Exploring Freedom in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward Essay

Exploring Freedom in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward Essay

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The definition of freedom depends entirely on how the phrase “freedom from…” ends. Perhaps a most straightforward understanding of freedom is the laissez-faire emphasis on limiting the power of government to interfere in economic and social matters. In this state of absolute freedom, however, inequalities exist between people, so that freedom from a controlling government does not imply individuals’ freedom of contract, movement, legal protection, equal rights through citizenship, or political voice. In light of the persistence of slavery in the US through the 19th century, freedom as an individual’s legal status separated people who could be citizens from people who were lifelong slaves. Even among legally free people, economic inequalities restricted the practical freedom of many, particularly through voting requirements and dependence on a crop lien system that severely restricted mobility and freedom of contract and trade. In the boom of industry, terms like “wage slavery” drew attention to the lack of freedom of working class people to assemble as unions, to contract for a family wage, to receive education and medical care, and to fulfill the “American Dream” of to improving their living conditions through hard work. These inabilities were imposed not by a government that infringed upon personal liberties, but from a harsh capitalist economy that created an increasingly poorer lower class and, despite capitalist rhetoric, restricted social mobility based on merit and sharpened the division between socioeconomic classes. By the turn of the twentieth century, groups like the Populists and Progressives were calling for radical changes in government oversight of business, expansion of national currency, and subsequent redist...


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... repressive. Though our world is certainly more troubled than Bellamy’s in some ways, and though we still have plenty of room for improvement, our more moderate approaches to stabilizing the economy and providing for social welfare have improved the situation since the 19th century. Legislation establishing minimum wage, safety inspections in workplaces, workman’s compensation, a graduated income tax, welfare and social service programs, family medical leave and maternity leave, affirmative action, anti-discrimination statutes, public schools and universities, federal grants for post-secondary education, social security for retirees and those with disabilities, and a host of other reforms over the last century have proven that the democratic government structure that existed during Bellamy’s day was capable of bringing about significant, though gradual, change.

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