“Freedom” for Dummies

Reflecting on the rise of the “Tea Party,” I am interested particularly in notions of “freedom.” In my estimation, everything that we have any knowledge of is socially constructed. This doesn’t necessarily make science, for example, less helpful or “true” as a knowledge system, but it’s only to say that everything relies on understanding of how things are defined, by us as social groups. As Clifford Geertz writes in his own special way, both dreams and rocks are of this world. In any case, the word “freedom” is being thrown around quite a bit, but it is a word that the right is using more and more. It can especially be found in the rhetoric of the “Tea Party” and of libertarians. But, the question isn’t really about restoring “freedom” or some such idea that you can find any number of extremist Republicans sputtering about these days, but about which freedom we want to champion. Here are some initial thoughts.

Oddly enough, my idea for this post was not sparked by the absurdist Glenn Beck or his ilk, but by the war-mongering Lyndon B. Johnson. This short quote comes from Milkis’ The President and the Parties, a political science work, but which I note only because he introduces the context the included quote from LBJ:

In fact, from the start, the very premise of Johnson’s campaign had been that Goldwater’s candidacy was illegitimate, that the Arizona Senator raised issues that had long been settled. This was not a contest between liberals and conservatives, he told the Democratic delegates who gathered in Atlantic City, nor was it a contest between parties.  Rather, the case was reaffirmation of freedom itself: ‘For more than 30 years, from Social Security to the war against poverty, we have diligently worked to enlarge the freedom of man, and as a result Americans tonight are freer to live as they want to live, to pursue their ambition, to meet their desires, to raise their families than in any time in our glorious history.’

This staggered me. I got goose-bumps. I know, I know. I’m not saying that everything was rosy with the world at this point in American history (“than in any time in our . . . history” he notes), but there was some pretty sweet stuff going on. If this was all I knew of LBJ, I’d buy the guy a beer and talk him up to all my friends. Too bad his brand of liberalism follows in the vein of Theodore Roosevelt (this the “war-mongering” description above). But, aside from LBJ’s Vietnam mistakes, his comments on freedom and liberalism are incredibly thought-provoking. Now, this comment was given just over forty years ago. Things sure have changed.

In this paradigm espoused by LBJ, freedom centers around the freedom from want, from suffering, and from unfair exploitation. In this paradigm, it is very hard to argue that freedom of action and being are severely curtailed. One would have to resort to arguing against this freedom only on principle, and Matthew Arnold has shown us just how stupid it is to argue something “on principle” already in Culture and Anarchy.

Matthew Arnold: Champion of Mutton Chops

But, arguing against this brand of freedom, fought for and established largely through the New Deal, is just what contemporary Republicans are doing. You can see them making the television rounds talking about how they have been too accommodating in the past 10 years. Huh?

But, Glenn Beck (though I shouldn’t attempt to engage his ideas in critical thinking terms for he has none in his thought) and libertarians (Rand Paul and co.) have manipulated the meaning of “freedom” as it came into being during and after the New Deal through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s to an even greater extent than mainstream Republicans. The Tea Party reaction and libertarians have simply pulled the Republicans further and further right than they already were under Bush II.

What isn’t sufficiently explicated in the notion of “freedom” touted by the Tea Party and libertarians is that their freedom simply privileges business’ freedom over that of individuals and society. Their freedom is the freedom to exploit and to oppress. For example, Rand Paul likes to talk about how we should strangle government in favor of the “free” market (I love how ideology has slipped “free” into that phrase by the way). Rand Paul is so enamored with this notion of freedom that he is willing to denounce the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 to (re)establish it. (I wonder if he’d be willing to revoke the abolition of slavery as well—after all, that was a market as well and like any of them, socially constructed. And it was a market curtailed by government action.)

Ultimately, the definition of “freedom” used by the right in so many different scenarios it’s dizzying, ultimately erases any real conception of the term. They have forgotten the hard-won battles that limited the power of business—from child labor laws to the eight-hour day to meat inspection—over the individual, ergo they are in fact only championing the freedom for business. The Tea Party, libertarians, and Fox and friends would do well to read challenging histories of the Gilded Age and the early twentieth century. What they find might surprise them.

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4 thoughts on ““Freedom” for Dummies

  1. You say the question is about “which” freedom to support, but then state that if it is all these things, then it’s meaningless. I’m not sure this follows. The freedom to spend money I earn as I see fit doesn’t seem to conflict with the freedom to make money by selling goods to people who are willing to buy them.

    Of course, this plain language can refer to being anti-tax (freedom to spend my money as I see fit), anti-CRA (freedom to sell goods to people who are willing to buy them–saying nothing of others who are willing to buy them but who I do not wish to sell to), and anti-regulation (again, freedom to sell to those who’d like to buy, say, meat from an unsanitary plant).

    You (and I) may disagree with these views, and attack these conceptions of freedom. But to claim that they are incoherent to the point of meaninglessness requires a somewhat higher burden of proof.

  2. Well, my point is to say that _the way in which they are used by the Tea Party and libertarians_ very often makes the word “freedom” meaningless. Evidence can be found in any number of Rand (or Ron) Paul speeches, Sarah Palin speeches, George W. Bush speeches, or whenever you can get a regular Tea Partier to tell you what they mean (the Daily Show will have good things on most of these). I am confident that had I more time on my hands, collecting a higher burden of proof would not be a difficult task.

    The right seems to use words like freedom and liberty without considering how the free market has often limited people’s rights and freedoms.

    That there is no such thing as “plain language” is also part of it.

  3. Hmmm. Upon reflection on my first comment I am dissatisfied with the clarity of “meaninglessness”. devin makes a air critique and smart one, but that goes without saying around here. In any case, I suppose I mean “meaningless” in that those terms (like freedom or liberty when just thrown around) are unhelpful or mutable to a point that they are meaningless in a pragmatic political public policy sense. I’m not sure if that really clarifies it any though, but I hope it does.

  4. I agree vis-a-vis pragmatic public policy–“freedom” is sufficiently vague as to be unhelpful. However, I would contrast this with your heartfelt appreciation for LBJ’s invocation of the word. While his rhetoric might not have been applicable to policy in a pragmatic way (speeches don’t pass laws etc), it is helpful in articulating the motives behind passing those laws–it makes clear what values he stands for, what benefits he sees in past legislation, and why voters ought to choose him over someone with different ideals.

    Likewise, I think that vague words like freedom can be used to state the views of conservatives, and that examining the differences therein can be fruitful in identifying precisely where the disagreements lie. It isn’t that one values freedom and the other doesn’t, but that one values the freedom to do X over that to do Y.

    To use somewhat general language, liberals don’t often argue for higher taxes–they argue for better social services, and the higher taxes are simply the way to pay for them. Conservatives don’t often argue for worse social services, they argue for lower taxes. The two views aren’t strictly opposed, they’re only opposed in terms of the secondary consequences of their preferred policies. Which is still an import disagreement, but the disagreement is legitimately from first principles, rather than a lot of hot air. While “freedom” is certainly mutable, I think it can justifiably be claimed by both sides.

    That said, I think you have a slightly different and quite good point in here that you underplay: the distributional effects of which freedoms we value more highly, societally speaking. The Maddow clip you cite shows Rand Paul stalwartly defending the government’s responsibility to provide services, to hire, to enforce the law etc on a race-blind platform: governmental institutional racism should be strictly outlawed, in his view, and no group ought to be privileged over another. He simultaneously supports the right of business owners to limit which individuals they choose to enter into private business arrangements with. I disagree with his view, but, in a perfect theoretical world, it might be defensible.

    However, as your post suggests, he would do well to consider the fact that the real-world situation in 1964 was that “freedom” would necessarily privilege (white) business owners over willing (black) customers. This is utterly indisputable and utterly indefensible. But how far do we go to address the historical imbalance? Any government program that costs money takes from some to give to others; but the question of where to draw the lines is both open and interesting.

    I think there’s a lot to think about here–thanks for starting us off.

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