American Sociological Association

Stability and Change in Americans’ Perception of Freedom

August 1, 2019

by Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse | Summer 2019

Freedom is one of America’s most cherished values. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff considers it the nation’s “most important idea… at the center of all other important ideas.” Likewise, in his studies of American values in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach found that freedom was by far America’s most important political value, ranked behind only world peace and familial security in the nation’s hierarchy of values. Behind this commonplace agreement on the centrality of freedom in American life, however, lurk three fundamental questions.

First, how free do Americans actually perceive themselves to be and what factors affect their perceptions? Second, do Americans believe they are becoming more or less free? Finally, what are the potential threats to the realization of freedom in the United States? To answer these questions, we take a specifically empirical, sociologically based approach to the study of people’s values and beliefs. In our analyses, we use data from the Freedom in America Survey, a nationally representative survey of 1,014 Americans we fielded in the summer of 2015.

The Income-Freedom Gradient

It is not our goal to assess the extent to which American political life measures up to some “objective” standard of freedom. Rather, we explore freedom as a value system, examining Americans’ perceptions of how much of it they have and exploring the major factors underlying these perceptions. This is what we call, following the psychologist Ivan Steiner, perceived freedom.

Perceived freedom entails, regardless of the actual conditions experienced by individuals, “antecedents and consequences that deserve attention.” To measure perceived freedom in our 2015 survey, we asked Americans “How much freedom do you have today?” For simplicity of exposition, we categorized respondents as either having a high or a low level of perceived freedom. (Respondents who reported “Complete Freedom” or “A Great Deal of Freedom” were categorized as “high,” while those who reported “A Moderate Degree of Freedom,” “Not Much Freedom,” or “No Freedom at All,” were categorized as “low.”)

Overall, we found that a majority of Americans reported a substantial degree of perceived freedom: about 59% reported a high level of freedom. One’s own sense of freedom is closely related to the perceptions of the amount of freedom experienced by other Americans. Specifically, among those who say they have a low amount of freedom, 85% say that Americans in general have a low amount of freedom. Likewise, among those who say they have a high amount of freedom, 82% say that all Americans have a high amount of freedom. This reaffirms the general sociological claim that, when asked to evaluate the experience of others in their own social group, people tend to generalize from their own life experiences.

Probability of reporting high level of freedom

Notes: The vertical axis gives the probability of reporting a high rather than low level of freedom, while the horizontal axis lists household income in U.S. dollars. The income-freedom gradient is based on a logistic regression model that adjusts for one’s gender, racial or ethnic identity, marital status, size of household, and geographic region. The upper and lower bands denote 95% confidence intervals. Estimates adjusted using sampling weights (n = 1,005 respondents). Data from the Freedom in America Survey.

Perceived freedom varies only weakly, if at all, across a number of factors, including gender and racial or ethnic identity. There is, however, one factor that is by far the most important for explaining one’s sense of freedom: those who feel the most free are, in general, those who have the most money. This relationship is so persistent that we call it the income-freedom gradient. The income-freedom gradient from our 2015 survey is shown in the figure above. The vertical axis gives the probability of reporting a high rather than low level of freedom, while the horizontal axis lists household income in U.S. dollars.

The perception of high levels of freedom is not a universal experience—its sociological realization is contingent upon one’s material resources.

The implications of the income-freedom gradient are profound. The perception of high levels of freedom is not a universal experience—its sociological realization is contingent upon one’s material resources. In a society such as the United States, with a relatively weak welfare state, more money means more control over one’s life, which translates into a higher perception of freedom and, we suspect, more freedom measured in any “objective” terms. For a high-income person, especially one at the top end of the distribution, freedom is realized to a much greater extent than it is for those elsewhere on the distribution, in the form of limitless travel, boundless access to various goods and services, substantially reduced barriers to entering any number of social positions, superior legal representation and much lower sentences for similar crimes committed by the poor, and greater access to powerful political actors.

Another implication of the income-freedom gradient is that the reduction of poverty—or the guarantee of a “baseline” threshold of resources—will not necessarily result in the fulfillment of one’s own freedom. Consider, for example, a married White male living in the Midwest with no children. If this person receives $20,000, then his probability of reporting a high level of freedom is .52. In contrast, his counterpart receiving $100,000 has a probability of .67 and his counterpart receiving $200,000 has a probability of .82.

Our data suggest that, regardless of one’s income level, every additional dollar acquired increases the probability of having a high level of perceived freedom. Note, however, that the income range in our data is truncated at the top end; it is unresolved whether the income-freedom gradient flattens out at extremely high incomes.

Read the full article in the Summer issue of Contexts.

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