Is America free?

“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” – Lee Greenwood

Notwithstanding the earnest patriotism of Lee Greenwood’s anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” something about that particular lyric has always rankled. There’s a passive-aggressive prickliness to that “at least” in there, as though it were the final rejoinder of an American arguing in an airport bar, leaving a piece of his mind with some over-served Belgians before slapping down a wad of pink, local currency as a pourboire and hustling to his departure gate for Orlando International.

If he had stayed to chat a little longer, this notional American might have found that his Flemish interlocutors enjoy greater freedom than he, even in the shadow of the bureaucratic colossus based in Brussels, commanding their continent with unchecked power. Or he may simply have discovered, as we all must, that not all song lyrics are true.

Americans of every political stripe are forever banging on about how free they are, without any scale of comparison. It is a time-consuming précis of any such discussion to have to explain to them how their own system works.

This means you, Mr. Ugly American — yes, you with the giant foam cowboy hat and air horn, and you, Mr. Harvard Yard Fancypants with your pince-nez and Rousseauean predilections — your free country locks people up at a rate 13 times faster than its population grows, and holds one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world. Six million of your fellow citizens living abroad — plus millions more of their families, business associates and people with U.S. ties — are required to file with the IRS and send taxes to America, even if they never set foot on your soil. The content of every email you send is intercepted and saved by your government. Not judging you for all this, but figured you should know.

At times, criticism of America is met with hostility and assorted “love it or leave it” nincompoopery from patriots who do not comprehend how the country operates. To wit, in the words of another famous song, America is much like the Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

With millions of illegal entrants, and a tax authority zealously guarding the exits, America seems less difficult to get into than to get out of. Recently, I asked a U.S. consular official about the record number of Americans attempting to renounce their citizenship in recent years. He stressed the complexity, expense and difficulty of the process, in which all financial information of the citizen, their family and associates must be collected and submitted, along with an “exit tax.” The bulging dossier is sent to overseers in Washington, D.C., at which point the Land of the Free will “decide whether to let you go.” The Soviet-style institutional assumption being, should you choose not to dwell in this demi-paradise, ipso facto, you must be some kind of criminal.

Asking if America is free becomes a relative exercise. Free compared to what? Compared to North Korea? Sure. How about, compared to other Western nations or, more importantly, to the ideals of its Founders, who intended America to be the world’s greatest experiment in human endeavor and liberty?

Among the questions prospective new Americans might be asked on their citizenship test is, “What is the supreme law of the land?” The correct answer, as specified in the official study guide, is: “The Constitution.”