The discussion of liberty involves both historical questions of how liberty was conceived at various moments in time and theoretical questions of how liberty should work in a liberal society. The first set of questions is historical and the second are “normative” and philosophical.
Those two types of questions are often intertwined and interact. This is especially true in America where “the founders’ views” on liberty are thought definitive for how we today should understand our rights and freedoms.
But not surprisingly the issues of history and theory and their interplay are much more complicated than most people admit. I’ve broken my essays accordingly into historical and theoretical questions, though I also take up the question of how both are or should be related.
“BEYOND LIBERTY: IN SEARCH OF AMERICA’S HEART AND SOUL”
This essay argues that we need an alternative vision and understanding of liberty to animate our thinking for the twentieth-first century. The understanding of liberty that dominates today by what I am calling the “liberty-first” advocates (which include Right Wing and Libertarians) is both a distortion of the modern liberty tradition and is a damaging philosophy for the complex world in which we live. What characterizes this camp of thinkers is the position that liberty is the most important value and trumps all other human values and that little else matters. Though the”liberty-first” advocates in fact have many different philosphical, religious and economic assumptions, they join together for political purposes. This essay begins the process of challenging their views of liberty and showing how an alternative understanding of liberty is not only legimtimate but important. for the future of our souls and the human species itself.
A Critique of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. “What Color Tie Do You Vote For?: Or ‘Is Economic Freedom Part of Liberty?’
Milton Friedman is one of the key economists who made popular the view that “economic freedom is by definition part of freedom.” This view has become widely accepted among conservative and libertarian think tanks in the last decades of the twentieth century and into such as The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.
This essay argues that Friedman’s formulation, while rhetorically brilliant and seemingly self-evident, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. Friedman assumes in a free society the bulk of individual choices are left up to the market, and government is simply the umpire of the game. This essay, by contrast, argues that Friedman’s formulation misconstrues the nature of freedom. Indeed, the very question of freedom is where to place the boundary between markets and government in the first place, i.e., determining the rules of the game versus moves within the game itself. When seen this way, capitalism and freedom have a much more nuanced and complicated relationship than Milton Friedman claimed, and the freedom of the market is itself one of the questions that is itself included in the question of liberty itself.
This original essay is developed further in my book, Beyond Liberty Alone.
Why ‘Market Liberals’ Are Not ‘The True Liberals’ or Who Really Inherits the Liberty Tradition?
Some republicans and libertarians are fond of claiming that they are the true liberals of modernity. Thinkers such as F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and members of various think tanks such as the founders of the Cato Institute, Edward Crane and Boaz, all claim that their views about liberty and government are more consistent with what they regard as classical conceptions of liberty than those who traditionally called themselves liberals and now call themselves progressives.
These writers eschew the title “conservative” as not capturing their commitments to progress and liberty and think that the term “liberal” better serves to describe their position. This essay explores how the right is trying to co-opt the term “liberal” and see themselves as the inheritors of the liberty tradition.
“Liberty and the Public Good: Endorsing Suicide and Slavery as Part of a Free Society.”
My modest proposal is this: that if we really embrace a utilitarian view of liberty, we should change our laws to permit suicide and slavery. Specifically, we should immediately acknowledge that a society that is truly free in this sense allows people to take their own lives, sell themselves into slavery, and therefore allows others to purchase and traffic in slaves, under certain conditions. This sounds on the surface contradictory. How can a free society endorse slavery? But we shall see that if liberty is really founded on utility, then slavery and suicide should be embraced. Moreover, I have a specific proposal about which group of people would make the best class of slaves, a point to which I return later, after first justifying slavery as an institution in a free society.
Specifically, we should immediately acknowledge that a society that is truly free in this sense allows people to take their own lives, sell themselves into slavery, and therefore allows others to purchase and traffic in slaves, under certain conditions. This sounds on the surface contradictory. How can a free society endorse slavery? But we shall see that if liberty is really founded on utility, then slavery and suicide should be embraced. Moreover, I have a specific proposal about which group of people would make the best class of slaves, a point to which I return later, after first justifying slavery as an institution in a free society.
“Why Can’t My Daughter Drive A Tank? Reflections on the Meaning of Liberty and Freedom in a Civil Society”
When my daughter began to drive at sixteen, I had serious fantasies of wanting to buy her a tank as a way to protect her on the road. Of course, the law forbids her from driving a tank. This essay explores the natural and necessary limits of liberty in a free society and why putting my daughter in a tank — even though it may arguably protect her life — doesn’t fall into my naturally protected rights of “life, liberty and property.”
“Liberty Is Not Freedom To Do What You Like: How Notions of Public Good Constrain Liberty In John Locke and the Early Liberty Tradition.”
Many people still have the mistaken notion that liberty means “absolute freedom.” They assume that “to be free” is to do “what one wants.” When they think of liberty they think of the protection of “life, liberty and property.” Or they think of Jefferson’s word in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They see big government with lots of rules as an infringement on liberty. They believe that freedom implies maximizing individual choices and minimizing government. They insist that “economic freedom is part of freedom” as if any infringement on one’s right to buy or sell, or any restrictions on markets by governments is a restriction in one’s liberty. Government should remain small, markets should work without interventions, and individual choices should be maximized. They believe these ideas are at the heart of what the liberty has meant and should mean in the modern tradition and the vision that the United States was founded on.
But in the modern liberty tradition, as it developed originally in Britain, where it principally started, and as it came to be appropriated in the American colonies before the Revolution, liberty did not mean total freedom, or the ability to do whatever one wanted with no constraints. On the contrary, liberty referred to the ability to exercise one’s will, within a set of known
There is an impulse on the political right, among Tea Party advocates and Libertarian leaning Republicans, to argue that their conception of government is based on the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the conception of “natural rights” or “inalienable rights” that it declares. The basic argument is this: the Declaration of Independence summarizes the core conceptions of the American founders in revolting against Great Britain and seeking Independence. As such, it defines the core political philosophy by which the United States should governed.
These core ideas of “natural” or “inalienable rights” provide a framework by which Americans can and should be governed. These ideas of liberty can set a political agenda for a wide range of debated political issues including: abortion, gun control, taxes, size of government, gay marriage, and more. There are a number of profound problems with these views, from both a historical and philosophical perspective. In a series of essays and a book that brings them together, I challenge this view of the Declaration and the conclusion that the Declaration can act as a foundation for an American Political Philosophy. You can read earlier versions of the essays or order the entire book.
“The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights: Thomas Jefferson’s Alternative Theory of American Rights”
In this essay, I argue that contrary to the right wing’s contention, the Declaration of Independence does not offer a settled American view of individual rights and that the American founders had serious reservations about the theory of “inalienable” or “natural rights.” This essay challenges that understanding of the Declaration and shows that the Declaration papers over key disagreements on rights among the founders. In particular, the essay explores how Thomas Jefferson held a theory of American rights that diverged from a majority of his colleagues and shows how Jefferson tried to smuggle his view into the Declaration. This essay sets the stage for a more detailed look in other essays at the period from 1766-1776 and the fundamental doubts many of the founders had about a classic natural rights theory.
“Ambivalence Towards Natural Rights Theory Before the American Revolution”
It is the claim of many that the American founders’ embraced the theory of natural rights and possibly the specific version articulated by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government. The idea of natural rights assumes that individuals are born with a set of inherent and possibly “God-given” rights that transcend and precede political life. These rights of life, liberty and property can not be infringed or taken away by government which is created to protect these basic rights.
In this essay, I explore the serious doubts the American founders had about this theory of natural rights in the period leading up to the Declaration of Independence. Starting with the Stamp Act in 1776, this essay explores reservations that various American writers such as James Otis and xxxx had about making arguments from natural rights. These reservations about Locke’s natural rights theory reflect worries similar to those expressed by other European philosophers who rejected natural rights arguments. This historical look sets the stage for understanding the ambivalence that I contend was on the mind of Jefferson and still evident in the Declaration of Independence.
“Diverging Theories Of Natural Rights Before the Revolution”
The story that many scholars such as Karl Becker and others tell is that the colonists increasingly shifted from British rights arguments to natural rights arguments as they moved towards independence. This view is too simplistic. Not all writers appeal to natural rights to justify American claims and there are colonial debates over whether or not to appeal to natural rights in particular public statements. When colonists do appeal to natural rights, moreover, they sometimes opt for the language of “inalienable” or “inherent” rights rather than “natural rights”, as if to equivocate on whether they are invoking natural rights, British rights or some other kind of universal right.
Indeed, there remains among some colonists the conviction that natural rights actually provides a more “feeble foundation” for rights than other arguments. In addition, even when natural rights are invoked, they are often used in conjunction with and complementary to several other arguments for rights. Even Jefferson fundamentally disagreed with his colleagues on the foundation of American rights and may have held doubts about natural rights arguments. This essay explores the reasons for an increasingly reliance on natural rights language in the pre-revolutionary writers and the evidence of continued doubt about natural right theory in colonial writers.
“The First Continental Congress and the Attempt To Achieve Consensus
In 1774, the colonies sent representatives to the First Continental Congress to discussion a cross colony approach to American Rights. The First Continental Congress had three objectives: to compose a statement of colonial rights, to identify specific grievances, and to provide a plan to restore thoserights. The Congress met from September 5 to October 26, 1774. The Declaration of Rights, or “American Bill of Rights” as some called it, which the Congress issued was significant and the debates over the statement are significant for understanding the view of rights in the period leading up to the Declaration.
Of particular note is the fact that Thomas Jefferson’s theory of American rights as outlined in his pamphet “A Summary View” was rejected by his colleagues in the Congress. The understanding of natural rights as outlined by James Wilson and others was adopted by Congress in clear rejection of Jefferson’s own theory. A repeat of that rejection happens when Jefferson drafts the Declaration of Independence.
Other Published Essays
“Homoeroticism and the Father God: An Unthought in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.” American Imago 51:1 (1994), 127-159.
“The Father, the Phallus, and the Seminal Word,” in Gender, Kinship and Power. Edited by M. J. Maynes and Ann Waltner. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 27-41.
“The Divine Cover-Up.” In Religious Reflections on the Human Body. Edited by Jane Marie Law. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
“The Spectacle of the Female Head” and “The Nakedness of a Woman’s Voice, the Pleasure in a Man’s Mouth: An Oral History of Ancient Judaism,” pp. 1-14, 165-184. In Off with Her Head: The Denial of Women’s Identity in Myth, Religion and Culture, (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995).
“Introduction,” and “The Problem of the Body for the People of the Book,” pp. 1-16, 17-46. In People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective, (Albany: SUNY, 1992). Originally published as “People of the Body: The Problem of the Body for the People of the Book.” In Journal for the History of Sexuality 2:1 (1991), 1-24.
“The Puzzling Rabbis.” Religion 23:1 (1993): 1-19. “Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t: Rabbinic Ambivalence Towards Sex and Body.” In Center for Hermeneutical Studies. Protocol Series. Vol. 61.
“Myth, Inference, and the Relativism of Reason: An Argument from the History of Judaism,” pp. 247-86. In Myth and Philosophy. Edited by Frank Reynolds and David Tracy. Albany: SUNY, 1990.
“Witches of the West: Neo-Paganism and Goddess Worship as Enlightenment Religions.” Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion 5:1 (1989):77-95.
“Israel in the Mirror of Nature: Animal Metaphors in the Ritual and Narratives of Ancient Israel.” Journal of Ritual Studies 2:1 (1988), 1-30. Reprinted in Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Edited by Ronald Grimes. (Charleston: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1994)
“Who’s Kidding Whom?: A Serious Reading of Rabbinic Word Plays,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55:4 (1987), 65-78. Download
“When the Reader is in the Write.” A Review Essay of Jose Faur’s, Golden Doves With Silver Dots. Prooftexts 7:2 (1987) 357-81.
“Creation and Classification in Judaism: From Priestly to Rabbinic Conceptions.” History of Religions 26:4 (1987), 357-81.
And still earlier, my very first publication: “Thyrotropin Receptors in Thyroid Plasma Membranes” The Journal of Biological Chemistry. Vol. 250, No. 16. (August 25, 1975) 6509-6515. Published with with Ramon L. Tate, JoAnn M. Holmes and Leonard D. Kohn. Download