What were the prevailing ideas of American freedom at the end of the last century?

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Understandings and views of freedom change over time, and sometimes it is difficult to speak of a "prevailing" concept of freedom, because the concept is identity-based as well. By the end of the twentieth century, individual, personal freedoms were paramount for many Americans.

Late in the twentieth century, this was...

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Understandings and views of freedom change over time, and sometimes it is difficult to speak of a "prevailing" concept of freedom, because the concept is identity-based as well. By the end of the twentieth century, individual, personal freedoms were paramount for many Americans.

Late in the twentieth century, this was expressed in many different ways. Reagan-era conservatism was steeped in the rhetoric of individualism and focused on the ability of a person (or a business) to work and spend and invest their money in any way they saw fit. Government interference and regulation was portrayed as a violation of these freedoms.

On the other hand, many people historically deprived of opportunity—women and minorities in particular—demanded that the government establish regulations in order to level the societal playing field. For them, only the government could protect their fundamental freedom as an economic actor. For many people, freedom consisted in equality of access to education and other institutions. Without access, they argued, there could be no meaningful freedom. So, at the end of the twentieth century, a longstanding debate continued placing individual liberty against a freedom based on equality of opportunity. Freedom at the end of the twentieth century was, as it has always been, a contested proposition.

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The idea of freedom means different things to different people, but most Americans would agree that freedom is the ability to do, think, act or speak however one likes, as long as doing so does not cause harm to others. I believe the prevailing ideas of freedom at the end of the last century would be very similar to today's idea had it not been for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Since then, many politicians have told the public that it is necessary to give up some of our personal freedoms in order to protect the country as a whole. In fact, some law makers go so far as to speculate that the real reason for the war on terror is to protect American freedom. This argument has since been used to justify any number of bad decisions, such as increased border security and American involvement in conflicts in other nations, such as Afghanistan.

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