America, as Paul Krugman writes in his Monday column, is supposedly “an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.”
This idea of freedom is our favorite myth, and it’s one conservatives love to trot out when arguing for gutting the social safety net. Getting crucial help like health insurance or minor assistance paying for groceriess, they reason, makes a person less free.
In practice, the conservative definition of freedom means freedom for corporations to underpay their workers, enforce non-compete agreements preventing nearly 30 million from ever getting a new job if they quit, and deny the sickest among us life-saving health care. Not to mention, Krugman writes, “the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.”
The New York Times columnist argues “that we’re getting less free as time goes by,” especially when compared to European countries: “The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have ‘freedom to make life choices’; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.”
The non-compete agreements are particularly egregious. Krugman writes: “almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.”
Employers know that there are many trade secrets to be protected. But what companies will never admit is that these agreements are “less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs.”
Healthcare too, is another way in which Americans are yoked to their jobs, unable to advance simply because they’d lose their ability to see a doctor. Until the Affordable Care Act went into effect, “there was basically only one way Americans under 65 with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance: by finding an employer willing to offer coverage.”
Then Obamacare was created, and despite its flaws, for the first time there was flexibility and affordable care available even to those with pre-existing conditions. Instead of supporting its business and job-creating possibilities and making improvements to prevent the kind of premium increases and other challenges the law faces today, the Tea Party undermined it at every turn. It remains baffling how a party that extolls the virtues of entrepreneurship and innovation worked overtime to sabotage a law that encourages just that. With Trump in office, and the Republicans’ new plan on the table, the threats only get worse.
Instead of living up to our reputation as the land of the free, Americans are, Krugman concludes, “actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land.” Even worse, “people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry ‘freedom’ the loudest.”
Read the full column.