      Being there 11 months, I didn’t get any kind of fatalistic vibe you describe and got to know some Chinese very well. In fact, optimism ran high. Apparently, we hung out with totally different crowds.

      1. Saying, “settle down, me” seems really odd until I noticed the user’s name was Me.

        You’re right to suggest a difference in experience, but I think there’s more to it. I’ve known and heard of some Chinese students who study in the States and dig in, while others just hang out with other Chinese and stay in their little bubble. Many of the former tend to be outgoing and more introspective on the situation in China vs. that in the States while the latter usually feel outside their comfort zone outside of China.

        A drunk Kiwi journalists in Beijing told me once about how much he loved freedom in China while he was pissing next to the street outside a bar (an illustration of his freedom, he pointed out). Ideas of what’s important differ from person to person.

        To take your seatbelt example, most cab drivers in Shanghai have their seatbelts removed or hidden behind the seats, making it extremely difficult or impossible to use them in the back seat. A law may exist that should prevent that, but it’s clearly not enforced.

        A year ago, I left a bar with a friend and headed home around 1 am. My first memory is approaching her, she scratched up and bruised on a step outside a convenience store, and apologizing for not remembering her name. Behind me, the front of the taxi was smashed in, glass was everywhere and a streetlight the cab had hit after slamming into another cab was laying across the intersection blinking.

        I had suffered a mild concussion, memory loss, and some sort of wound in my ear; my friend had scratches on her face, bruising, and a cracked rib.

        I have plenty of friends back in the States who complain about the lack of freedom to smoke anywhere or don’t want to wear their seatbelt, but there’s a trade off that happens. You can take an absolute approach and say that any rules are incursions on freedom, but then you miss what the benefits of those rules are.

        I still can’t always make out what people are saying to my left. Every time I get into a taxi, I try to pull out the seatbelts, but often they stick or they’re covered in a thick soot that comes off on my clothes if I wear them. Many times, even in the front seat, the taxi drivers laugh when I put on my seatbelt and say, “You don’t need that.”

        There’s a delicate line and these sort of laws should be given careful reflection, but sometimes we need protection from our own carelessness or ignorance or those of others.

        As for the healthcare law, my mom works at a hospital and I can tell you that they get a number of patients that the hospital simply has to eat the cost for because they have no insurance and they can’t afford to pay. Most people will incur healthcare costs at some point, and there’s no predicting who will or won’t. We all pay taxes for the police and fire fighters, even if we never make use of them.

        There are downsides to the insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act for sure, but it allows the law to get rid of pre-existing condition requirements and makes insurance companies better able to cover patients who incur great cost (cancer patients, etc.)–they are after all a business.

What say you?