Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Progressive View of Liberty

Americans are particularly concerned with our liberties because we see liberty as core to what it means to be American. After all, the United States was founded with a vision of liberty as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the American Constitution. To embrace liberty is to embrace what it means to be American.But what does liberty mean and from whence does this commitment to liberty come?

Over the last several decades we have been given one particular perspective on these questions. Liberty, we have been told, is synonymous with the rigorous protection of our individual or natural rights. Any constraints on those rights are compromises of our cherished liberties, an abandonment of the original American way and vision, and ultimately destructive to our country.Those who promote this view of liberty point in particular to the size and bureaucracy of the American government as the source of the most threatening compromises and dangers to our liberties. In their view, liberty by definition means that government should be small and stay out of our lives. The bigger government becomes the more invasive it is and the less liberty we have.

Why is this so?Big government by its very nature oversteps its boundaries in countless ways: it meddles in our lives and tries to make rules, such as laws about gun control and smoking, that curtail our individual liberties and violate our natural rights to be free. Big bureaucratic government also invariably creates programs that require higher taxes and that thereby rob us of our hard earned dollars which are siphoned to programs that we have never endorsed such as abortion clinics. Big government also invariably steps into policy areas where it doesn’t belong, like trying to mandate health care or the type of health care we choose. In addition, big government also inappropriately intervenes in economic markets with laws and taxes that try to shape economic behavior. Over and over again, big government oversteps its bounds and infringes our liberties or takes our property. For those who hold this view of liberty and the corresponding view of government, the crusade to make American government smaller is analogous to the vision of the founders and the original Boston Tea Party that wished to end Great Britain’s control over American trade.

In what follows, I insist there is another tradition of viewing liberty that does not understand the role of liberty or the role of government this way. Instead of thinking of liberty as a set of natural or individual rights that must be protected no matter what, this other tradition sees liberty as including a set of obligations, duties, sacrifices and responsibilities that come into being as members of social communities. Liberty on this view means living justly as part of and within a social community.

With this understanding of liberty comes a corresponding shift in the understanding of government. Rather than seeing government as a threat to our liberties, government emerges as the mechanisms through which we try to implement and live out our mutual responsibilities to one another. This alternative perspective sees government as a positive force in helping us achieve our liberty, rather than an evil empire stealing our liberty.I will argue that this shift in thinking about liberty is authentic in various ways. It is rooted in the great insights of modernity; it is consistent with the views of the American founders, and is a logical conclusion from both traditional and modern religious understanding of God. This view of liberty can also make sense to atheists, who do not root their understanding of liberty in religious understandings of God.

It is also my contention that rehabilitating this alternative tradition allows us to restore America’s heart and soul. Liberty ceases to be a selfish egocentric concept. Instead, we can see our liberties as ways in which we promoting the benefits and well-being of other human beings, not just protecting what is rightfully ours. What we think of as “rightfully ours” changes and emerges out of engagement with other human beings who also share our society and planet that we inhabit.To understand and uncover this other tradition of liberty, we must go on an intellectual journey, teasing out the underlying assumptions that inform the now dominant and distorted myth of liberty. We shall learn that much of what we have come to think about liberty --and by extension what we call “America” and even “modernity”-- is either mistaken, lacking nuance, or simply wrong-headed. And what we uncover is something far more ennobling, enriching and ultimately better for us all on this collective journey we make. For more on my thinking, see

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Perversion of Liberty by the Tea Party and Right Wing

The Republicans and Tea Party advocates have perverted the concept of liberty. When they appeal to “individual rights” and “liberty” to critique the American government, they are reframing key American ideas in new ways and in ways that are arguably perverted. But they pretend they are the same ideas with which this country was founded. Any student of religion knows that the same is true of religious faiths. Every religious group finds its own ideas in the ideas of Moses, Jesus and so forth. The founders can always be made to appear like one wants them.

It is true that the liberty idea was one of the core ideas in the American founding. But the context and meaning of that idea were different then from now. Then, Americans were breaking away from an imperialist British Empire that was economically and politically suppressing the American colonies. Americans had no representation in the British Parliament that made decisions about their taxes. It was taxation without representation. They did not vote for their elected officials nor did they send members to Parliament.

We by contrast live in a government structured the way the founders wanted. It is a republican government elected by the people with a balance of powers built in to protect the minority from the majority. We do have representation in the government that makes laws over and for us. One can argue that the government is no longer working. But that is a different argument. As long as we are represented by a government that we collectively elected, the system is a free one, even if it is a broken one. “Being broken” and being “not-free” are different things, at least theoretically. In fact government always seems broken to someone or some group, by definition. Liberty as the founders envisioned it was living under the rule of a government that was structured to give the people a significant voice but also to balance the risk of majorities suppressing minorities.

Republicans and Tea Party advocates talk as if the United States suppresses individuals the way the British Empire suppressed the colonies. The context is different, the problem is different and an appeal to liberty is misleading and in many ways perverted.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tea Party: Is government taking away my liberty?

Many people tell you government is the antithesis of your liberty. But is that so?

The current rhetoric of the Republicans and Tea Party is that my liberty is compromised by government which is too big. Government that gets too big compromises my liberty. The key question is, "What is liberty?" And "How does one know that government has compromised it?"

The key problem with the Tea Party and with Republican positions on liberty is this: they have no way of distinguishing what is a valid constriction on my liberty from what is not. When government sets rules about how fast we can drive is that a violation of my liberty or is that a protection of my life, which is a protection of my liberty? Or when government says I can’t put my 16 year old daughter in a tank and let her drive down the streets of my town, is that a violation of my or her liberty? Well, yes, of course it is a limitation of our liberty. But we accept and appreciate these kind of rules and restrictions because we are all trying to figure out how to live together without killing each other.

A constriction on my liberty is part of my liberty. Rules make possible an enlarged liberty. Tea Party and Republican “liberty” advocates hide this fact. Our liberties become possible precisely because we have government and rules. That is not to say that government can’t overstep the bounds of what it should legitimately limit. That is possible. But that is a different question from how we set the boundaries over the rules government may legitimately produce and enforce and those they may not. That is much more nuanced than the generic claim that government infringes on my liberty. Tea Partiers and Republicans forget that government also makes liberty possible. And it does so by protecting me from you and you from me and all of us from the Tea Party!