The Fourth of July is a celebration of America's freedom. What better way to celebrate the day than to admire some of the ways the country has liberated itself in the past few years?
Sure, America is not perfect — no nation is. But on Independence Day, it's okay to focus on some of the positives. From same-sex marriage to marijuana legalization to war, it's pretty clear that America is getting freer in some areas — even if it still has a lot of work to do on some issues.
1) Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states
With the Supreme Court's ruling in 2015, same-sex marriage is legal nationwide. The decision came a little more than 11 years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
The ruling is monumental for same-sex couples, giving them what the Supreme Court described as a fundamental right. And while some people remain opposed to the decision, there's no denying that same-sex couples can exercise more freedom than ever before as a result.
But the fight for equal LGBTQ rights is far from over. Most states still don't explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, and other places that serve the general public). As a result, more than half of LGBTQ Americans, according to the Movement Advancement Project, live in a state where, under state law, an employer can legally fire someone because he's gay, a landlord can legally evict someone because she's lesbian, and a hotel manager can legally deny service to someone who's transgender — for no reason other than the person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
2) Marijuana is now legal in four states and Washington, DC
In strictly libertarian terms, the most obvious benefit is people in these states are now free to consume pot without worrying about criminal penalties. But this has a big benefit for black Americans in particular, who are disproportionately prosecuted in the war on drugs. Even though black Americans are just 1.3 times as likely as their white counterparts to use pot, they're 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for it, according to a report from the Sentencing Project.
This disparity applies to the rest of the drug war as well: Research shows white and black Americans use and sell drugs at very similar rates, but African Americans are much more likely to be arrested for drug possession.
Marijuana legalization helps limit these disparities. While the remaining arrests for pot in Colorado — for possessing more than ounce of pot, for example — are still racially skewed, a Drug Policy Alliance analysis found there are far fewer arrests in general. So there are far fewer black Coloradans being arrested for marijuana — and there are more people free to use pot as they wish.
3) The prison population is dropping
After rising for decades, the US prison population has begun coming down due to a combination of state and federal reforms that have pushed nonviolent offenders — especially those convicted on drug crimes — out of incarceration.
If the US wants to continue pushing the trend down, some reformers believe that America will have to begin reducing sentences for violent crimes as well. This great interactive from the Marshall Project shows, for instance, that cutting the state prison population by half — a big goal for reformers — would require freeing some violent offenders:
Experts argue this wouldn't actually result in more violent crime: Research suggests that people age out of crime, particularly after their 20s and 30s, so letting them out of prison 10 or 20 years down the line — instead of 40 or 50 years, or never — likely wouldn't pose a threat to public safety. "Crime is a young man's endeavor," Brian Elderbroom, director of policy, research, and administration at the Alliance for Safety and Justice, previously told me. "It's not surprising that someone who commits a crime at a young age would be a completely different person by the time they're in their 30s."
Similar to marijuana legalization, reducing the number of incarcerated people also disproportionately benefits minority groups. In 2010, black Americans were incarcerated at a rate of 2,207 per 100,000 people, Hispanic Americans at 966 per 100,000, and white Americans at 380 per 100,000, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. So not only would less incarceration lead to more free people — but freedom for more minorities, as well.
4) People with preexisting conditions now have full access health insurance
As a result of Obamacare, health insurers can no longer discriminate against people with preexisting conditions. This means that someone with cancer or asthma can apply for health coverage without fear of rejection or higher prices.
Insurers used to discriminate against those with preexisting conditions because sick people are often costlier to cover. A healthy person doesn't need his insurance company to pay for medical procedures nearly as often as someone who is undergoing chemotherapy to fight off cancer.
Meanwhile, the ban on preexisting conditions is a big reason the individual mandate, which forces Americans to buy health insurance, exists. If Americans weren't required to always buy health insurance, then they could simply wait until they get sick — and therefore need health insurance — to buy into a health plan. That would run up costs, since it would fill the insurance pool with sick people who use a lot more medical services. (Although millions of people are exempted from the mandate.)
So there's a bit of a push and pull in terms of freedom with these changes: People with preexisting conditions now have better options for insurance, but most Americans are now forced to get covered.
5) There's no draft — probably because there's much less war
It's been more than three decades since America's last draft call, which forced young Americans to fight in the Vietnam War. For all those years, Americans have been able to carry on with their lives without fear of being abruptly pulled into mandatory military service.
One explanation for the end of the draft is there's been no need for that kind of massive military deployment, because the 21st century has been the most peaceful in human history.
The reasons why there have been less wars is a bit complicated, but Vox's Zack Beauchamp breaks it down in this video:
Regardless of the reasons, the benefits of less war to Americans' freedom are big: The federal government no longer has a need to force people to fight in major conflicts.
But the federal government still maintains the Selective Service System in case it needs to trigger a draft again. So it might be a good idea to treasure that freedom while it lasts.