Friday, March 11, 2011

Greener Pastures

A funny thing happened online the other day. Someone posted this article about how wonderful life is on Mauritius, and everybody and their grandmother started dog-piling on about how Joseph Stiglitz had to be an unpatriotic socialist who wouldn't know freedom if it bit him in the ass. Never mind that most of them wouldn't know where Mauritius is in the world, or that the people get better health care than most of the US--apparently the article's cardinal sin is to suggest that life might actually be better in a country that's not the US of A.

This sort of reflexive "GOD BLESS AMERICA" is a complete turn off for any sensible discourse on a) whether life is actually any better in Mauritius, and b) what the US could start doing to make life better for its citizens. My own comment was razed, in part because I advocate teaching evolution over creationism (I know: Face, meet Palm). Part of the problem is that you've got a very vocal minority--the ones who have the luxury of time to armchair quarterback running the country--while the majority (the ones working two or three jobs and still having to choose which bills to pay) are silent. Another part of the problem is that there seems to be a persistent delusion that more freedom and more choices are better, and that living in a socialist country means that you don't get any say in how you live your life.

The latter, as any expat will attest to, depends entirely on which country you end up in. Some (the Netherlands) offer more freedoms than others (China), just as some democracies (Canada) function better than others (Afghanistan). So that's moot. If you have the luxury of choice to pick which country you live in, then it would behoove you to pick a country that meshes with your expectations of the government.

But the question of whether more freedom and choices automatically lead to a better and happier life is a bit more difficult to answer. I certainly have a lot more freedom than I would as a woman in, say, Saudi Arabia. But do I have less freedom than I did the US? I can't buy a firearm, true, but is it not a little disturbing that my then-18-year-old sister, who'd never held a gun before in her life, could walk into a store, buy a gun, spend all of an hour learning how to load and shoot--and then walk out, a gun-owner? Just to be absolutely clear: I'm all for the second-amendment right to bear arms, but surely you'd want to know that the person you're selling to is a responsible gun owner?

The deeper question is whether I feel that my quality of life has gone downhill since I moved to a country where the right to bear arms is not guaranteed. Frankly, the answer is "no". I'd actually argue that I have more rights in the Netherlands than I did in the US: if I were a lesbian, I could get married, white dress and benefits (not that there are that many benefits to being a married couple), both. Thanks to Wisconsin's anti-union bill going forward, I still have collective bargaining rights (my two jobs were technically government positions). None of which is meant to imply that life here is some kind of utopian paradise. But these are superficial considerations to the biggest question of all: is freedom based on money really freedom?

What I mean is this: in the US, your freedom to live your life as you choose is largely based on whether your income is greater than your expenses, and by how much. If you have more money, then more choices are available. If you have less money, then you either have to settle for fewer choices, or make more money. It's fair, but is it right?

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