Reclaiming Freedom From the Right
Since I came out of the gate making such a big deal out of the left’s dearth of articulated first principles, I suppose I should probably suggest one or two. Freedom sounds like a good place to start. I have to admit, I’m a little alarmed by how much we’ve allowed the Tea Party to monopolize the language of liberty and tyranny, especially given the peculiar ways in which they’ve employed it.
But before we get there, we need a workable definition of liberty/freedom. I tend to think of it as an array of options or possibilities, with greater freedom meaning more options, and less freedom meaning fewer. Tyranny isn’t just negative freedom, but a particularly extreme and unjust limit put on one’s freedom.
Sound fair? Good! Now, tell me if I’m misrepresenting the Tea Party position when I paraphrase it like so: We’re all born basically free, and the welfare state can only act to the detriment of that freedom. Therefore, the welfare state stands for tyranny. As do regulatory agencies, since they seek to limit the freedom of private enterprise.
Sounds okay, but doesn’t pass the smell test for me. After all, someone who has access to higher education, whether they choose to take advantage of that access or not, has more options than someone without. You’re more free if you have the option of seeking medical treatment, and don’t have to choose between doing that and feeding your kids. If the government mandates that your employer provide maternity leave, then you have the freedom to have a child without necessarily sacrificing your career. Etc.
(Aside: I’ve left things like marriage equality and the right to choose off the list because these are areas where liberals already make their case using the language of freedom. But the right has more or less dominated language regarding economic freedom. The common left-wing variation on that theme is the slightly mushier “equality of opportunity,” which more or less means “liberty” in the sense I described above. That being the case, why not just say the damn word?)
Of course, there’s a tradeoff here. Paying for the programs and oversight I described above costs money, which means someone’s probably getting taxed. Two points on that count:
1.) In a society, maintaining the maximum aggregate freedom always means limiting certain choices individuals can make. For example, I live in a country where I can’t walk around punching people in the face without consequence, because we grant more weight to my neighbors’ freedom to avoid blunt facial trauma than my freedom to commit random acts of violence. (Granted, this example works better if you pretend I can swing hard enough to inflict more than just irritation, but just go with it.)
2.) This isn’t a totally zero sum game, since everyone benefits from living in a society with the greatest possible aggregate freedom. Happier, healthier, more productive neighbors are good to have around.
As far as point #1 goes, I’d say that one’s freedom to choose not to die a slow and painful death from a curable disease trumps, or one’s freedom to live in basic housing even when unemployed, trumps the freedom from a modest progressive income tax. To distill that down to a general principle: the less freedom an individual has, or the more an individual’s freedom is threatened, the more important it becomes to nurture and expand it.
Libertarians might argue that, while a lot of the policies I’ve mentioned sound great on general principle, the real-world legislation could do more harm than good to our economy. That’s possible; but the general principle is all I’m setting forth here, and it’s no concession to say that policies which ultimately don’t conform to that principle should not be enacted. Once we get to weighing real-world policies, it becomes a matter of cost-benefit analysis.
Similarly, one might object that I’m not acknowledging the distinction here between positive and negative liberties. To which I’d reply that I’m deeply skeptical that a strong moral distinction can be drawn.
One more point: A robust private sector is pretty easy to justify within this framework. Not just because there are plenty of resources and services the free market allocates more efficiently, but also because it gives us innovation and incentive. The freedom to accumulate greater wealth is an important liberty in of itself, and a perfectly reasonable goal towards which to project yourself. For that reason, I’m not necessarily opposed to income inequality; just the kind that leaves people in abject poverty.