Over the last forty years, a deeply disturbing and pernicious understanding of liberty has become popular among many Americans, one that has reshaped how many Americans understand our government and its politics and our place in the world. At the core of this understanding is the contention that our liberty primarily means protection of our individual rights and properties, which are themselves thought to be self-evident and natural and to exist prior to government. Through the frame of this understanding, those who hold this view protest the size or our government and the interference of government in our lives, and they dismiss the moral claims that they and their government have duties to others, including the less fortunate both within and beyond the confines of their own United States.
This understanding of liberty is not really new at all, but it is one that has gained in popularity and achieved a kind of mythological status and religious dogma among its adherents in the last part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, though not all those who espouse this view have thought deeply about its history, its philosophical foundations, or its moral consequences. The view of liberty I am talking about has come to dominate the politics of the Right and libertarians in the post-Vietnam period, as America has found itself in a more complex world in which globalization and economic changes have undermined the certainty of America’s dominance and moral leadership and challenged some of the basic assumptions by which Americans frame their self-understanding. I call the view of liberty that they espouse the “liberty-first” position, since it puts the weight on liberty before all other competing human values.
This book critiques that view of liberty and offers a progressive alternative. Liberty, defined as “life, liberty, and property” or “the pursuit of happiness” in the American idiom, is a concept that is key to both modernity and American identity. But what liberty means and who gets to define it are questions that are up for grabs in a liberal state. This book argues that the understanding of liberty that currently dominates is wrong in many ways: in its oversimplification of liberty’s history, in its failure to understand liberty’s philosophical foundations, and ultimately, in its impoverished view of human beings and the moral responsibilities they have as members of the species and as members of society. What matters most, and what inspired me to write this book, are the destructive consequences this one-sided view of liberty has for our nation, the environment and planet, our moral self-worth, our children, and what religious or spiritually oriented people would call our souls.
I will not try to rehearse my argument in detail here; it is spelled out carefully in the many pages that follow. But the thrust of my argument is that the other human values that have been expunged from the concept of liberty must be taken into account when we consider what it means to live in liberal societies. These other values include but are not limited to responsibility, debt, sacrifice, compassion, and care, and are in my view part and parcel of what liberty was always intended to mean, even if it was not always so understood. What is put forward here amounts to a progressive or liberal account of liberty that sacrifices neither liberty nor compassion in the quest to understand our duties and responsibilities as human beings and as modern selves.
In offering a progressive theory of liberty, I am also trying to counter what seems to have been the liberal abandonment of the liberty concept to those on the political Right and to libertarians. Since the nineteen seventies, there has been an increasingly strong inclination in conservative politics to grab hold of and monopolize the concept of liberty and use that concept as a banner or flag under which to marshal many other arguments about the nature of rights and government, the correct approach to Liberty, as it has been conceptualized by the Right, has come to be associated with the protection of what are thought to be self-evident individual rights of life, liberty and property. The idea of self-evident rights, of course, is familiar to most Americans from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, though the idea was widely shared among the American founders, and had a several hundred year modern history prior to Jefferson, in the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, Hugo Grotius, among many others.
You can download the Preface to Beyond Liberty Alone or read more below.
Table of Contents