The “Liberty-First” Platform

December 12, 2011

Liberty, Politics

There is an ideology in America that has set us off course and adrift in the last thirty years. What is this ideology?

It is one that I shall label the “liberty-first” philosophy or the “liberty-first” platform. Those who espouse this ideology, whom I call the “liberty-first advocates” or  “liberty-first coalition,” (or when I’m really annoyed the “liberty-first extremists”) are present in large numbers in Republican, Libertarian and new Tea Party.

Those in the “liberty-first camp” are not all the same. They come in varieties. But what unites them is a key philosophical contention or assumption: that by maximizing the liberty of individuals we maximize everything that is good in life. Liberty in their view leads to more productive people, to progress that brings social and economic well-being, and ultimately to a better world for everyone. Liberty is the engine that drives this growth in well-being. The output of liberty lifts everyone higher on the rising tide of social well-being. This rising tide is like a broad ocean that reaches from those of us in the developed world to those even in the third world. Even though those in poorer countries do not have as much material well-being as do we, the engine of liberty lifts all boats, no matter where they are. We should not feel badly about the discrepancy of wealth and material well-being inside our society or between our society and others. That disparity is necessary and part of what makes the engine hum. Individuals motivated to better themselves, and surplus capital that can be invested in new ideas, are all key components of this liberty engine. If we try to “level” the material wealth and make everyone the same, we shall experience less overall growth in well-being, and fewer people will benefit. We all benefit the most by limiting individuals the least.

I call this the “liberty-first” philosophy or “liberty-first platform” because the ideology makes individual rights and liberty the primary value that matters. When push comes to shove, and public policy decisions need to be made, liberty trumps all other values. In other words, “liberty-first” advocates want to give the value of liberty a prerogative in decision making when it comes into conflict with other values, such as responsibility, common good, obligation or care, among others. I shall spend a good deal of time on this question of liberty’s relative importance because it is a core part of my argument about how we have gotten off course and adrift. In doing so, we have misinterpreted and actually perverted what were positive impulses of modernity by creating a near obsessive focus on liberty to the exclusion of other important values and concepts.

Bringing liberty back into balance with other values such as responsibility and public good a core goal and one that ultimately dovetails with what I believe is right and just.


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