The meaning of freedom

In the debate over national health reform in 2009-2010, the law’s conservative Tea Party opponents regularly claimed the mantle of freedom.  Where reform supporters relied on moral and technocratic arguments to make the case that health care must be affordable for all, the Don’t-Tread-On-Me backlash to reform was largely allowed to monopolize the powerful American virtue of freedom.

It was a curious sort of freedom that conservatives endorsed.  At its extreme, opposition to the Affordable Care Act stood for the freedom to succumb to the consequences of un-insurance.  This conception of freedom defended the “choice” to go without health insurance as a calculated, rational personal decision that ought to be respected.  Compelling individuals to carry insurance amounted to a tyrannical invasion on this autonomous decision.

Falling shortly after the maligned bank bailout during the 2008 financial crisis, the fury over moral hazard spilled into the health reform debate.  The economic term “moral hazard” holds that individuals and firms must be allowed to feel the consequences of their choices, or else shielding them from risk will perpetuate irresponsible behavior.  Just as bailing out the banks was thought to reward reckless financial conduct, bailing out those who opted to go without insurance let reckless decision-making off the hook, too.  Call it a “You Reap What You Sow” brand of freedom.

Though muted, pro-reform policymakers could stake a claim to enhancing freedom as well.  The entire point of health reform was to expand freedom from risk.  It would insure people who had the misfortune of falling ill so that they could access health services without bankrupting their future.  And it moved us closer to the day when health insurance is wholly separate from our jobs, freeing us from dependency on our employers for our healthcare.  This is an important kind of freedom, too.

In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Roosevelt four fundamental freedoms thought to be inherent to all people.  Among these was “freedom from want.”  To Roosevelt, basic protections from scarcity, risk, and poverty were necessary to truly effectuate individual freedom.  Without basic necessities, freedom was wholly illusory.  As he put it three years later, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.  Necessitous men are not free men.”

Roosevelt helped solidify the modern liberal conception of freedom—a freedom to economic security.  This freedom puts affirmative obligations on government to provide a degree of protection from the risks and hazards of markets and modern life.

On the other side, the conservative (or perhaps more aptly, libertarian) conception of freedom emphasizes freedom from government.  This kind of freedom aims to protect the unbounded autonomy of the individual from government interference.  Markets are thought to be sacrosanct aggregations of autonomous individual choices, preferences, and desires.  Government intercedes on this laissez-faire freedom only by imposing its will and disrupting individual choice.

Because of the American origin story—casting off the yoke of tyrannical British authority—many seem to assume that the conservative brand of freedom has a stronger claim to our history.  The liberal alternative, it’s thought, is just a socialistic perversion concocted by pro-centralization New Dealers.  But that’s just not the case.

In his magnificent book The Story of American Freedom, historian Eric Foner chronicles the different ways that the American ideal of freedom has been deployed in political rhetoric throughout our history.  As political and social contexts have shifted, so too has the rhetoric around freedom, liberty, and independence.  As Foner shows, the dueling claims of what it means to be truly free have been with us for centuries.

The earliest seeds of the modern debate begin to appear during the Jacksonian era.  Whig leaders like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay argued that government action could enhance freedom.  They argued that the capacity to wield one’s freedom depended on one’s power, and that freedom was dependent on prosperity.

Jacksonian Democrats, on the other hand, began railing against the faraway federal government as the preeminent threat to American liberty.  “Building upon laissez-faire economics,” Foner explains, “Democrats identified government-granted privilege as the root cause of social injustice.”

In the antebellum period, freedom was often employed in relation to its looming antithesis: slavery.  Latching on to the abolitionist cause, populists and reformers condemned the industrial economy for crafting a system of wage slavery that restricted individual freedom at the hands of business.  The idea underlying wage slavery was that the market posed a threat to freedom.  But this idea fell out of mainstream circulation for a time, as abolitionists resisted the characterization and sought free labor as the goal of the antislavery movement.

During the post-war period, the Gilded Age ushered in a period of laissez faire freedom dominance in the end of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth.  Freedom was defined as the liberty of contract—that the ability of individuals to freely enter into economic and financial arrangements ought to be unimpeded.  It was a period that grounded a sense of freedom in meritocracy and Social Darwinism.

But some resisted.  The American Economic Association was established in 1885 to combat “laissez-faire orthodoxy,” declaring, “We regard the state . . . as an educational and ethical agency  whose positive assistance is one of the indispensable conditions of human progress.”  Similarly, the sociologist Lester Ward determined that “individual freedom can only come through social regulation.”

Ultimately, the association of “freedom” and Gilded Age Social Darwinism temporarily made freedom a dirty word in American politics.  The Progressive movement situated its policy goals in the language of democracy rather than freedom.

Still, the central concern of progressivism, according to New Republic editor Herbert Croly, was how Americans could be free in a modern industrial economy.  Croly explained that “Hamiltonian means” of government intervention into the economy were necessary to achieve the “Jeffersonian ends” of democratic self-determination and individual freedom.  The Progressives thought that robust, energetic government was necessary to create the social conditions for meaningful freedom.

In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for president under the Progressive Party mantle.  The party’s platform, Foner writes, “laid out a blueprint for a modern, democratic welfare state,” replete with plans for health and labor regulation, an eight-hour work day, a living wage, union protections, and a national system of social insurance for unemployment, healthcare, and old age.  Roosevelt’s freedom meant liberty from corporations effectuated through government power and regulation.

Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive version of freedom gained wider acceptance and circulation two decades later under FDR.  On the heels of the Great Depression, the nation saw how economic devastation can render theoretical freedoms meaningless.  Accordingly, FDR sought to guarantee freedom from want, establishing welfare state programs to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of modern economic life.

Left-wing pressure in the United States helped contribute to Roosevelt’s bold social democratic platform.  But after World War II, hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States made Americans define freedom in contrast to the Soviet Union, veering once more back toward laissez faire freedom.  Moreover, the economic abundance during this time produced great faith in capitalist institutions.  “Cold War affluence,” Foner writes, “greatly expanded the constituency that identified freedom with free enterprise.”

In the 1960s, President Johnson launched a War on Poverty, but implicitly deviated from the New Deal’s diagnosis of economic struggle.  “In a departure from the New Deal, when poverty had been seen as arising from an imbalance of economic power and flawed economic institutions,” Foner writes, “in the 1960s it was attributed to an absence of skills and opportunity and a lack of proper attitudes and habits.”  Therefore, many of Johnson’s antipoverty initiatives eschewed direct interventions—like a guaranteed minimum income for the non-elderly or government-created jobs—in favor of skills training and education.  Johnson’s programming aimed to enable individual self-liberation from the “enslaving forces of his environment.”

Nonetheless, Foner marks the 1960s as the era when “freedom” began to be co-opted by conservatism and relinquished by the left.  “As the social movements spawned by the sixties adopted first ‘power’ and then ‘rights’ as their favored idiom,” he writes, “they ceded the vocabulary of ‘freedom’ to a resurgent conservatism.”  This left conservatism with free rein to equate freedom with unfettered capitalism, as Milton Friedman (and later, Ronald Reagan) did, or to proclaim resistance to government economic and anti-discrimination regulation under the guise of freedom, as Barry Goldwater did.

This inexorably led to a resurgence of 1900s-style Social Darwinism.  This brand of conservatism, ostensibly grounded in principles of freedom, warned against government intervention into the “natural” workings of the economy; held that the distribution of wealth reflects individual merit; and deemed the plight of the unfortunate, too, a product of their own failings.

Left unchecked, this conception of “freedom” grew to dominate political discourse in the United States.  Liberals argued for their policies in technocratic terms, promising to provide economic help to a struggling middle class.  But conservatives relentlessly assailed any intervention as Big Government stepping on the throat of individual freedom.

Liberals seemingly forgot that they too have a claim to the virtues of freedom—a claim that their intellectual predecessors invoked countless times from the nation’s founding onward.  The free market has no mind for any individual’s particular well-being, autonomy, or bodily security.  In a time of ever expanding economic volatility, “freedom from want” still resonates as an audacious ideal.  So does the social insurance platform that flows out of it.

Foner shows that in the political debates that have raged throughout our history, the side that lays a stake to the rhetoric of freedom tends to seize the upper hand.  Freedom goes to the core of the nation’s identity, self-conception, and perceived purpose of its founding.  Reformers and policy advocates would be wise to listen to Richard Armey, former House Republican leader, who said, “No matter what cause you advocate, you must sell it in the language of freedom.”

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