A Progressive View of Liberty

January 3, 2012

Government, 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  www.freedomandcapitalism.com


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